The Age of Reason
Around the time of her 7th birthday, your child's conscience emerges to help guide her actions.
Few parents would argue with the observation that children age 6 and younger do not have great control over their feelings and impulses. Nor is your very young child likely to take genuine responsibility for her actions, or heed adults' urging to be considerate of others. When she does the right thing, she is more likely responding to your expectations and demands than exercising her own conscience.
We grown-ups often become impatient with the seeming selfishness of little ones who don't share. But to them, it doesn't make sense that anyone would ask something so outrageous. If they comply, it is to the letter, not the spirit, of the sharing rule. One 3 year old, under great pressure to share a toy with his younger brother, finally handed it over — and then took it back in a flash, saying "Now you share!"
Yes, your baby shows early signs of empathy when she cries because another baby is crying, or when, as a toddler, she brings her wailing playmate to you for consolation. But those situations do not require a sacrifice of self-interest or a belief in doing "the right thing." It is not until the age of 7, give or take a year or so, that your child's conscience begins to mature enough to guide her actions. In fact, there is typically a marked surge in moral and mental maturity at that special moment in development (child psychiatrists Theodore Shapiro and Richard Perry first described this in 1976 in an article titled "Latency Revisited: The Age of Seven, Plus or Minus One"). It's been called the "Age of Reason," since these children have a newly internalized sense of right and wrong. They are no longer focused simply on not getting caught or displeasing adults. They have made up their minds about what is right or wrong, identifying with their primary caregivers' expressed values and applying them quite rigidly.
Many cultures throughout history have observed this growth spurt by raising expectations and offering new privileges. In Medieval times, court apprenticeships began at 7; so too did apprenticeships at the time of the Guilds, and in English Common Law, children under 7 were not considered responsible for their behavior. The Catholic Church offers first Communion at about age 7; it's also when formal schooling begins in most societies.
At 7 "plus or minus one," your child begins to problem-solve in a new way, using reason rather than pure intuition. He can separate fantasy from reality; and so can be expected to know and tell the truth. Four and 5 year olds don't really "lie"; they adapt the "truth" so that it works for them in a given situation. Anything else makes no sense to them; just as "sharing" makes no sense to 2 year olds. Remember, they also assume that Grandma can see the new toy they are showing her over the phone.
At about 7, fears are no longer of monsters, but of real people, and most of all of not being liked, being different, and risking loneliness. Pride and shame are real now too. Real, rather than simply imagined achievement, enhances self-esteem. Oddly enough, I seem to remember the moment before I crossed over that line. In kindergarten, I was in awe of the older kids who were "Safety Patrols." They wore arm badges, in the school colors, marking their special status. At 5, I thought nothing more was needed to be so privileged than a badge. So I made one myself. The jig was quickly up when my parents recognized my "handiwork." Fortunately, they saved me from embarrassment in school. The badge was set aside for pretend play at home. A year or two later, even the private memory of all that was embarrassing. And incidentally, when I did become a patrol, the magic of the status had vanished — transformed into the merely mundane, since by then, despite myself, I had crossed over into the age of reason.
Once that happens, children are able to compromise, accept differences in status, and therefore make and maintain friendships. Many can even lose a game without mortification, and can respect the rules of the game. They can say, "I am sorry" and mean it, further solidifying friendships.
What's behind this transformation of wishful thinkers into relatively grounded 7 and 8 year olds? These days, most experts credit biology. Rapid changes in brain anatomy, physiology and chemistry are the underpinnings of a growing clarity about what is real. Your child also recognizes that thoughts are not the same thing as actions, so she is less likely to punish herself for "mean thoughts" alone. Biology has moved her from an egocentric outlook to a sense of her place in a larger world. Celebrating Earth Day now makes more sense, for example.
In addition to the leap in reasonableness, your child has an increased ability to focus and concentrate; and it all adds up to readiness for formal schooling. He is capable of classifying and ordering, and has a more realistic sense of cause and effect. Doing well in the real world becomes vital to his self-esteem; a homemade patrol badge won't do it. Actual sports and school achievement are important goals; and therefore, serious academic troubles or lack of age-appropriate physical skills can shake confidence.
It is interesting that in this so-called reasonable and quiet period of development (age 7 to 11), there are more referrals to child therapists than at any other age. Why? Children are not more typically troubled during this phase. The gap between a child's functioning and her parents'/teachers' reasonable expectations for greater self-control and capacity to concentrate may lead to the therapist's door. And because this is a far more pliable age than toddlerhood or adolescence, on-target intervention can go a long way. That does not mean that one bad day or power struggle should send you hurrying to a therapist. But if your child's overall pattern of mental, moral, and interpersonal performance is not in line with the realistic expectations for her age outlined here, find out why and offer whatever remediation is needed.
Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.