The first few years of parenting are all about commemorating our children hitting big milestones. We celebrate their first birthdays (and our surviving a full year on less sleep!) with smash cakes and a huge party. We mark the start of their first day of kindergarten with tons of photos. We make a giant fuss the first time the tooth fairy drops by for a visit.
But there’s another big milestone our kids cross on the path towards adolescence that not many parents are aware of — when a child reaches the developmental stage known as the “age of reason.”
What Is the ‘Age of Reason?’
Around the age of seven, give or take a year, children enter a developmental phase known as the age of reason. “The age of reason refers to the developmental cognitive, emotional, and moral stage in which children become more capable of rational thought, have internalized a conscience, and have better capacity to control impulses (than in previous stages),” explains Dana Dorfman, PhD, psychotherapist, and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch.
It’s the time when a child starts to truly grasp the difference between right and wrong, and begins to realize that other people have their own feelings that might not match his or hers.
What’s Happening to My Baby?
Yes, your stellar parenting deserves some credit for your child’s new-found abilities to listen when you ask her to clear her breakfast dishes or to stop using the cat as a soccer ball. But a lot of what’s causing these big changes in the way your child thinks and behaves has to do with biology — especially in how her brain is developing.
“Around age seven, there is significant neurological growth in the temporal and frontal lobes, both of which contribute to cognitive capacities,” explains Dr. Dorfman. “The lobes increase in connectivity and connection to each other, paving new neural pathways; these connections allow for increased ability to process emotion.”
The Special Role of Age 7 in History and Culture
The term “age of reason” was first described in a 1976 article by child psychiatrists Theodore Shapiro and Richard Perry titled "Latency Revisited: The Age of Seven, Plus or Minus One."
But the age of seven has been considered the age where common sense and maturity start to kick in, for centuries. In Medieval times, court apprenticeships began at age seven. Under English Common Law, children under seven weren’t considered responsible for their crimes. Turning seven can even be symbolic within a child’s religious upbringing, as it’s the age around when the Catholic Church offers first Communion.
Separating Fantasy From Reality
One way to figure out if your child has reached this age of development is keep an ear open for any suspicious questions about fairies, Santa Claus, or the monster his older brother swears is living in the basement. While your child's imagination can still roam free, his belief in make-believe may start to fade.
“Despite their wish to maintain childhood wonder, latency age (7- or 8-year old) kids are increasingly able to problem solve, identify patterns and apply logic to questions,” explains Dr. Dorfman. “Thus, their beliefs in imaginary characters, like Santa and monsters diminishes during this time.”
Telling the Truth Gets More Complicated
Preschoolers can be real sweethearts — most of the time. They’re big fans of giving hugs and kisses, but when you ask them for their opinion, they’ll give you the unfiltered truth, no matter how harsh it is. (My ego still hasn’t recovered from the time my then 4-year-old told me my bright orange sweater made me “look like a pumpkin.” He wasn’t wrong, but still — oof!)
This “no-filter” mode shuts off as kids approach age seven, thanks to your child’s increased capacity for empathy. “With their newfound conscience and ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy, they are more capable of ‘concealing’ the truth — to protect themselves or others,” says Dr. Dorfman.
This developmental stage also finds kids looking at the concepts of good and bad as distinct issues. “Their sense of right and wrong is inflexible and concrete. They are unable to sense subtlety, nuance and gray; they are dichotomous (good/bad, right/wrong) and linear in their thinking,” explains Dr. Dorfman. For example, If the dog typically isn’t allowed on the couch they might get quite upset if they see the dog sitting there, even if mom or dad okayed it, as it’s “against the rules.”
I’m sure I’m not the only mom who gets a little weepy at the idea of her littles starting to ask question about Santa Claus. But there’s a bright side to the little adult your child is becoming.
“They've developed an internalized sense of right and wrong and are not as reliant on external forces to guide them,” says Dr. Dorfman. These newfound skills make it easier for kids to compromise on their own, meaning less tug of war over toys on the playground, and being able to say, “I’m sorry,” and actually mean it.
Understanding and respect for rules starts to happen around this time too, making it possible to play a round of Uno without it ending in tears if your kid doesn’t win. “Increased cognitive capacities allow them to understand and execute multi-step directions and sustain focus for more prolonged periods. In most cases, they are less distractible and have longer attention span,” explains Dr. Dorfman. (Wait, this mean they can help out more with chores, doesn’t it? Score!)
How to Help Kids Navigate This New Phase
Some children will take their new reasoning skills in stride. Others may struggle more as they realize that situations that used to seem simple now have more nuance to them. Open communication is always key to helping out kids process these tricky emotions. If you’re having trouble getting the conversation started, trying using a kid-centered show or book as a jumping off point.
“Social stories, or stories with characters having similar experiences or characteristics of a child, can be very helpful during transitions,” explains Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD, ABPP-CN, Director, Psychology and Neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “These social stories can provide an excellent starting point for parents to discuss these situations, make parallels as to how this impacts the child’s life and point out options for how to react to experiences.”
If your child is struggling with a sibling, try snuggling up for a screening of Frozen to get her to open up about her troubles. If it’s a parent and child issue, maybe the relatable themes of Moana will get him chatting. If story time is when she's more likely to share their troubles, try a series like My Weird School Daze and the Junie B. Jones books to help her discuss conflicts with classmates, or Amber Brown Is Feeling Blue to help her navigate family troubles.
The ’Age of Reason’ Is Just the Beginning
While it’s hard not to compare our own kids to their classmates or our friends’ kids, aim to be patient with your child’s growth. “I think it is important for parents to remember that development varies across children, and that one age (such as age 7) is not the end of development, or a ‘deadline’ for developing reasoning skills,” Dr. Katzenstein reminds us. “Cognitive develop continues into adulthood, and as parents, it is our responsibility to continue to challenge and support our children.”