Eight- to ten-year-old children are still in what researcher Erik Erikson calls the age of Industry vs Inferiority. Until partway through middle school, they are learning how to relate to peers, adjust to social rules, and evolve from free play to more elaborately structured interactions and expectations. For example, your child may describe elaborate recess games, where he can travel through time, see into the future, or tame magical creatures. He may talk about the various roles he plays, and how the group decides who plays what part as the adventure unfolds.
It is through these social routines and rituals that children learn to enter the play, establish group membership, and then direct the interactions. Children this age frequently travel in groups, although girls will often pair off with close friends within larger circles. Boys, in contrast, have less intense interactions, but demonstrate increased loyalty to the group as a whole. Regardless of gender, the interactions are often defined by elaborate fantasy play, interactive games, rotating leaders, and cooperative goal-setting where participants work collaboratively toward a shared outcome. For example, a group of children may run an elaborate “economy” where they find items on the playground to sell for rock currency, such as grasshoppers, sticks, pieces of plastic, or even ice. There may be shopkeepers, merchants, scavengers, or even thieves who all play a part in ongoing storylines.
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On the flip side of the close bonds and friendships that form among this age group comes the increase in social cruelty and bullying. At around 8, children develop the ability to consider the intent behind an action or choice, along with the ability to take another’s perspective. As a consequence, children became capable of intentional meanness and social exclusion. However, in large part, most children this age will engage in such behaviors at one point or other. They are not bullies, but rather individuals who are ineffectively trying to assert (expected) power within relationships in inappropriate ways. To effectively influence future choices and social outcomes, we can help 8- to 10-year olds learn the tools they need to engage in more positive social interactions.
One component of social and emotional growth in 8- to 10-year olds is their desire for increased independence from parents and siblings, and their increased desire to be seen as intelligent and knowledgeable. As they struggle to find the means to appropriately individuate, they can, at times, seem willful or defiant. Children begin negotiating for what they want or arguing their point of view, at home and with peers, applying their more highly developed thinking skills, advanced language abilities, and increased concentration skills. For example, your child may ask you why a boy in his class has no eyelashes. Your logical reply might be that the boy has blonde hair and his eyelashes are simply hard to see. A concrete operational child will reason, “But my friend Emily has blonde hair and I can see her eyelashes, and Joey has blonde hair and I can see his eyelashes too. So why can’t I see Jeff’s?”
Supporting children this age means actively listening to their goals and remaining on their side as they achieve them, while simultaneously maintaining necessary limits and boundaries. Thus, instead of controlling your child, you are guiding him to learn to control himself. Some non-confrontational ways to do this:
- Give him a small budget to choose clothes that match his style.
- Allow him choice in deciding the family menu.
- Give him veto power when selecting activities.
Recognizing your child’s need to pull away will also go a long way to keeping you on the same team. Allow peers to take on new importance. They provide a “mini society” your child can visit and experiment with while maintaining the safety net of a loving and supportive family to fall back on.
In addition to a new emphasis on friends, “crushes” often make their appearance during these years. The feelings are not sexual; thus, same-sex crushes are common and say nothing about a child’s sexuality in adolescence. Invite your child to speak openly about crushes or other social musings, but respect his desire for a private life or his wish to try and work out his problems independently. To start the conversation, ask your child the kinds of games the boys and girls play together at recess. Getting your child talking about the kinds of play he witnesses or partakes in is the first step. Welcoming all sorts of emotional reactions to that play is the next step. Your child is learning social roles and limits and the best person to help him do that, is you!
As is true in all aspects of development, how your child feels about his skills and competence in other developmental areas (e.g., how he is doing in school) affects how he feels about himself socially, and impacts what challenges he is willing to take on. In fact, parents may hear increased self-criticism during these years, a natural by-product of their child’s developmental advancements. Children this age enjoy sharing their point-of-view and can more easily manage emotions to fit the situation. They are better able to select and adapt coping strategies to the variety of situations they now find themselves in. For example, your child may hold in his feeling of injustice until he gets home, or until he is alone with his friends. In this way, he is able and ready to learn new ways of successfully interacting with both peers and adults, and benefit from adults’ continued efforts to connect with and guide them.
Developing metacognitive skills (ability to reflect on their thoughts) lets children identify specific characteristics about their emotional selves and the abilities they possess (e.g., “I feel sad because”, or “I know I’m a strong swimmer because”). Being able to better preview actions and outcomes allows them to prepare for interactions and expectations. Children understand the importance of social customs (e.g., saying thank you), but may struggle to manage their emotions when they are overwhelmed by frustration or a series of personal setbacks. Your child’s ability to listen to reason has increased and he depends less on routines to provide a stable emotional state.
Children this age experience subtleties of emotion (e.g., disappointment, resignation, resolve, focus, etc.), and they can apply these new understandings to social relations with peers. Before the age of 10, children understand the role of conflicting friendships, and they can mend fences after an argument. Children now have a more stable basis for choosing friends: shared interests, ability to give and take, responsiveness to one another’s needs, and desire for positive qualities such as kindness or trustworthiness.