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One of the more challenging facets of childrearing is trying to discern the difference between individual characteristics and general developmental stages. Almost all babies are lovey-dovey and smiley at around six months, for example, so how is a parent to know if their child is affectionate or just hitting a set stage? You really don’t, and you especially don’t if you only have one child. I last wrote about this in November 2010, when I learned that Simon’s style of playing hide and seek reflected an age-specific inability to shift perspectives.

Just in the last 24 hours I’ve encountered two more instances of developmental stages being able to explain behavioral characteristics. I’ll start with the ugly bit that I can explain with anecdote, then move on to actual science.

This Christmas, Simon’s gift getting behavior left a lot to be desired. He cleaned up pretty well at Chanukah, too, but was one of five kids getting presents, and I mostly tried to make him wait his turn between opening gifts. Christmas, however, was another story entirely. Our family tradition is to have Christmas Eve at my house and open presents after dinner. Simon is the only kid at Christmas, and as such he gets a disproportionate amount of loot. This has always been the case, but this year the scales were more out of balance than usual. Matt and I got him several small things this year instead of one big thing, and Jim and Evie’s gift to the adult children was a vacation this spring, a lovely gesture, but something that cannot be wrapped and set under a tree.

What this scenario spawned, to my horror and embarrassment, was a kid who grabbed, shredded, ripped, and tore his way into presents, only to hardly look at them before saying delightful things like, “What else did I get?” I didn’t see it coming and was somewhat at a loss to know what to do. In the end, I tried to correct him on the spot and then set aside some to open on the last day of Chanukah. We needed to stem the tide somehow.

So did my lovely boy turn into an ungrateful brat overnight? I was a tad worried until chatting with Caroline’s parents yesterday. I described the scene and my horror, and Carrie (Caroline’s mom) made sympathetic murmurs on her end. Turns out, Caroline did the same thing this year AND last year. And this is just about the least grabby kid you could imagine. What’s more, now that I think about it, I remember a Chanukah when my nephew Nathan was six or so when he took a careful inventory of presents to make sure he had the most. My sister-in-law was mortified. How I wish I could go back in time and say, “Tia, it’s not him—it’s the age!” Which isn’t to say that such behavior should go uncorrected or that all kids do it, just that it seems pretty common and isn’t the end of the world.

Next up comes the science. This past August, I struggled to create and describe an inventory of new behaviors in a post titled (Almost) Five. What I was seeing was Simon’s sudden ability to accomplish many new physical and cognitive tasks, an increased sociability, better empathy, a greater preference for his own gender, and a general sense that he was taking his place as a little citizen of the world.

Lo and behold, The New York Times ran an article yesterday called “Now We Are Six: The Hormone Surge of Middle Childhood,” which detailed and explained the exact suite of behavioral and physical changes I had attempted to catalog and characterize.

According to the article, middle childhood begins around five or six, when adrenal glands begin to pump out brain-affecting hormones such as dihydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. This endocrinologial event is called adrenarche, and it fuels a great leap in cognitive ability and ambition. At about the same time, the brain has reached nearly its adult size. With all the pieces in place, the brain sets about establishing and reinforcing the billions of synaptic connections that are required for intellectual, emotional, and social development.  Here’s the money quote from the article:

Middle childhood is when the parts of the brain most closely associated with being human finally come online: our ability to control our impulses, to reason, to focus, to plan for the future…

… Middle childhood is the time to make sense and make friends. “This is the period when kids move out of the family context and into the neighborhood context,” Dr. Campbell said.

The all-important theory of mind arises: the awareness that other people have minds, plans and desires of their own. Children become obsessed with social groups and divide along gender lines, girls playing with girls, boys with boys. They have an avid appetite for learning the local social rules, whether of games, slang, style or behavior.

That’s exactly what I started seeing in Simon this summer! I attributed it to his turning five, and that was certainly part of it, but more accurately this summer is when Simon entered middle childhood. According to the article, middle childhood has been largely overlooked in science as it lacks the drama of infancy or puberty. But you know, I think drama is highly over-rated. To me, these quiet and unflamboyant changes are the most exciting and interesting developments I’ve tracked thus far.

Hurray for middle childhood!

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