PARENT CHILD RELATIONS - Online
7400:360
School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
NOTES ON PARENTING SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN
To accompany Chapter 3
 
Comments from parents about parenting school age children:
 
"This is the time when I can start instilling my values, why I do what I do, how people become homeless.  When they were younger, you just had the rule, “No play guns in the house,” and now you can talk about why you have the rule, and you are interacting on a whole new level."
 
"I enjoy the rituals we have developed.  I don't know how it started but every night we eat by candlelight.  One lights the candles, and one turns down the dimmer, and it's a very nice touch after a day at work."
 
"I can say that as a father of two girls between five and ten that to be a father to girls is delightful.  It's nice being looked on as a combination of God and Brad Pitt.  They have a little glow in their eyes when they look at dad, and it's great."
 
DEVELOPMENTAL STAGE DURING SCHOOL AGE YEARS
The years between six and about eleven years of age are often happy ones for parents, with parents often saying that these are some of the easiest times for them as parents.  Parents have gotten beyond the early years when children have basic needs that the parent must fill, such as diapering, feeding, and bathing.  They also haven't reached the teen years, when children are becoming young adults and are moving toward independence and coping with body changes, situations that are often difficult for parents to deal with.
 
Children during the elementary school years are developing their cognitive abilities in a fuller way; Piaget calls this stage of cognitive development the concrete operations stage.  Children in this stage are beginning to think in a more advanced way than they did in the previous preoperational stage.  The characteristics that were common previously - egocentrism, inability to conserve, seriate, or classify, the use of animism - have been replaced by a more sophisticated way of thinking.  During the concrete operations stage, children think in very concrete, solid ways.  They tend to see the world in terms of right and wrong, black and white - not realizing yet that there are gray areas or that there are circumstances that affect our understanding of things.
 
Concrete operational children are not able to think abstractly, and tend to solve problems in a simplistic way.  They think more logically and come to understand the relationship between objects.  Children in the concrete stage become increasingly decentered - less focused on their own perceptions and more involved in the qualities and functional properties of what they observe.  They are more objective in their observations and they are very interested in understanding the mechanics or principles of how things operate.
 
Erikson's stage of development for children in the school age years is industry vs. inferiority.  The child is interested in tasks that are purposeful and have meaning.  Children in this stage enjoy being contributing members of whatever group they are in - whether it is the home environment, school, playground, scouting groups, sport activities.  The parent's role is to be encouraging of the child's efforts and provide opportunities for the child to feel good about his or her contributions.  For example, when the child helps dad wash the car, rather than dad saying, "Thanks, but you know you missed several spots over here and you forgot to wash the tires, I'm going to have to do it all over again,"  dad should say, "Thanks for helping with the car.  You made the job go much quicker.  It’s fun to work together"  The first situation makes the child feel badly about the whole experience and is likely to make the child hesitant to help the next time the car needs washed.  The second situation is much more likely to encourage the child to want to help again.  Parents should keep in mind that as the child grows and develops, his or her abilities will also grow and develop.
 
During the school age years, peer relationships become very important to children.  The next part of these notes will deal with school age children and their peer relationships.
 
PEER RELATIONSHIPS
A woman who is writing an article for Woman's Day magazine called me a few years ago and asked me to give her some quotes and suggestions for her article.  She was writing about some of the things parents can do to help their child have friends during the middle childhood years.  I've given information many times on various topics to folks writing for magazines, and I knew just what she wanted - some short, simple suggestions that are easy to understand and that parents can use sort of as "magic beans" to ensure that their child will be popular.  Her focus for the article seemed to be that parents need this advice as their children are entering school.
 
I e-mailed her lots of stuff that I thought was good information, but I know it wasn't exactly what she was looking for.  And the reason for that is that, as I explained to her, parents shouldn't just start thinking about this issue as their child is about to go off to school.  If parents want their children to be good friends to others and to have lots of friends themselves, the groundwork is laid much earlier.  It is important that parents understand the developmental stages children go through to help them do right by their kids when raising them.
 
In other words, parents who do all those things that will engender a sense of trust for the child as an infant will have toddlers who aren't afraid to assert some independence and develop autonomy, and those toddlers will become preschoolers who approach tasks eagerly and with confidence that they can do well.  Along the way, as we have discussed, children are learning to handle their emotions and are learning how to get along with people.  Kids whose parents have taken care to provide them with experiences that foster appropriate development will then most likely have children that other people want to be around - adults and other children.  Kids whose parents use authoritative parenting methods tend to have children who are easy to get along with and have good relationships with their peers.
 
KIDS AND THEIR FRIENDS
As children move from the preschool years to middle childhood, there are some things to keep in mind:
 
     The child's primary social setting changes from the family/home situation to the neighborhood and school.  Their arena of activity is broader, they will have more experiences, see how people from other families handle situations and think about things.  These new experiences in the larger environment will have an influence on their behavior, attitudes and beliefs.
 
     A difficult concept for parents to bend their minds around as their children enter the school age years is that there will be other people who have as strong an influence on the child as the parents themselves.
 
     Peers and teachers now become very important in the lives of children.  It is sort of bittersweet for parents when their child suddenly begins quoting all the things "Miss Smith" says.  "You know, Miss Smith says we should do it like this."
 
     Also, new acquaintances and friends encourage and discourage certain behaviors in children.  For example, a child whose parents have encouraged both traditional feminine and traditional masculine traits in their child (for example, encouraging their daughters to be both nurturing and assertive; encouraging their sons to be both decisive and to show emotion) may find that that doesn't really work with most of the kids the child comes in contact with.  To have friends, conformity is important - kids like people who are like them and tend to reject kids who are the least bit "different".  Not always fair, but it is the way life generally is.
 
     When kids become friends with one another they are taking a risk - by sharing themselves with another person, they run the risk of being either accepted or rejected.  Acceptance or rejection by peers is of major importance because problems with peers are a predictor of later social and emotional maladjustment.
 
Take a moment to think about the friends you had when you were a child.  Think about the reasons you were friends with certain people.  Was it because you were neighbors and thus were in close proximity to one another?  Was it because you had a shared interest in a particular issue?  Was it because you participated in the same extracurricular activity?  Was it because you played sports together?  Was it because you started talking to one another and "just clicked" together?  Sometimes children become friends with other children because of situational factors.
 
Peer acceptance seems to begin with secure attachment to parents.  When babies are securely attached during infancy, it tends to set the stage for when they get older and are able to:
            - Approach peers eagerly rather than hesitantly.
            - Be more likely to take on a leadership role with peers.
            - Be more confident and surer of themselves with the peer group.
 
When looking at the type of children that other children seek out as friends, the following things are found to be common to children during the school age years:
 
          - Children gravitate to kids who are similar to them in appearance.
    
- Physical attractiveness seems to be more important for girls than boys, although for both boys and girls stereotypes of beauty are pretty well established by middle childhood (pretty girls are nice, kids with cool clothes are popular, etc.) - kids deviating from the norm are more likely to be rejected.
 
- Children are also attracted to kids who are outgoing, have good conversational  skills, excel in valued activities such as sports, and are lavish in dispensing praise and approval (Note - later born children are more likely to be popular than first born children because they generally develop superior skills in relating to peers rather than to adults)
 
- Children relate to others who share their interests
 
- Children also choose as friends kids who are similar in race, sex and achievement.  In other words, girls are more likely to be friends with other girls than with boys, African American children are more likely to be friends with other African American children than with white children, children who excel in sports are more likely to be friends with other kids who excel in sports than with non athletic children.  These are not hard and fast rules, of course, just general tendencies.
 
Children who are rejected by peers:
 
- Are more likely to show aggressive behavior.  Sometimes children connect leadership behavior with aggressive behavior.  While most groups of kids will have someone in the group as the leader, being bossy or pushy is actually a turnoff for children.  The child who is aggressive is very often left out of the group.
 
- Are likely to have difficulties with social skills.  Children whose parents have not modeled appropriate social skills or given their children opportunities to practice social skills are at a disadvantage when making friends.  All those skills like saying "thank you" or "excuse me" and being kind and courteous to others go a long way toward helping a child be more attractive to other children and be sought out as a friend.
 
- Tend to remain alone or on the fringes of the group.  There are some children who have a hard time figuring out how to get along with the group and don't seem to ever "fit in" with their peers.  These are children who are rarely chosen when groups of children are getting ready to play a game or start an activity.  If parents see that their child has a hard time making friends, they need to be proactive and help their child learn what to do to get along.  Parents also need to realize, though, that not every child has the need to have many friends.  For some children, having one or two close friends is fine with them.  I have two sons, and while they were growing up, one of them tended to be close to just a couple of friends, while the other had a wide variety of people he hung out with.  In adulthood, both of them are happy and well-adjusted and seem to get along with their peers very well.  The important thing for them, and any other children, is that they be in the situation that is right for them.
 
There have been many studies which have examined peer relationships with school age children.  One study of 10 and 11-year-old children looked at what type of children they preferred and what type of children were not likely to be chosen as friends.  In this study children were shown pictures of the following:
 
     Child with crutches
     "Normal" child or typical child
     Obese child
     Child with facial disfigurement
 
The children were asked to rank their preferences for friends.  The order of their preferences for friends was as follows:
 
     Normal child
     Child on crutches
     Child with facial disfigurement
     Obese child.
 
These findings seem to indicate that children during middle childhood have adopted society's attitudes about being overweight and that obese children are seen as undesirable and in fact being overweight is seen by some children as a reason not to be friends with someone.  Other studies have looked at groups of children and asked the children to name which children they consider to be friends.  In these studies between 5 and 10 percent of children are never cited by anyone as being their friend.
 
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO TO HELP CHILDREN BE SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE
Some things parents can do to help increase their child's chances of social acceptance:
 
- Give them opportunities to play with other kids.  If kids live in a neighborhood with lots of children, this is easier than for children who live in remote areas or in areas where it is not safe to be outside.  For those children parents need to make more efforts themselves to ensure that their children have those opportunities.  It might mean that the parent will need to get acquainted with other parents at the child's school to set up play dates or scheduled activities.  It might mean more driving time on the part of the parent to get the child to and from activities where their kids can play and interact with other kids.
 
- Help them acquire play skills.  Parents who play catch with their child helps the child gain skills that can translate into skills they can use with peers.  Parents who play games with their children help the children see how to understand and negotiate rules of those games.  Obviously this takes time on the part of the parent, but good parenting does take time.   When I was a kid my dad often played games with me and played sports with my brothers.  It helped us to develop skills we could use with our friends.  I tried to do the same with my own children.  In fact, when my boys played T-ball and baseball as children, I was often playing catch with them next to the field before the games.  One of the dads commented one time that he knew game time was coming when he saw me tossing the ball back and forth with my son.
 
- Help them acquire language skills.  Obviously this involves parents interacting and talking with their child.  Giving children opportunities to tell the parent stories or read to the parent helps them develop language skills.  Sometimes it is difficult to sit still and listen to an 8-year-old tell a story when the parent is tired after a long day of work.  But kids need to use language to develop appropriate skills.  It is also important for parents to use language appropriately, as children use their parents as role models for language.  The parent who curses a lot or screams when he or she is angry shouldn't be too surprised when their child imitates their language usage.
 
- Encourage association with well-accepted children.  While parents can't completely determine and control who their children are friends with, they can encourage friendships that they feel would have a positive influence on their child.
 
- Parents should encourage their child's friends to visit their home and make them feel welcome when they do come over.
 
- When parents don't approve of a child's choice of friend, rather than forbidding the child to associate with that child, a better approach might be to invite the child over for dinner and try to get to know him or her.  It may very well be that the child has a reputation that is undeserved or has been misrepresented.  Certainly it is a good idea for parents to get to know who their children are friends with, and get to know the child's parents also.
 
- Take care with their appearance.  Parents need to be careful not to give their child weird haircuts or dress them in odd clothing (although sometimes parents and kids have very different views of what is odd clothing versus what is "normal" clothing!).  The bottom line here is that kids want to fit in with their peers.  And while parents don't have to fall prey to the marketers and buy their child the most expensive sneakers or designer label clothing, they should pay attention to the child's wishes as far as what sort of appearance helps them to fit in with their peers.
 
- Eliminate annoying behavior.  If a child has annoying habits or behaviors, parents need to be aware of this and determine ways to help the child overcome those.  The child, for example, who is aggressive with his friends or likes to boss her friends around, may find that they have fewer and fewer friends.  One role for parents is to help make the child aware of those behaviors (not in a critical, punitive way) and figure out with the child what to do to improve them.
 
BENEFITS OF PEERS
Through interactions with their peers, children derive many benefits.  Peers help children to:
 
     Learn and develop social skills
     Obtain information by comparing themselves with others
     Engage in interactions that foster a sense of group belonging
     Gain better understanding of social events
     Learn self control
     Learn how to get along in the world
     Develop relationships that can last a lifetime
     Develop relationships that are a precursor to later romantic relationships
 
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