The child is, by nature, a pragmatist. He is concerned with how things work, rather than with why they work or how well they work. It is an age at which doing, making, and building are all-important. Now that young people have good small- as well as large-muscle control, they are beset by the urge to sew, cook, and bake; they want to build things, make things, and put things together. Although children still engage in these activities to some extent, such activities have to compete with less challenging pastimes, such as computer games, television watching, and organized group activities. Although some children still engage in craft activities today, children are more often involved in more adultlike pursuits.
The child tends to be an optimist as well as a pragmatist. Children have a tendency to deny unpleasant realities and to have a cheerful outlook on life. The world is a new and exciting place full of things to experience and learn about. Because the child lives in the here and now, every activity is important, and the most important activity is the one in which he is presently engaged. That is why it is often so difficult to disengage children from their play or computer games. Children also look forward to growing up, and they look forward to birthdays as evidence of their growing maturity and independence.
To be sure, children are not always happy. Particularly today, we see a phenomenon that was rarely seen in the past, namely, school-age children with depression. Some children have chronic low moods, apathy, and self-derogatory ideas. Sometimes this depression is merely a reflection of parental depression, but for some children, it arises from their difficult life circumstances. Although most children retain a sense of hope, even under the worst conditions, for some young people the stress is just too overwhelming.
Fortunately, for most children, their optimism is undaunted. They are excited about what they would like to become and are not bothered by the real and many hurdles that lie in the path of the desired goal. In fantasy, children can move away from the family, leave school, sail around the world, and become a beachcomber or continue their studies and become a doctor or a lawyer. At its base, children's optimism rests in their belief that they have an almost unlimited number of years to attain their goals. The union of pragmatism and optimism in the child is not really surprising because the two usually go together. Those concerned with getting things done are often imbued with unlimited faith in what can be accomplished by persistent effort, and that is the true spirit of childhood.
The pragmatic attitude of children is very important for personality development and is a prerequisite for the personality integration that is the task of adolescence. By engaging in all sorts of activities, children are discovering themselves. It is a psychological truism that we are what we do. The child must discover what sort of pupil, athlete, musician, peer, and friend he really is, and these discoveries can be made only through his classroom work, his participation in sports, his efforts to play an instrument, and his interactions and friendships with peers. By engaging in these many activities, the child evokes reactions in others that give him the information he needs to find out about himself.
Childhood, then, is a period of self-discovery in which the child learns about himself in the course of engaging in a variety of academic, extracurricular, and recreational activities and in relating to other people. These various aspects of the child are, however, not yet coordinated into a general scheme of self as a functioning totality. The child is more or less unaware of the many discontinuities in his behavior and in his self-evaluations. For example, he may be a perfect gentleman at his friend's house but a demon at home, or vice versa, without being aware of the contradictions in his behavior. The adolescent may show similar contradictions, but he is aware of these discrepancies and tries to rationalize them, at least to himself.
In addition to finding out about himself, the child is also discovering the larger social world about him, the world of entertainers, politicians, scientists, and athletes. Often children choose individuals from these professions as persons to idealize and emulate, particularly as they discover that their parents are not as all-knowing and as wise as they had thought. By the age of seven or eight, the child has dethroned his parents from the once-exalted position they held for the child during the preschool years. Now, new gods are introduced into the pantheon of childhood. However, it is often the glamour of the entertainer or athlete, rather than his or her character or accomplishments, that attracts the child.
This does not mean that the child no longer loves his parents or that he denies the authority of the family. His family is still the center of his life. It is just that other forms of authority and other adult figures now begin to have an influence upon him, namely the peer group and his new nonparental adult idols. The child's attitude toward authority is not entirely subservient, for he does express negative feelings toward adult constraint. He does so, however, in a manner peculiar to childhood—a manner that is often missed by adults. If we listen closely to children's rhymes and riddles, we notice that they often poke fun at important adults and at adult practices and institutions. Take a recently overheard example:
Jingle bells, Bush smells, And Reagan ran away. Oh what fun it is to ride In a Clinton Chevrolet.
Such gibes, it is important to add, are shared by the group so that no child takes individual responsibility for them. In this way, the child can participate in hostile bantering about the adult world without fear of reprisal.
The dominant characteristics of middle to late childhood, then, are its traditionalism, pragmatism, and optimism. The elementary school years are devoted to discovering the self through repeated encounters with others and to discovering the world through incessant activity. Although the child is generally subservient to authority, he nonetheless expresses his underlying defiance in concert with the peer group. In this way he avoids taking individual responsibility for being disrespectful to those who maintain the balance of power.
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