Parenting School-Age Children
How Does Parenting Change?
The nature and style of parenting change when children reach the school-age years. The major source that motivates these changes is the different nature of a school-age child. The developmental tasks and milestones school-age children experience are entirely different from those experienced by preschoolers. They are more complex than those of infancy and early childhood and are more social and psychological than physical in nature. However, physical skills acquired in this period play a significant role in shaping children’s self-concepts.
Parenting children in middle childhood, as in earlier stages, focuses on helping them accomplish their essential developmental tasks and milestones. Parents learn that they must respond to, or interact with, a school-age child differently than they did when the child was younger. Methods and parenting styles that were effective with preschoolers lose a high degree of effectiveness with school-age children. Children have new accomplishments and emerging abilities during middle childhood, and they may not permit parents to continue a response style or interaction pattern that was appropriate when they were younger. Parents essentially learn that they must now become psychological rather than physical helpers for their school-age children.
Parents begin training children for increased self-control in early childhood. This previous training results in a greater sharing of social power between parents and children during their school-age years. This sharing results in coregulation as a predominant parenting style. Parents of school-age children exercise general supervision while children gain in moment-to-moment self-regulation (Maccoby, 1984), and parents tend to exercise their power more typically when children misbehave in their presence.
Parents increasingly use psychological methods as a means for helping children achieve a higher level of self-control. These methods often consist of reassuring children, helping them to recover from social blunders, and giving positive reinforcement for efforts to learn new skills. School-age children continue to need their parents but in ways that are very different from preschoolers.
The expectations parents hold for school-age children change, which also reflects the shift to coregulation. For example, parents of school-age children expect that they will: (1) gain more refined social skills that reflect an increasing ability to cooperate with adults and other children; (2) show more sophisticated information processing skills that are reflected in school work; and (3) be able to begin assignments and tasks without being directed by an adult and complete them to a level of competence and satisfaction determined by an adult.
Meeting the Needs of School-Age Children Promoting Healthy Nutrition.
We are more aware today than in the past that the typical American diet is based on large amounts of saturated animal fat, high calories, and use of refined ingredients such as sugar and flour. This dietary lifestyle is associated with the high levels of coronary heart disease, hypertension and strokes, diabetes, and some cancers found in adulthood. Some evidence points to the beginnings of these conditions in middle childhood when children eat this type of diet (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002). Of major concern is the increasingly high incidence of Type II diabetes among school-age children, obesity, and even under-nutrition. Several factors complicate this situation: (1) many school-age children do not have adequate physical activity and exercise daily; (2) many eat unhealthy lunches; (3) many eat snacks that consist of “empty” calories; and (4) many arrive at school without having eaten breakfast.
Helping school-age children develop healthy eating habits and food preferences can be challenging for parents and other adults. Perhaps the best approach is to have healthy foods in the family’s diet and adults modeling good eating habits for children. School-age children may not be immediately attracted to or satisfied by eating the proper kinds of vegetables and fruits without adult supervision and encouragement. By simply preparing meals at home that include these kinds of foods, parents help children learn these habits without being admonished that healthy foods are “good for you.” Adults often mistakenly indicate that such foods aren’t tasty, but “you have to eat them anyway.” Or they attempt to develop good eating habits by bribing children (e.g., “eat your spinach so you can have dessert”). When parents stock up on and serve healthy foods, they help children avoid empty calories. Many parents resist pressure from children to purchase soda pop, potato chips, and sugary breakfast cereals.
Providing Structure and Nurturance.
Parents and other adults who work with school-age children recognize the value of children’s experiences in earlier stages, which assist them in learning about structure. During middle childhood, adult caregivers are interested in helping children acquire even more refined abilities, as children are expected to become more skilled at internalizing their own structure. An appreciation for rules is a basic part of experiences that help school-age children internalize or become more self-directed.
A focus on nurturance helps parents guard against the negative aspects of an exclusive emphasis on rules in experiences that teach structure. The nurturance of school-age children requires that parents and other caregivers be sensitive to children’s developmental needs and emerging abilities at this time (Clarke & Dawson, 1998). Adapting parenting styles is a major challenge for many parents; they must shift to more responsive methods than those established in a child’s preschool years. This shift moves away from focusing attention, energy, and resources on providing physical care to providing psychological care that is supportive of school-age children. outlines a guide to parental caregiving behaviors that may either facilitate or hinder effective experiences in providing structure and nurturance to school-age children.
Parenting school-age children focuses on reinforcing their efforts to attain appropriate developmental tasks. Parents often accomplish that goal when they shift their styles and interactions to psychological assistance and guidance of children. For example, psychological controls such as reasoning are more effective with 9-year-olds than with 3-year-olds. Taking privileges away is another method that some parents find useful, as compared with a less-useful method, such as spanking.
Psychological guidance primarily consists of reassuring children, helping them to bounce back from social blunders with friends, and providing positive reinforcement for their efforts in acquiring new skills. The competitive nature of school-age children and the high degree to which they expect immediate results and success in almost every endeavor compels their need for secure and stable adults. These adults appear, from the child’s perspective, to weather every imaginable adversity or difficulty.
Responding to a child’s changing developmental demands in middle childhood means learning to lessen the more stringent controls imposed during early childhood. It means allowing the child to gain freedom to practice making decisions within safe limitations. In other words, parents learn that children desire and require increasing degrees of freedom during this time in their lives. The psychosocial focus of school-age children is facilitated when parents and other adults reinforce the greater desire for independence and provide opportunities for learning a sense of industry.
The increased involvement of children with peers, school activities, and activities outside the family system means more frequent periods of absence from the home. Parents may find it difficult to keep a stable and predictable schedule of routines in the home. Keeping children’s schedules from becoming chaotic and allowing periods of unstructured personal time can be challenging for many parents.
Letting go of school-age children also means that parents need to accept the reality that they increasingly value peers and best friends as significant others in their lives. Letting go of children involves allowing them to take overnight trips to a friend’s home and, in the later years of middle childhood, to go to overnight slumber parties or on camping trips with youth groups. Many children experience their first extended absence from their family system during summer camp sessions and visits with relatives.
Facilitating a Sense of Industry.
A sense of industry can be described in several ways. Taken literally, it is the development of a positive attitude toward work and a mastery of the tools, or academic and social skills that are appropriately learned at this time of the life span. The development of a healthy attitude toward work means that a school-age child is expected to apply himself or herself to an assigned task under the direction of someone in authority and to complete it satisfactorily. The task may vary, but regardless of its nature, the feeling that should emerge is one of pride in being able to accomplish one’s duties. School-age children should also acquire the perspective that all people are expected to contribute to their communities by performing certain jobs adequately. This stage of psychosocial development differs from establishing a sense of initiative because new expectations are determined for a child’s developmental progress. Related to these expectations is the knowledge that children must expect their behavior and performance to be evaluated more objectively by those in authority. Essentially, school-age children are expected to acquire the basic notions of a work ethic that will guide their behavior as adult workers in jobs and occupations. In the initiative stage, curiosity about the world and what children can discover about themselves are the primary objectives of psychosocial development. In middle childhood, this curiosity is transformed into mastering the environment by achieving goals that “everyone” knows how to achieve.
Promoting Peer Relations.
Our culture is a composite of different subcultures, such as familiar racial, ethnic, and age groupings. Individuals have experiences with a number of subcultures throughout their life span. During the middle years of childhood children experience one of the first and most important subcultures: the childhood peer group.
Parents and teachers are aware that some children will not fit easily or readily into peer groups and can sometimes be rejected by other children. When this occurs, adults often seek an explanation about why other children view the rejected child in negative terms (Rys & Bear, 1997). For example, children who are seen as unpopular may be viewed as hostile and overly aggressive, immature, impulsive, different in appearances, or insensitive to others (Smith et al., 2002). Adults should be concerned when children have experiences with rejection since these may contribute significantly to a negative self-image, conflicts with other children, and impaired social development at later stages in the life span. Adults can arrange occasions for supervised play with other children so that children can learn social skills that lead to more positive peer experiences.
Promoting Cognitive Skills.
School-age children increasingly use mental skills as part of their daily life, much of which involves school activities. Parents and other adults play an important role in facilitating a school-age child’s cognitive development in several ways. For example, children at this time are making use of a large database of information they acquired earlier in the preschool years. They are attempting to make greater sense of their world. Adults hold more challenging expectations of them than of preschoolers. As a result, it is often easy to expect things of school-age children that are beyond their capabilities at this time. By understanding that school-age children still are not able to think logically all the time and are learning the basics of such thinking, parents can customize the ways they provide structure and nurturance at an appropriate developmental level. By understanding that school-age children see the world differently than adults, parents will not expect understanding beyond their child’s ability.
Helping Children Adjust to School.
Entrance into the school system is a significant event that influences a number of social and cognitive changes in middle childhood. For example, in this setting a school-age child is introduced to peers, often for the first time. The child is also exposed to other adults in authority, such as teachers and youth group leaders, who assist in the child’s growth process. New expectations for behavior change yearly as children progress through the school system.
Although the education of children was once the responsibility of a family system, it is now institutionalized in other agencies in the United States. The school system has gained in significance as our culture has become more technologically oriented. Children in middle childhood are expected to become proficient in basic skills, such as reading, writing, and calculation. They are also expected to learn a lot of facts and information about the world. Parents expect that children will succeed in their learning experiences if they are assigned to properly trained teachers. Teachers are also expected to conduct effective educational programs that equip children with basic skills.
Some parents assume that once children become a part of their school environment, they need to relinquish more responsibility to teachers to help children achieve academic success. However, many teachers feel that they cannot be expected to assume the degree of responsibility that supports children’s academic success. Perhaps the best arrangement in this regard is teaming the efforts of both parents and teachers to help children to be academically successful (Bickart & Jablon, 2004). When researchers study how to motivate parental involvement in children’s homework, they have found that parents are more involved when they are prompted both by children and the school to provide assistance with assignments. However, parental involvement had little effect in improving children’s academic performance. The researchers point out, though, that other positive outcomes could result from greater parental involvement in children’s homework, such as being more aware of what was going on with their children at school.
Teaching About Sexuality.
Children’s education about sexuality continues to take place during middle childhood. Schools now play an important role in working with parents to help children grow up with healthy attitudes about sex and sexual matters. Many school systems in the United States provide units on sex education, beginning in kindergarten and continuing throughout the elementary grades. Often these units are presented in conjunction with input provided by parents who serve on school district advisory committees. Most parents apparently wish to have some assistance in helping children learn about sexuality and welcome the professional abilities of trained teachers to introduce the topic to school-age children.
School-age children continue to ask occasional questions about their bodies and sexual matters that deserve honest answers from parents. In this situation, parents may act as interpreters and narrators of family values for their children. Some parents fear that school systems replace them in this role by providing children with formal educational experiences about sexuality. However, most teachers prefer that parents take an even more active role in teaching children about such matters (McElderry & Omar, 2003).
Parents have an important responsibility in preparing older school-age children for the approaching physical and psychological changes related to puberty. Beginning when children are about age 9, most parents can initiate discussions about this approaching developmental event. Opportunities for discussion are important because preteens are more likely to listen to parents’ views on topics relating to sexuality than are children who have already entered adolescence. For example, it is important that girls be prepared for menstruation and that boys understand about nocturnal emissions. Both boys and girls are also interested in their anatomy and desire more detailed information about the functioning of the reproductive system than do preschool-age children. Many excellent resources are available to assist parents in becoming more knowledgeable about sexual issues and preparing children for puberty.
Computers and the Internet.
It’s an inescapable reality that children today need to become computer literate to prepare for their future. The Information Age that was predicted in the 1970s has definitely arrived. The use of computers has become commonplace in homes, schools, and workplaces and the vastness of the Internet has grown beyond all expectations. It is likely that computers will have an even larger place in our society in the future.
The use of the Internet and home computers can augment what children are learning in school and how the school is using these as instructional tools. School-age children should be able to use computer software for writing reports, researching topics, and playing educational games. Some children may even desire to learn how to write software and develop the skills necessary for developing Web sites.
Most adults are aware now that children need supervision when using computers to cruise the Internet. Parents need to learn about software filters that protect children from sites containing pornography and chat rooms that can draw people who want to exploit children. Forbidding access to computers and the Internet because of inherent risks is not in the best interests of children. Rather, parents need to understand that children should learn to negotiate this arena safely. To be computer illiterate can place children at a distinct disadvantage in their present and future.
Parents should develop rules and regulations that outline how much time a child is allowed to use the computer and the Internet and that specify behavior while using the Internet. For example, children should be taught never to give out personal information to anyone or any Web site. They should know how to deal with accidental viewing of unacceptable material and how to observe rules of “Netiquette” and controlled supervised use of instant messaging services. If rules are not observed, parents may need to investigate installing hardware and software that limit time use by children. A contract is available for parents to use with children in regulating Internet and computer use. Some children can be determined to work around rules, regulations, and limitations that parents have placed to prevent them from being exposed to the Internet’s more unsavory elements. In this event, parents might wish to consult Web sites for helpful assistance in fine-tuning methods to protect children (e.g., see http://www.komando.com)
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