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Let's face it: Your child is changing. She doesn't watch Barney anymore. She doesn't want your help quite as much. Her emotions are exaggerated. And she's suddenly realized that not everyone is her friend just because they're in the same class together. She's begun dealing with deeply felt issues like freedom, friendship, peer approval -- even fashion.
Wait! Maybe you're not ready for this. You're still quite comfortable setting out Disney plates and chicken nuggets. Now she wants tossed salad with low-cal dressing?
Your middle-years child is changing.
Who's Training Whom?
At one of our parenting conferences, a frazzled mother of two middle-years children confessed to the audience: "My children bring out the worst in me."
"Yes," Gary responded. "That's exactly what children do to parents. They expose us for who we are and what we know. They also expose us for who we're not and what we don't know."
We all know that parenting is a process that leads to maturity, but what we don't always realize is that the children aren't the only ones maturing. Because middle-years children are grappling with right and wrong in new ways, parents are forced to evaluate their own moral code. When children repeatedly test parents' boundaries, it develops patience and conviction in the parents. Parents have to gain verbal self-control because effective parenting cannot be explosive, critical, or sarcastic. Our children reveal the weaknesses of our character and the areas in which we need to mature.
So this chapter starts with you, Mom and Dad. Your moral growth as a parent is hardly an option. Few of us enter parenting with a full grasp of life's virtues, but the demand for moral wisdom in parenting has never been so great. Why is that? Every major moral mandate -- love, mercy, grace, justice, humility, forgiveness, restoration, compassion, patience, and self-control, to name a few -- is challenged in parenting, often daily!
The parenting process forces moms and dads to mature in a way no other life experience can. This is a good thing. Parenting provides the ideal circumstance in which we can learn, for no one else in the world will be as forgiving of our shortcomings as our own children. Realizing we do indeed fall short helps us grow in grace toward the children we train.
As a parent, you can't completely avoid making mistakes. Accept it. The best you can do is to study your children, learn from your mistakes, and focus wisely on their upbringing. If not now in the middle years, when? Even in today's investment-savvy society, parents easily miss the mark here, content to coast through the seemingly uneventful middle years. Perhaps they feel they are saving up their strength for the teenage battles ahead. With that approach, they can count on having many.
The teen years don't have to be tumultuous. Understanding the transitions your middle-years children are undergoing will help you all get through their adolescence alive, sane, and closer than ever.
Middle-Years Transition: Arrivals and Departures There is not a major airport in the United States that Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo have not passed through at least once. Forty weeks a year, they travel from their home in California to one or more cities around the world to lead parenting seminars. They understand the potential difficulties associated with fixed airline schedules. They know what it is like to arrive in a city, deplane, rush to find the next gate, and be off again.
Happily, the airlines know the potential for passengers to lose their way in transit. That is why they have uniformed agents waiting at the gate to help passengers in need of connecting flight information. These agents direct passengers from where they are to where they need to be. During your child's middle years, one of your primary functions is to play the role of gate agent. As your child arrives from a wide range of childhood experiences, your job is to point him in the right direction and, in some cases, to lead the way. This means that you, yourself, must have a clear picture of where your child should be headed.
For example, perhaps your son watches a movie with a nasty villain and a surprisingly respectable teen hero. To your disappointment, your boy seems more enamored with the villain and takes on the cool tones and hardened gaze of this unlikely role model. Time for the gate agent to step in. Your son needs assistance with his baggage -- emotional and otherwise -- and guidance to a more desirable destination.
The middle years is a period of great transition -- a developmental phase when a child moves from where he has been to where he needs to go. During this phase of growth, you are still his first choice as a guide, and he needs your leadership. Take advantage of that. Below are eight critical middle-years transitions. Help him through them well, and the next leg of the journey just might be crash-free.
1. Transitioning away from Childhood and Childhood Structures
On the first day of kindergarten, you followed her bus all the way to school just to make sure she remembered to get off, that she was smiling when she did, or that she didn't evaporate in the few miles from here to there. You laughed; you cried; you chatted with the other half-dozen teary adults who all did the same silly thing.
Guess what? It's time to back off. From now on, wave good-bye from the porch.
Finding relational equilibrium with your maturing child is one of the more difficult tasks of parenthood. But by the end of this growth period, a healthy restructuring of relationships needs to have occurred for both you and your child.
This isn't your four-year-old anymore. This is a young person on the verge of adolescence. You need to begin treating her like a responsible individual. You may be surprised to find that's what she has actually become.
During the middle years, children begin the long process of metamorphosis toward healthy independence. They move away from childhood structures, dependencies, and interests. There is a shift from a world centered largely around relationships with Mom, Dad, and siblings, to a world in which relationships with peers, friends, and real heroes begin to draw their focus.
This particular transition is demonstrated by the way a child attempts to distance himself from early childhood structures. While certain terminology didn't bother your child at age five or six, at eight or nine that same boy or girl will object to conversations that describe him or her in childhood phrases such as "He's my little guy" or "Yes, she's my princess."
Young Ryan couldn't wait for his week at camp the summer he was nine. Upon arrival, he began unpacking the tidy bundle his mom had prepared. To his horror, he discovered the pillowcase. There was Superman striking a bold pose, much to his campmates' delight. Ryan's week at camp turned into one very long bad dream. The endless ribbing left him wishing he could disappear into a phone booth.
At eight or nine, your child has already done an enormous amount of learning. Contrast him with the nearly helpless toddler of a few years ago who needed the structure of Mom and Dad's direct companionship, love, and supervision. A guiding parent or other supervising adult orchestrated all wake time, naptime, mealtime, and playtime. Your child's friends were limited to the kids in the neighborhood or his playgroups. Your child lived in a world predominately structured and made secure by you.
Consider the child who at five held your hand everywhere you went and at six advanced to crossing the street by herself. Now, she is notably less dependent on you and the sheltering structures you created for her protection (and your comfort). A driving sense of her own self-sufficiency is replacing your preadolescent's longstanding preoccupation with personal caretakers.
Early in the middle-years transition, children begin to reject all sorts of minor childhood-related associations that they previously found comforting. The little girl who once was consoled after an injury by sitting on Mom's lap may start going to her siblings for comfort instead. The young boy who once would not go anywhere without his stuffed animal now buries it in his closet toy box. This is just the beginning.
2. Transitioning to Knowing the Facts
"You're out! I touched the base."
"No, I'm not! You have to touch me."
They can barely swing the bat, but they brandish their knowledge of the rules as if they had a deep and abiding understanding of the game. Your middle-years child now relates to other children as peers and to other adults as something more than parental substitutes. During this period boys and girls demonstrate a need to organize, categorize, and play by the rules. It is important to them that they get their facts right (although they have an oversimplified notion of the correctness of their own assessment during this phase).
Perhaps you're having a conversation with another adult in which you describe an incident that occurred at the store today. You aren't even two sentences into your story when you hear from the only other eyewitness to the event, your nine-year-old daughter. "No, Mom, that's not how it happened. The man with the shopping cart bumped the manager and then...."
Don't be surprised when your attempt to abbreviate a conversation is met by a challenge from your middle-years child, who suddenly seems to have a desperate need to get the story right, as if one fact out of sequence will cause the universe to instantly implode.
Now add birth order to this mix. Because the eldest is born into a world of adults and not siblings, she tends to have an increased need to be "right" about all things. If another child breaks the rules, she is relentless in her efforts to straighten that child out or bring justice to bear on a situation. "Mom! That's not fair! When I was Billy's age, you never let me ride to the corner by myself." Look for these verbal declarations -- they're all part of the transition process.
3. Transitioning from Imagination to Reason
With the middle years comes a distinct shift toward logical thinking. Logic and reason now help your child to begin overcoming the unknown. Consider how small children deal with fear of the unknown or unexplained circumstances. A nighttime shadow on the bedroom wall becomes the villain from their favorite action film. A loud noise in the distance is a monster on its way to the house! Because their imaginations develop more rapidly than their reasoning skills, and because they're aware of their own smallness, younger children often interpret anything they don't understand as something to be feared. But everything changes during the middle years. Reason rises to challenge imagination. This means your eight-year-old will begin to appear more daring and adventuresome and less restrained by fear of the unknown.
4. Transitioning to New Emotional Patterns and Expressions
Every healthy child comes into this life with the potential for experiencing the full range of human emotions. Obviously, these emotions influence the way we think and act.
Though all humans have the same emotions, each of us responds to these feelings differently. Some responses are constructive; others are detrimental. In the latter case, it is not the emotions themselves that get us into trouble, but the manner in which we deal with them. The more we respond to an emotion in a certain way, the greater the likelihood that it will develop into a habit. Developing positive habits is particularly important during the middle years because this is the season of life in which a child's moral knowledge (moral truth taught by parents and teachers), combined with his emotions, can help establish patterns of right behavior.
For example, the child who learns early in life that "honesty is the best policy" is likely to carry that teaching into adulthood. Your four-year-old can understand the principle, but your eight-year-old can make it a way of life.
Do not miss this important point: You and your home environment will play a dominant role in shaping your child's profile of emotional responses, especially during the middle years. A child who observes Dad returning wrong for wrong by walking the dog on a neighbor's lawn as payback for a similar disservice will learn that paybacks are okay for peers. If right responses are not learned during the middle years, wrong ones will most likely characterize the teen years. Now is when you need to check out your own attitudes.
The middle years also bring about a shift in a child's outward expression of emotions. A young child's emotional outburst lasts a few minutes, and then it's over. Contrast this response with that of the socially sensitive middle-years child whose short-lived outbursts have given way to drawn-out periods of moodiness.
What all this demonstrates is that your middle-years child can now exercise cognitive control over his emotions. A few years earlier, this was not the case. The decision of how to behave is, in the end, your child's. However, you still play a significant role in shaping how your child develops his or her responses. Take advantage of this.
5. Transitioning to Hormone-Activated Bodies
Perhaps you have found yourself thinking, "My child is only eight or nine -- it can't be hormones yet." Yes, it can. Most people think hormonal changes don't begin until just before a child reaches the teen years, when they naturally set into motion a series of defiant acts and rebellious mood swings.
But the truth is that hormonal changes in a child's endocrine system begin at approximately age seven, not twelve or thirteen. You may have already begun to see the effects.
Yes, your middle-years child is hormonally active. From this point on, he or she will experience greater emotional highs and lows. This may, in turn, affect behavior. But wait: The fact that your child is undergoing these changes does not provide an excuse for wrong behavior. Have you ever wondered why your nine-year-old daughter can change moods overnight? She may go through phases of discouragement and break into tears over minor details. Someone looked at her wrong. She looks all wrong. She's not sure what is wrong. Her face becomes a little oilier, and she is sure everyone is noticing. For a few days she becomes more snippety toward her siblings. Then, just as quickly, she returns to being the stable child you knew before. Hormones at work.
While hormones play their part, the moral environment in which your child is raised also plays a significant role in shaping her perception of her changing body and the sexual tension natural to growth. Clinicians have noted that children who come from differing domestic moral climates will have very different sensual experiences.
For example, young girls weaned on MTV are more likely to express their budding sense of womanhood according to the images promoted by the sexual image-makers of MTV. In contrast, pubescent daughters coming from homes that do not allow this influence tend to direct their budding sexual awareness into channels of innocent romantic thought. Have you ever watched "Anne of Green Gables" and "Anne of Avonlea"? It took Anne, the main character of this drama, eight hours (in film time -- eight years in story time) to realize that it was Gilbert, her old school chum, she really loved. While such romantic portrayals are entertaining for a sixty-year-old woman and perhaps confusing for a six-year-old girl, a ten-year-old girl enters into eight hours of romance by identifying herself with the heroine.
Why is she hooked, while her six-year-old female cousin and her eleven-year-old brother find something else to do? Because hormones active in her body have brought about a burgeoning sense of romance. Her body awakens her mind to a vague but real awareness that someday perhaps there will be a Gilbert for her, too.
Endocrine changes awaken a sense of romantic sensitivity in girls much earlier than they do in boys. Your ten-year-old daughter is asking: "Mom, how did you and Dad meet?" or "Where did you go on your first date?" Meanwhile, a boy of the same age is asking, "Mom, have you seen my football?"
Valiant knights prance their white steeds dreamily through your daughter's thoughts. But it will be another year or two before the neighbor boy of the same age starts to consider your daughter more than a decent right fielder or someone to torment with his plastic spider. But in time, preteen boys, too, succumb to the powerful effect of hormones on their views of the opposite sex.
6. Transitioning to the Growing Influence of Peers
The middle years are marked by a greater sensitivity to the differences between self and peers. Any slight deviation in growth or secondary sex characteristics from what is common in the group will cause the middle-years child to worry.
Such an occurrence is natural and quite unavoidable. The young girl who begins to develop prematurely will measure herself against other girls. The boy who starts to show hairs on his chin or to grow disproportionately in height will become self-conscious about his differences.
This awareness leads to a growing interest in the opinions of others in a child's peer group. What is the group wearing, listening to, doing? Where are they going? And what does all this mean to me? There is a fuller discussion of peer involvement, relationships, and influence in chapter 10. For now it is enough to say that the effects of this transition will be felt for quite some time.
7. Transitioning to a Sense of Morality
Morality is more than a checklist of good choices one makes in the interest of preserving self. Moral maturity means considering others -- respecting the feelings, needs, hurts, and hearts of those with whom the child interacts.
We believe that clearly defined morality is the only foundation upon which healthy relationships and strong families are built. Only moral maturity enables us to get along rightly with others in our families and communities.
Because the middle years are typically far less traumatic than the "terrible twos" or the tumultuous teens, parents tend not to have a sense of moral urgency during this time. Yet if there is ever a time of ripening when a child seeks moral knowledge, it is during these precious middle years. This is the time when you as a parent can encourage and shape the development of moral consciousness in your child.
During the middle years, children not only understand the wider scope of moral truth, they can begin to use it to regulate their lives. Soon they will be able to conform their outward behavior voluntarily, apart from the fear of reproof that so often accompanies a younger child's moral decision-making process. The middle years are when your child will strike deep moral roots -- for good or ill -- with or without your guidance.
Younger children live off Mom and Dad's values. But during the middle years, children begin to take personal ownership of their values. Are you ready to help your child make the transition?
8. Transitioning from Being Reminded to Being Responsible
The middle years are a time when your child should be transitioning from simply obeying the rules, on the one hand, to taking personal responsibility for tasks, chores, and behavior, on the other. When only obedience is at stake, your child will comply when reminded. When responsibility comes into play, your child does the right thing without being reminded.
As soon as a middle-years child understands what you're asking of her, she should be expected to take ownership of that behavior. This may be a change for her and you. If you don't make it a priority to teach her self-generated initiative now, you'll still be asking if she's done all her homework and picked up her room when she's in college. In the pages that follow, we'll show you how to teach your middle-years children to take the initiative.
The Ninth Transition
There is one more transition to make during the middle years. This one is for parents: Parents of a preadolescent must make the transition from parenting by authority to parenting by influence. This may be the most important transition of all. Therefore we have devoted all of chapter 3 to it.
Summary The middle years are a time of realignment and sometimes course correction for children and parents. These are transition years when children start the long process of metamorphosis -- moving away from childhood dependencies and interests, toward healthy independence and self-responsibility. It is a period marked by a greater sensitivity to the differences between self and peers and thus by a growing interest in peer approval, which can lead to peer pressure.
The endocrine system begins to release potent hormones which nudge boys and girls toward sexual awareness. Now, boys and girls begin to change their minds about the opposite sex and start to view the other gender as something attractive. Your son or daughter will begin to pay more attention to physical hygiene and personal grooming, including hairstyle and dress.
The middle years mark a time of great moral and intellectual growth in children. Logical thinking and a new capacity for moral understanding are the two prerequisites they need in order to regulate their own behavior in the future. At this time they begin to take ownership of their own values and beliefs. It is a time when the world opens up to them and the meaning of life beyond Mom and Dad's design begins to take shape. It is a time of great transition for your child -- and for you.
Bringing It Home 1. What is a middle-years transition?
2. How are you like an airline gate agent in your child's life?
3. How might your family's moral environment help shape your child's perception of his or her changing body and the sexual tension naturally felt during this growth phase?
4. How are hormonal changes in a middle-years child related to the importance of peers?
5. Describe the transition that occurs in relation to morality during the middle years.
<%=fontsmall%>Excerpted from ON BECOMING PRETEEN WISE, copyright©2000 by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc., not to be recopied without permission. <%=xfontsmall%>
Posted October 12, 2011
This book is exactly what my husband and I needed. We felt like we were coasting in our parenting duties with our 8 and 10 year olds and starting to see behavioral problems. This book helped explain what is happening and how to deal with it. The practical exercises are excellent and working! Now it's up to us to be consistent.
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Posted April 21, 2013