The Golden Age of Childhood: The Elementary School Years
When I think of elementary school children, I see them at recess, roughhousing, balancing on jungle gyms, playing tag or kickball. I also imagine them doing cartwheels in gymnastic classes, proudly wearing their Little League uniforms, tearing around, chasing each other at a neighborhood park or quietly texting or playing video games, oblivious to their friends jumping on each other nearby.
When the recess bell rings, ending the organized chaos, as if by magic, the children stop what they’re doing, turn on a dime and line up in neat rows to re-enter the classroom where, for the most part, they sit quietly and do their work. What a difference from the negativism of toddlers and the adolescent resistance to conformity.
Elementary school kids are reasonable, relatively self-sufficient—they can feed, dress, go to the bathroom and shower by themselves—and they like and admire adults, particularly Mom and Dad! That’s why I call it the Golden Age of Childhood. Teachers love them. Coaches love them. Grandparents love them. Everybody loves them because they often act like well-behaved adults. In fact, they often behave better than many adults do and certainly better than the monsters they will become in a few years when puberty hits. If only we could freeze them in time when they’re nine! Alas, we can’t. So enjoy this Golden Age, this wonderful time of calm, while you can.
The Developmental Tasks of Latency
The elementary school years are more formally called the Latency period of development because they occur between the frenetic activity and constant parental involvement of the preschool years and the tumultuous physical and psychological metamorphosis of adolescence. Like all development phases in both childhood and adulthood, there are certain developmental tasks and challenges in which children must be engaged. Latency may be thought of as a “work in progress,” a time when a series of new challenges are faced and mastered, resulting in a dramatic increase in physical, psychological, intellectual and social abilities. In the elementary school years those challenges revolve around increased freedom, capability and responsibility; internalizing a set of values and principles, broadening a sense of masculinity or femininity, forming friendships and learning new mental and physical skills.
Conscience Formation: The Beacon of Morality
The conscience has a bad name, associated as it is with the restriction of thought and action and the feeling of guilt. The criticism is undeserved. The ability to think in terms of right and wrong during the elementary school years provides the personality with indispensable attributes of restraint, consideration for others, kindness and morality. When the child thinks and acts in harmony with the dictates of his or her conscience, he or she is flooded with a sense of approval and love from within. When the bounds of acceptable thought or behavior are breached, the instant response is guilt, that most uncomfortable of feelings.
Sharon came home from school in tears. Once she had calmed down, aided by a glass of milk and a cookie, she confessed (her word, not mine) that Miss Wilkerson, her third grade teacher, had called out her name in class because she was talking instead of reading during quiet time. She was mortified. “What if Miss Wilkerson won’t like me anymore,” she asked? “I won’t do it again, I promise.” The conscience in the Latency period can be cruel, not yet able to distinguish between slight transgressions and big ones.
Conscience formation is a gradual process, begun in infancy and expanded each time parents set limits and say “no” to their toddler’s indiscriminate desire to explore and, in the process, damage or destroy anything of value. Thus, the critical impetus to the formation of this highly valuable and adaptive judgmental aspect of the personality is sensitive parental limit-setting and criticism throughout the early years of childhood. These are gradually internalized and then expanded on as the child is exposed to formal learning and cultural values of others.
Adult maturity is impossible without that strong sense of morality, tempered and refined in the years beyond Latency. With its crystallization during the elementary school years, the child becomes civilized because thoughts and actions are constantly and automatically monitored and controlled from within. No longer dependent on parental involvement to control behavior, the young child is free to explore the world, which demands that he or she exercise judgment, restraint and consideration for others.
With prohibitions and morality safely locked inside, the Latency-aged child relates to his or her parents in a new way—through a calmer, more modulated interaction based on mutual interests, realistic considerations and identification and admiration. How welcome it is to hear “I want to be just like you when I grow up, Mom” or “Please Dad, pitch to me again, just ten more minutes, then I’ll do my homework.” Basking in such admiration, healthy parents reap the rewards for those sleepless nights, dirty diapers, and temper tantrums that you thought would never end. Latency is the golden age of childhood for parents, too. If only it would last longer.
The Emergence of the Capacity for Friendship
A good friendship with another child is like a thick fur coat on a cold, gray day, providing warmth and protection against life’s wintry blasts. In considering the emergence of the capacity for friendship in Latency, we begin a journey down one of life’s most rewarding paths, studying relationships that are an indispensable part of the lives of all mature individuals, because of the recognition of the necessity of this extremely fulfilling form of love.
Friendship is a form of love, just like love of parents, life partners and children. Based on mutuality, equality, and freedom of choice, they flower for the first time in early Latency, when children have developed the capacity to control behavior, delay gratification, separate from mother and father, and comfortably relate to others. Latency-aged children of both sexes form intense friendships. Remember reading about Tom Sawyer and Nancy Drew? Remember spending lazy afternoons in the summer sun without a care in the world, wandering around the neighborhood? The ability to love, learned from Mom and Dad, is now channeled into friendships. Together, friends explore the immediate world. A pattern is set in motion here that will be repeated throughout the life cycle, namely, the use of friendships as a vehicle for growing and maturing.
Unfortunately, human beings are aggressive as well as loving. The need to be part of a group of friends while excluding others is cruelly played out in playgrounds every day. Jim and John were the leaders of the pack. Every day at recess they got to choose the teams for kickball. The best players were chosen first, then those who were OK, followed by a verbal battle over who would had to take the poorest players on their teams. “I don’t want Billy. He can’t even kick the ball,” said Jim. John quickly retorted, “Well, I took him yesterday, you have to take him today.” Poor Billy stood off to the side, head down, unloved and unwanted. But when he was finally chosen, he quickly ran to join his teammates, resigned to his position in the Latency hierarchy, but still one of the group.
The Elaboration of Sexual Identity and Friendship
“Boys Have Cooties.” “I Hate Girls.”
In Latency, one learns about being a boy or a girl from parents, teachers, Cub Scout and Brownie leaders and coaches, or as the late writer, Art Buchwald, said, from your guttersnipe friends. Masculinity and femininity become highly subjective concepts, defined by family, friends, and culture. Latency-aged children apply stringent standards to what constitutes proper male and female behavior for themselves and their peers. Involvement with the opposite sex is taboo. All of this is done in the service of solidifying a still emerging, not yet defined, masculine or feminine identity. Of course, the process doesn’t end here; it must be significantly redefined again in adolescence, after physical and sexual maturation occurs.
In the rush to be more masculine or feminine, nearly every activity is assigned to one sex or the other, without rational rhyme or reason but with the clear developmental purpose of solidifying a still emerging masculine or feminine identity. Eight-year-old Jack, youngest member of a houseful of “jocks,” [jc1] wouldn’t think of taking music lessons. That was for “girls and sissies.” But in a distant city, eight-year-old Bob couldn’t spend enough time practicing the trumpet; he wanted to be as good as his brother and father, both of whom were professional musicians. Blowing that horn was the highest expression of manliness, something “no sissy girl can do.”
The peer group is the arena in which the internal and external battle against the opposite sex is waged. Strongly supported by her friends, fourth-grade Anna publicly denounced the boys in her class. They were gross, crude, and obnoxious, she shouted to the satisfaction of her Greek chorus of girlfriends, who echoed her views. Taunted as they were, the boys responded verbally and physically, punching and running, pulling hair and jeering. The undertone of sexual excitement was obvious to the adult observers and appeared to be fleetingly recognized by both sexes as they giggled and laughed behind their self-imposed barricades. Norman Rockwell captured the tug of war between the sexes with his famous painting of a classroom scene in which a boy gleefully dips the pigtail of an unsuspecting girl sitting in front of him in his ink well.
As parents and teachers know, this normal need to exaggerate the difference between the sexes is short-lived, swept away by the flood of estrogen and testosterone that demolishes the Latency mind and body and signals the onset of adolescence. Although mature men and women bask in the warmth of their relationships with each other, both sexes reserve a spot, occasionally a prominent one, for same-sex friendships which satisfy needs that no one of the opposite sex could possible understand.
School Days, School Days, Good Old Golden Rule Days
The transition from home to school may appear to the casual adult observer as simple as “Beam me up, Scotty” since most children accomplish it without great difficulty. In actuality, successful adjustment to school is a significant achievement, indicating that development is progressing nicely in multiple ways. Happy campers in kindergarten and first grade can control bowel and bladder, sit still for long intervals, and possess the cognitive maturity for readiness activities, the forerunners of reading and writing. They can also separate easily from parents and share the interest and affection of teachers with others, forge friendships and tolerate the rough-and-tumble politics of the peer group, and accomplish all of the above with a modicum of impulse control and a minimum degree of regression.
Like the passing of the baton in a relay race, parents and educators must work hand in hand if children are to succeed academically and socially. The development of children is disrupted when family life fails to prepare the child for school or when the school fails to sustain the promises of earlier development. The result of such failure and disruption is an ingrained sense of inferiority that grievously undermines future development. Critical components of adult maturity are self-confidence and industry, the legacies of the Latency phase.
Ben grew up in a small town. When he was in kindergarten, he met his prospective first grade teacher, Miss O’Brien, who walked by his father’s store every day on the way to the nearby neighborhood school.. Ben loved kindergarten and could not wait to go to first grade. That fall, on the opening day of school, Ben announced to his parents that he planned to walk to school by himself. He knew Miss O’Brien and played in the school playground all the time. He took off, head held high, marching off to school with his lunch bucket and school bag. Ben went on to be a roaring success in first grade and throughout elementary school.
On the other hand, Sam took the school bus to school. He had never been there before and was bewildered by the noise and horseplay of the older kids on the bus. His father was away in the military, and his mother was at work. When he got off the bus, he said to the first adult he saw, who fortunately happened to be one of the teachers, “Hey Mister. Is this the school?” Sam had a rough few weeks, but he settled in and was fine. However, he remembered that painful day many years later when he told me the story of his first day at school.