Parenting in the Middle Years

Ages 5 -12

You won’t see many news reports on children between the ages of five to twelve. Hardly any magazines will do a cover story on a child’s early school years. And parents rarely complain about a child’s behavior at this stage of development.

The reason is that many people consider this time of childhood to be an idyllic time. When compared to the whirlwind preschool years and the turbulent teen years, the middle years are relatively calm. But don’t be deceived. Children have significant challenges to face during the middle years. The outcome of those challenges will set the course of their mental, emotional, social, and spiritual life.

The Five to Seven Shift

During the middle years, children will be expected to act more independently, performing daily responsibilities, such as dressing themselves or cleaning their room. These are acts previously done by their parents. In America, five and six year olds will enter educational institutions, embarking on long educational journey toward adulthood. And developmentally, children now have the ability to perform concrete mental actions, work together as a group or team, and possess a heightened moral awareness. Depending on how successful they are at these new skills and responsibilities, children will develop a sense of industry and competence, if they do well, or feelings of inferiority, if they do not do well. This outcome will carry over into adolescence and adulthood, affecting later stages of development.

The Power of Peers

Another significant shift for children in the middle years is how and with whom they spend their time each day. Prior to this time, children spent their time primarily with their parents involved in playful activities. Now children will spend their day interacting with peers and concentrate on schoolwork.

On a positive note, most children are developmentally ready for this level of peer involvement. Of course, it is still a major adjustment and even the most extroverted child may suffer feelings of stress. On a negative note, parents worry about the quality of these new influences. Children frequently ask questions about sexuality, violence, and other adult subjects that they never knew existed. What kind of harm does this type of “premature maturity” have on children? Emotionally it can damage a child’s self-esteem, create unnecessary fears and worries, and distort sexual identity. Socially, it may lead to withdrawal or aggression. And physically, it may result in somatic complaints, such as, headaches or stomach aches.

Parents can intervene on behalf of their children by talking to teachers or other parents about concerns they might have. They can role model and discuss healthy, moral behavior. They can remove children from an unhealthy environment if all other interventions fail and find healthier settings for children to socialize.

Home: The Emotional Refuge

As children in the middle years become more independent and teachers and peers become more influential, parents may interpreted this to mean that they are not needed. Just the opposite is true. Because of the challenges that children in the middle years face, they will need parents and the emotional refuge of the home more than ever.

The home is the place where children can share their successes and failures. At times, the home becomes the dumping ground for the painful experiences of children, with parents the primary targets. Parents often believe that they are doing something wrong or that the child is out of control, when in fact, the child is simply venting their frustrations in the safest place they know – the home. In addition, children in the middle years realize that their parents are not gods. They discover that parents are fallible and unable to meet all of their needs. This disillusionment may rationalize the use of parents as targets of their frustrations.

Although parents are no longer on a holy pedestal, parents continue to be important models on gender roles, social behavior, and moral conduct. While children may vent at their parents, they are also looking to them for answers on how to act and think. Parents also need to reassure and encourage children in the new challenges they must face. Emphasis needs to be placed on individual effort and not just end result. This will allow the child to feel successful because they tried regardless of the outcome.

Balancing Love and Limits in the Middle Years

Research has proven that parents who balance love and limits, in their parenting styles, will have children who are more self-reliant, better able to control their impulses, and feel happier and more confident. Love and limits are the two essential dimensions of parenting, needed at every step of development. High levels of affection and parental warmth combined with firm, consistent structure, produce children who are better able to master the challenges of the middle years.

Parents who provide high levels of warmth but not consistent limits have a permissive style of parenting. This style makes few demands on children or allows children to negotiate their own rules. While children during the middle years may be more independent, they still need parents to set limits on their behaviors. Some discussion is acceptable and healthy. Too much discussion and children begin to control the parents rather than the other way around.

Parents who provide high levels of structure but low levels of warmth or interaction have an authoritarian style of parenting. This style place value on obedience and respect. Verbal give-and-take is interpreted as defiance and not tolerated. Children often feel resentful and angry under this style of parenting taking their feelings out on younger siblings or friends.

Parents learn their styles of parenting from their own parents and have no choice but to repeat these same styles unless new learning takes place. Parents can adopt a more balanced style of parenting, with high love and high limits, by taking a parenting class or joining a parenting support group.

The middle years, far from being an idyllic time, requires children to begin the long trek toward adulthood. Fortunately, it is only the beginning of that journey and not the final destination. Children will have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery of childhood and stop along the way to rest and play. Parents, who are walking along side, can role model and guide their children on how to be healthy human beings and not merely an adult. Along the way, parents might remember a little of the joys and frustrations of their own childhood, as they pace their children’s movement through the middle years.

Ron Huxley is a Licensed Marriage, Family & Child Counselor and owner of

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