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Tuesday, December 28, 2010


While the family remains the principal context of social relations for most children during the school years, interactions with others become much more extensive. Children are learning more about themselves while participating in increasingly complex social networks. Consider the range of tasks to be met in the course of middle childhood. The young person has to figure out who she is – what makes her unique. This involves discovering her own capacities and limitations (during a period of continual change) and coming to terms with the emotions that these assessments provoke (pride, shame, anxiety, ambition). It also involves comparison with others – we discover ourselves partly through measuring how we stand relative to our peers. In fact, during this phase of life, children come to assess themselves and their peers in increasingly profound ways.

Gender role development
We saw above that during the preschool years, children begin to organize their social worlds around gender and to accumulate information about what it means to be male or female. These processes continue during middle childhood. By this stage, children know quite a lot about the traditional expectations of their society concerning gender. For example, by the age of five or six years, children have firm views on who will be most competent as a car mechanic or aeroplane pilot, or as a clothes designer or secretary (Levy, Sadovsky & Troseth, 2000). Yet there is a broad difference in terms of how boys and girls conform to traditional roles. During middle childhood, boys tend to follow the requirements of masculinity more rigidly than girls follow the requirements of femininity (Archer, 1992). Cross-sex activities are disapproved of by most boys, while girls are often happy to participate in leisure activities that are perceived as masculine (e.g. some girls of this age will play soccer, climb trees, ride skateboards, wear ‘male clothes’). A large study of North American women of different generations found that a clear majority recalled engaging in ‘tomboyish’ activities during their childhood, with the mean age of starting these activities being five years and the mean age of concluding them being around 12 and a half (Morgan, 1997). This type of behaviour therefore appears to be normative for females and socially accepted as such, whereas the corresponding cross-sex behaviour in boys (e.g. taking an interest in sewing, playing with dolls, dressing up) results in peer hostility and parental concern (Archer, 1992; Raag, 1999). Seems unfair? Indeed, but this pattern of behaviour during middle childhood seems to reflect a social advantage for males. Archer (1992) argues that because males have traditionally been the most powerful gender, socialization patterns have developed to ensure that young males are prepared for their ultimately dominant role in society. As a result, their gender role may become more rigid during the school years, whereas females are seemingly allowed a longer period of ‘gender flexibility’, although not an indefinite one, as Morgan’s (1997) findings reveal. Peer relations Middle childhood is also a time of increasing peer interaction. The school years present a dramatic increase in the amount of time spent with peers, and the relationships themselves become more complex as cognitive development progresses and social demands increase. We saw earlier that preschoolers begin to demonstrate selectivity and preferences among their peers. Although some of these relationships are close and enduring, many are short-lived. If five-year-olds are asked to identify their friends, they will most likely mention whichever peer is nearby, or children with whom they have played recently (Damon, 1983; Erwin, 1993). These affiliations may be quite transitory and subject to termination when disagreements occur. During middle childhood, however, friendships become more enduring, more dependent upon personality compatibility, and characterized by a greater degree of mutual expectation (Damon, 1988; Erwin, 1993; Hartup, 1998). Researchers have investigated children’s concepts of friendship using interview techniques. Typically, interviewers ask questions such as: ‘What is a friend?’ ‘How do you make friends?’ ‘How do you know someone is your friend?’ (Damon, 1983). Younger children (aged four to seven) tend to define friendships in terms of mutual liking and shared activities. Children at this age do have interpersonal expectations (like being nice to each other and sharing toys), but they rarely express psychological dimensions of the relationship. In middle childhood, by contrast, there is more emphasis on provision of mutual support and trust (Erwin, 1993). For example, at around the age of seven or eight, children still tend to describe friends in relatively concrete terms, but they increasingly make references to shared activities and cooperation (‘we play soccer together’, ‘we take turns in goal’). Over the next few ye ars, there is an increasing emphasis on reciprocity, the obligations of friendship and the psychological characteristics of friends (‘she’s kinda shy, but she stands up for me and I’d do the same for her’). This is not to suggest that friendships are invariably harmonious. In fact, during middle childhood relations with friends can involve a great deal of conflict – more so than relations with ‘nonfriends’ (Hartup, French, Laursen et al., 1993). Children at this age learn that relationships have a strong emotional aspect, and that sometimes friendships can be volatile. In short, relationships during middle childhood become more complex as children come to understand more about the nature of people and their interdependencies. In this way, social development is closely interwoven with cognitive development.

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