Your child is really going to care about fitting into a wider social world now, and you can help her. While she might seem grown up as she heads off to school, her family relationships are still the biggest factor in her development.
At school, your child is immersed in a world of learning and making friends. This also includes trying to understand the rules of life, morals, manners and family values. At the same time, your child’s brain is still developing rapidly, bringing increased emotional maturity, social skills and thinking abilities.
Even with all these new influences, your home life and family relationships are still the biggest influence on your young child’s development. The intensity of your relationship might change because you’re spending less time together – your child might even prefer a wave to a public kiss goodbye – but your job as a parent is just as important as ever.
Your rewards: being ‘taught’ interesting facts of the day, getting plenty of original artwork, and realising that ‘good’ is the most popular answer to the question you will ask every day for the next 13 years – ‘How was school?’
Your baby is heading off to a world of grazed knees, tearful misunderstandings and fascinated learning. And when the blood starts flowing, a classmate doesn’t invite your child to their birthday party, and help is needed with homework, you’ll be the first person your child will want.
Developing social skills
When children start school, they’re entering the wider social world. For the first time they have to think about finding their own place in the world and feeling part of a social group.
Although you’re not there when your child is at school, there’s still a lot you can do to help him develop his social skills:
- Help your child make friends. Encourage him to play with other children outside school hours, have sleepovers, and join clubs and groups.
- Give suggestions and tips on ways to handle different situations at school and with friends – for instance, ‘Maybe if you shared your new toy it might help’, or ‘Smiling makes people feel happier. It helps if you smile when you first meet people’.
Help your child develop empathy and understand different points of view – this will help her deal with conflict when it occurs. Describing feelings throughout the day, and having conversations about how other people might feel, can all help build empathy.
- Help your child develop conversation skills, such as asking questions and listening to other children.
- Provide clothing that will help your child fit in (unless your little individual already insists on wearing distinctive clothes, such as head-to-toe black, or only things with butterflies). At this age, most children don’t want to feel like they’re different or that they stand out.
Talk with your child about behaviours such as teasing, bullying or self-centredness that might get in the way of making friends. This doesn’t mean training your child not to say the things that make him unique, but helping him understand what sort of comments could upset others or lead to teasing.
At this stage, social learning helps children get along with the same sex and be included. For most boys, peer acceptance often comes through participation in sport; for most girls, peer acceptance comes through association with a social group.
Finding a sense of self
Between the ages of five and eight, school-age children gain a sense of self by finding people they want to be like (these are sometimes known as role models). They look to older relatives, family friends, teachers and peers – usually of the same sex – to see what it’s like to be a man or a woman in society. These role models can help children work out what sort of people they want to be.
At school, the most important role model in a child’s life is the teacher. When you consider that around 95% of everything a child learns comes from watching what other people do (rather than listening to what they say), the time they spend with teachers really affects how they develop. Teachers have a huge influence on a child’s thinking, attitudes, behaviour and their views towards school.
If you have any concerns about your child’s relationship with her teacher, you might like to discuss these concerns with the teacher or the school principal.
Children benefit from exposure to large networks of grown-ups who have the child’s best interests at heart. These might include grandparents, relatives, neighbours and family friends.
Helping your school-age child find appropriate role models
- Encourage relationships between your child and other safe and trusted grown-ups. At this age, children usually identify best with the same sex. These people can show your child how you’d like him to behave now and in the future, and encourage him to develop his interests.
- Encourage your child to have holidays and visit friends away from the family (as long as your child feels comfortable and safe).
Between the ages of seven and eight, children become more aware of having a private self. They recognise their emotions and thoughts are uniquely theirs. They also start comparing themselves with their peers. After the age of eight, friends their own age become more influential.
During the first few years of primary school, children can get quite preoccupied with learning rules.
Games and sport with rules become important. Through them, children learn that rules apply differently in different situations. They also start understanding morals – what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For instance, some rules or behaviour that are all right at home might not be OK when visiting friends.
At this age, children come to understand and accept the rules of the family and of society. They might feel guilty when they do the wrong things.
Helping your school-age child understand rules and values
- Explain why things are considered right and wrong, and why some behaviour isn’t tolerated at all in society.
- Encourage a sense of compassion and empathy by saying things like, ‘Imagine if you were that person right now’.
- Play games with rules that include elements of both chance and skill. Allow your child to win most of the time, but remember that losing every now and again will help your child learn to deal with disappointment.
- Discuss family values with your child.