September 29, 2011

Middle childhood is a time of discovery, consolidation, and strengthening of key competencies. During this period of development, ranging between ages 6 and 12 years, physical skills mature, personality traits solidify, and social interactions become more sophisticated. Parents remain at the center of children’s social world, but peers become increasingly important. Although biology provides a timetable for development, cultural and contextual factors can slow, nurture, or hinder growth. Thus, developmental shifts during childhood are best understood within a broad social context that includes individual factors as well as family, peers, neighborhoods, and culture.


In his 2002 State of the Union address, George W. Bush adopted the Children’s Defense Fund policy to “Leave No Child Behind.” Unfortunately, 2 years later, very little has improved in the lives of American children. Every 11 seconds, an American child is reportedly abused or neglected, and every 2 hours and 40 minutes, an American child is killed by gunfire. One in five U.S. children live in poverty and substandard conditions (e.g., unsanitary housing, poor nutrition) during their first 3 years of life, the most critical time for brain development. Children in poverty are more likely to contract illnesses, have untreated medical and dental problems, and are less likely to receive important immunizations. One in eight American children do not have health insurance, and a majority of our nation’s fourth graders cannot read and do math proficiently. Nearly 12 million American children are poor, 1.2 million are homeless on any given night, and 7 million are home alone or without adult supervision after school. Child homelessness is increasing as the rates of adult unemployment surge. These conditions place youth at high risk for serious mental health, behavioral, and physical problems and have important implications for children’s intellectual and emotional development.


Physical Development

Whereas adolescence precipitates enormous changes in physical development (see entry Adolescence in this volume), middle childhood represents slow but regular change. Girls and boys appear similar in weight and height during childhood, although girls begin to mature before boys. There is wide variation in height and weight during this period, but the brain is virtually fully developed. Losing baby teeth is a significant developmental milestone. As their bodies grow in strength and size, children develop better balance and coordination and new motor skills. Research indicates that physical acuity develops at similar rates among boys and girls during middle childhood, but boys begin to excel girls during adolescence.

Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget studied children’s mental processes, including their ways of perceiving, remembering, believing, and reasoning. Piaget observed that children progress through a series of stages in their ability to process mental phenomenon. Children between 6 and 12 years of age begin to use symbols (mental images, words, gestures) in sophisticated ways to represent objects and events. For example, they are able to perform mental operations (e.g., simple math), but have difficulty anticipating or considering alternatives. Children at this age can experiment with an idea, observe the results, and then experiment again until they get it right. They can classify objects according to a characteristic like size or color, and they develop skills of conservation or the knowledge that objects or amounts remain the same even if their physical appearance is rearranged. By age 7, children’s language becomes less egocentric and more socialized. Children begin to use communication to exchange information and engage in conversation. Their use of communication reflects concern for the listener’s needs by considering intentions rather than merely external stimuli.

It is widely recognized that cognitive functioning is influenced by many factors, including individual differences, culture, and the context in which children live. This is perhaps best understood in the study of social cognition, or the ways children understand, interpret, and respond to their social worlds. The social context and life experiences vary among children, and recent research has determined that youth process information differently and respond uniquely to external stimuli. For example, aggressive children have been found to interpret ambiguous social cues in a hostile manner and thereby react aggressively, whereas nonaggressive children tend to have more benign reactions to such situations. Thus, cognitive development is a multidimensional and complex process that depends on social environment, unique predispositions, and life experiences.
Socioemotional Development

Children’s socioemotional development has been the subject of considerable discussion and theoretical writing. Individually centered theories propose that a child’s personality develops through the resolution of crises or issues at different developmental stages. As the child confronts and masters the crisis, he or she is able to move to the next developmental stage. By all accounts, school is a central influence during middle childhood. Social interactions increasingly revolve around classmates and peers, even though parents continue to be a critical force in children’s development. The ability to function in school is one of the major factors that determine youths’ quality of life.

Some models of personality development are based on Western values and support increased autonomy and separation from the family as markers of successful personality growth. These may not apply to children from diverse cultural backgrounds. Contextual models, on the other hand, suggest that personality is shaped by individual temperament as well as interactions with parents, peers, schools, communities, culture, and society. The latter theories underscore the importance of interpersonal factors and contextual influences (e.g., exposure to crime and poverty, media messages, cultural beliefs) on personality development. Compared to youth further along the developmental continuum, younger children are in the unique position of discovering their world according to restrictions set by their caregivers. Unlike adolescents, children make few independent decisions. They are unable to function alone in the larger society because their abilities to understand and interpret information are not yet fully developed. In this way, parents serve as “gatekeepers” assuming responsibility for shaping the interactions and experiences of their children according to their own biases, culture, social status, and perceptions. Taken together, these experiences lay the foundation for future development.

Moral Development

Theories of moral development have evolved over the years. Jean Piaget proposed that morality developed through a sequence of invariant stages according to children’s cognitive abilities. He argued that earlier stages form the foundation for later ones, and for young children, rules are unalterable, must be obeyed, and are judged solely in terms of their consequences. As children age, however, they are able to view rules more flexibly and understand that they are established and maintained through reciprocal social agreement. Children begin to recognize that intentions are an important factor when judging a behavior as right or wrong. Inspired by Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg defined morality by an individual’s sense of justice. Greater rationality and attention to the “law” was viewed as more advanced moral thinking. In 1982, Carol Gilligan challenged this definition of morality and argued that consideration of others and interpersonal relationships are important factors in moral decision-making. Gilligan observed that girls scored lower than boys on Kohlberg’s stage theory, because they focused on maintaining relationships and caring about others when making moral judgments. Gilligan also noted that women’s moral choices reflected a concern for the welfare of others, whereas men’s moral imperative was to respect rights and protect the rights to life and self-fulfillment. She redefined morality as consisting of two parts, a “morality of care” and a “morality of justice.” There has been considerable debate about gender differences in moral thinking, but it is likely that the most advanced moral decision-making combines a concern for others and attention to justice.

Risk and Resilience

Many factors influence children’s developmental trajectories. Risk factors increase the possibility of maladjustment while protective factors prevent negative outcomes despite the presence of risk. Children are more vulnerable to certain risk factors at particular periods of development. For instance, peer pressure is more salient during adolescence than early childhood, and exposure to alcohol during the first trimester of pregnancy is more dangerous than exposure during the third trimester. As the number of risk factors increase, the likelihood of negative outcomes is greater (e.g., risky sexual behavior, crime, mental health problems). Despite exposure to risk factors, many children are resilient. Several protective factors predict childhood resilience in the face of risk, including greater intelligence and higher self-esteem; parental warmth, support, and firm control; the presence of a supportive adult; value on achievement; and strong community ties.


Despite the Bush administration’s assertion that no child should be left behind, the nation’s children continue to experience considerable adversity including poverty, abuse and neglect, homelessness, absence of health insurance, exposure to crime and violence, and poor reading and math skills. U.S. children of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, low birthweight, early mortality, and the absence of prenatal care. These experiences strongly influence children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development, and determine successful passage into adulthood. Nonetheless, important initiatives have been implemented to improve the lives of young children and families, such as low-cost health clinics, early head start programs, and greater attention to important health issues like nutrition and obesity. Since 1973, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has successfully led the charge to educate the nation about the needs of children, identify important directions for prevention, and advocate for improved access to care. Through ongoing advocacy, research, and technological assistance, we will ensure that no child is left behind.

See Also: Adolescence, Peer relationships

Suggested Reading

  • Children’s Defense Fund. (2003, July). Broken promises: How the Bush administration is failing. America’s Poorest Children.
  • Erwin, P. (1993). Friendship and peer relations in children. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, P. A. (1993). Theories of developmental psychology. New York: W.H. Freeman.
  • Singer, D. G., & Revenson, T. A. (1997). A Piaget primer: How a child thinks. Madison, WI: International Universities Press.
  • Sroufe, L. A. (1996). Emotional development: The organization of emotional life in the early years. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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