The In-Between Stage

Don’t be surprised if your child acts like she’s a toddler one minute and a teenager the next.

Seven-year-old Torri Sanders often seems caught between two worlds. “During one shopping trip she’ll beg for a skimpy top that’s way too grown-up for her and then ask for a Minnie Mouse costume like the one she wore for Halloween three years ago,” says her mother, Lisa, of Rixeyville, Virginia. “Or she’ll watch an episode of That’s So Raven on a Saturday afternoon and a few hours later she’ll pop in an old Dora the Explorer video. And while she’s perfected the eye roll, she still climbs into my lap for a snuggle and a story every night before bed.”

It’s not surprising that 6- to 8-year-olds find it tough to decide whether they’re big kids or little kids, says Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., a psychologist and coauthor of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting. “They feel torn between the comforts of the younger years and the excitement of feeling older, more independent and more capable.”

Children rely on the security of familiar activities to propel their development forward. “They take one step backwards and then launch themselves two steps ahead,” says Michelle Ascher Dunn, a psychoanalyst in New York City. This gives them the chance to regroup as they move into unfamiliar territory. Girls tend to return to their favorite old toys, books, and activities, while boys often boomerang to their first and most comforting safety zone: Mom.

Shirley Jump of Fort Wayne, Indiana, saw this firsthand when a new skateboard park opened in her town. “My 6-year-old son, Derek, wanted to be cool and do his tricks,” she recalls. “He barreled right in and got as far away from me as possible.” But Derek’s grown-up attitude didn’t last long. “The park was filled with older kids, and it took about three seconds before he realized they were big and fast. He got scared and ran into my arms. After that he made sure I was always in sight.”

While it’s difficult to deal with a child who acts like she’s 7 going on 3, it can be even harder to discourage one who’s 8 going on 14 from wanting to grow up too fast. “I’m usually more enthusiastic about the younger stuff,” admits Lisa Sanders. “I say no when Torri wants to experiment with makeup, but I play along when she acts out scenes with her dollhouse family.” Here are some ways to help your child balance her desire to be both old and young:

Provide Safe Opportunities to Be a Big Kid

When Antonio Michael Ferree insisted that he could cook for himself, his mother, Eliza, of Jacksonville, North Carolina, began letting him prepare sandwiches, eggs, and noodles with her supervision. “It makes him feel grown-up even though he still asks me to help him clean his room,” she says. “When parents calmly applaud their children for taking on responsibility, kids are reassured that they have the capability to move ahead,” Dr. Shiller says.

But Let Him Be a Little Kid When He Wants to Be

Don’t say, “You’re too old for that” if your child flips on Sesame Street after school, asks you to read a story to him before bed or wants to build with the blocks he got for his second birthday. If he thought he was too old for them, he wouldn’t play with them.

Check Your Own Attitude

Without even realizing it, parents can put a lot of pressure on their kids to grow up quickly. Although you may be thrilled that your third-grader can read on a fifth-grade level, try not to seem too delighted when she can handle sophisticated activities. It’s important to encourage intellectual growth, but just because she can read and understand the words in a young-adult novel doesn’t mean she’s ready for the book’s content.

Know What’s on the Screen

“Television exposes children to ideas that may not be appropriate for them to think about,” Dr. Shiller says. Change the channel if you think the current must-see show is too mature. And if you’re not sure whether something is appropriate, watch it yourself first and then make your decision.

Enjoy It While It Lasts

By the time your child is about 9, she won’t step back as frequently, Dunn says. She may still enjoy playing with dolls or watching cartoons, but the part of her that wants to grow up will start to win out–and you’ll wonder where your little kid went

Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the April 2005 issue of Parents magazine.