A note about child development: The purpose of this series is to help parents and caregivers recognize normal stages and to provide age-appropriate activities, nurturing, and guidance.  Each child is unique.  Rates of development can differ widely among normally developing children, and each child can have “fast” or “slow” rates of development in different areas and at different times.  These descriptions are merely based on typical behaviors for the age.  If your child is not exhibiting “normal” developmental behaviors, there is no cause for alarm.   However, discussion with a development specialist can help you to determine if any special interventions are necessary.

You have a typically developing 11-year-old if you have conversations like these: “Hey, Mom, I thought you were just getting eggs and bread.  How come you came out with a whole bag of groceries?” “Well, oranges were on sale and I remembered we were low on margarine.”  “Hey, Dad, you should’ve turned back there.  This way there’s a really long red light.” “Thanks, son, but I’ll handle the driving for now.”

It may seem as if you have to justify and defend every action.  And to whom?  What vast life experiences have earned this critic the right to pick apart your decisions? 

Piaget recognized age 11 as the beginning of formal operational thinking. Your child is now able to reason with more adult-like logic, less dependent on concrete examples.  Up until now, he could best understand if he was able to relate ideas to a real experience.

Brain Power Boost

French psychologist Jean Piaget recognized age 11 as the beginning of formal operational thinking. Your child is now able to reason with more adult-like logic, less dependent on concrete examples.  Up until now, he could best understand if he was able to relate ideas to a real experience.  Take shoreline erosion for example.  As a younger child, he could best grasp this concept if he had actually observed such a condition, maybe on a class field trip.  Now he wants to understand decisions about grocery shopping and driving although they have not been a direct part of his personal experience.  School curriculum for this age corresponds with less-tangible subjects such as the solar system, American history and algebra, to challenge his mind to consider new ideas and to question old ideas.  So it’s no wonder he questions adults—even with an attitude that may at times seem disrespectful.  Try to see it as inquisitiveness, as he develops his new cognitive abilities. It may help to know that he is as surprised as you that he could be so bold.

Along with a new capacity to consider that which he has not experienced, he is absorbing new vocabulary through various media and conversation. You can expect an increase of 4,000 to 5,000 new words this year, so don’t hold back as you explain yourself.

Budding Bodies

There is wide variation among children the same age for the inevitable transition from childhood to adulthood.  A growth spurt is common at age 11, with accompanying appetite and energy.  Growth requires more sleep, although if adolescence is beginning, he will stay up later and if necessary, catch up with a few extra hours of sleep on weekends.  Having a friend stay over is guaranteed to keep him up until all hours of the night, gaming, snacking and snickering about romances in their social circle.  He may be eagerly watching for secondary sex characteristics—facial hair, voice changes—or he may be embarrassed to be ahead of or behind his friends.  Please make sure he has good information about what to expect so that nocturnal emissions and daytime erections don’t make him think something is wrong with him.  Likewise, girls can experience breast budding by this age and some will start menstrual periods, which are usually very irregular at first.  The cruelest trick of Mother Nature is the total unpredictability of it all.  It may be that two former bosom buddies develop at different rates and to different degrees, which may cause the end of a friendship.  Tweens are most comfortable around others who are at a similar level of maturity, physically and otherwise.  Emotional roller coasters are tough to withstand in a friendship if you don’t have rushes of hormones flooding erratically through you, too.

Socially Speaking

Friends, of course, are very important.  Through friends you get tips on fashion, music and who you might risk asking for a phone number.  Friends challenge you to go beyond your comfort zone.  Risk-taking behavior can sometimes get friends in trouble, though.  My personal disaster involved two friends who “bet” each other they could easily sneak me into their neighborhood pool without a guest pass.  At the time, participating in this dare seemed like a good way to prove I was a true friend.  Unfortunately, the first attempt nearly got my friend’s family membership revoked.  I could hardly face his parents for months.  Needless to say, the second attempt never happened. 

Speaking of parents, an 11-year-old is embarrassed that he has them.  Try not to “mother” him in front of his peers.  He’ll appreciate your keeping a distance in public, as bizarre as that may seem to you. (You had to drive him to the mall, so why does he pretend you didn’t?)  He still needs parenting, of course, but he’s wrestling with his self-image and is stressed about his public image, and your image may not jibe with whatever impossible standards he is reaching for at the moment.

Self-Loathing

As awkward and icky as the 11-year-old can be, he is most unappealing to himself.  You may observe him bickering with a friend or provoking a sibling to tears.  This can be a symptom of his low self-esteem.  Try to be aware of his ultra-sensitivity and clear the air with a pleasant distraction.  No point bringing any more attention to his faults.  He sees them clearly enough.  Engage everyone in a cooking activity or get them outside with a ball—anything that he can do without risk of criticism, including self-criticism. Emotions can hit him pretty hard, so the best tactic is to smooth things over as quickly as possible and move on.  He is painfully aware of his emotional state, just not very good at analyzing causes and coming up with cures.  Planning, organization and goal setting are brain functions not well-developed until adulthood. 

Shifting Gears

The tween years are for letting go of childhood.  As he vacillates between trying to act maturely and falling gracelessly into immaturity, you may wonder how to respond.  It's not an easy transition for either of you.  He wants your help, but he resists it.  He wants to hear your reasoning, then he tells you that your thinking is behind the times.  He says you treat him like a baby, then he throws an infantile tantrum.  He wants to be taken seriously, then he commits a serious infraction. 

Clear rules and consistently enforced consequences are as important as ever.  Although more privileges can be extended, he may lose them temporarily when he slips up.  For example, if instead of cleaning out the litter in the hamster cage he just sprinkles a layer of clean litter on top, tell him the job will have to be done correctly before he can go on with his day.  Then check until it is.  He must still keep you informed as to where he is and who he is with at all times (this continues through high school!).  Many parents find that cell phones—with calling limits— assist with staying in contact.  Otherwise, he must ask to use a phone wherever he is if his plans with friends have changed, as they often do.

As you debate rules and consequences, he needs to hear your reasons.  Behind every reason, you have his best interest at heart.  Peer pressure will only get more powerful—and more dangerous—in the coming years.  There will be times ahead when, in his own best interest, he will follow your reasoning to make decisions contrary to the peer group.  For now, continue to enforce the rule of adequate adult supervision, and do your part to establish and rely on a trusted network of other parents.  

Other adults play a key role for children moving toward adolescence.  Your child may find a confidante or mentor in his scout leader, a teacher or a friend’s parent.  The nonrelated adult who chooses to bond with a child helps him get honest and helpful feedback about himself.

Just the same, he may be ready to drop an extracurricular activity because it just doesn’t suit him anymore. 

Your 11-year-old is on his way to becoming himself and, though he can’t yet know all that will include, he’s getting more sure of what it does not. 


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.