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October 2011

Child Development Series

Your Six-Year-Old

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

If you’re looking for a challenging adversary with whom you can match wits, dare to go up against a 6-year-old.


With six years of life experience under his belt, he has plenty to talk about and argue about. His self-confidence has been earned. He has probably mastered many of the appliances around the house—microwaving his own popcorn and managing the video and game systems independently, and he can take care of most of his grooming and dressing ... when he wants to. His growing attention span and thirst for new experiences make him an eager participant in family excursions to the zoo, hands-on museums, children’s theater, parks, and playgrounds. His burgeoning knowledge about the world makes him the expert on any related subject. In addition to all the information he is accumulating, he is unlocking the power of the written word. The hundred billion neurons he was born with have been stimulated with experiences and thoughts forming pathways for physical skills, memory, logic, imagination, and language. The neuronal pathways get thicker each time he uses them. In fact, his brain is now about 90 to 95 percent of its adult size. Full of confidence in himself, he interjects his first-hand expertise into any conversation, even with adults. But match him up against another 6-year-old, and they may lock horns over who is right.

First, Best, Always Right

Competition should be kept to a minimum for a 6-year-old. He is ever striving to perfect himself, is paying close attention to others’ abilities and is painfully aware that they are assessing his. Even “line leaders” can create bad feelings among all the line followers. At age 6, he does not suffer defeat gracefully, and playing with another child often erupts with arguments about rules and cheating. An obliging adult can play two-player games with a 6-year-old knowing that the child needs to win most of the time. He’s ready to learn the rules of such games as checkers, Uno, War, Candyland and Chutes and Ladders, but he's not quite ready to lose. Maybe next year.

“It’s not fair” usually means “I didn’t win.” It is still hard for him to take another’s point of view, so naturally he can only take his own side in any conflict.

One easy way to look and feel better than someone else is to tattle. Adults can discourage tattling by not rewarding it with attention to either child. To prevent it, give the would-be tattler lots of opportunities to experience being first, best and right. If he continues to come to you with negative reports, remind him that if no one is in danger, you don’t want to hear it. Give him tips for letting others know he doesn’t like what they are doing or to walk away. Closer supervision will also render tattling unnecessary.

Knock Knock

Even the humor a 6-year-old prefers puts him in the driver’s seat. First-grade lunchrooms are the breeding ground for endless rounds of Knock Knock jokes and their like. The whole point seems to be, “I know the punch line and you don’t.” One that came home with my children, three years apart, goes like this. “What’s your favorite animal?” (You respond, “Dog” or whatever.) “What’s your favorite color?” Followed by, “What’s your favorite number?” (You dutifully supply the information.) He says, “Ha, ha. You’re a blue dog with 27 legs.” The 6-year-old finds this hysterical.

I recall a similar verbal power play that went around the class toward the end of my kindergarten year. “Guess what?” the first child asks. “What?” asks the unwitting second child. “That’s what,” retorts the first child. This only works if the jokester can find someone who hasn’t heard the joke before and can make her fall into the trap.

As an adult, you can be a good sport and play along. Even if you’ve heard it 20 times before and you still don’t understand what’s so funny, you’re not going to have your feelings hurt. The two of you might enjoy adding to his comedic repertoire using the Internet or some juvenile joke books. Riddles with words that have two meanings are still popular: “What has four wheels and flies?” “A garbage truck!” Be sure to show him the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone. You can be a role model of how to use the material in a way that makes everyone—not just the jokester—laugh.

Best Friends

Friendships can really blossom at age 6. A friendship can start at school or an after-school activity, or if you’re lucky, right on the block. A “best friend” may fight with you, but you learn to work things out because play time is always better when you have each other. If you’re not so fortunate to have a buddy near enough for drop in play, a steady relationship may require the support of parents with cars to get friends together. With a friend, you can share favorite activities, jokes, fashion tips and gripes about parents or teachers. Friends help you feel wanted, fit in, and cope with adversity. A friend helps you enjoy your out-of-school time and also strengthens your social status at school. Research on bullying suggests that having at least one strong friendship with a schoolmate significantly cuts down the chances a child will be a victim.


While you might expect good behavior to continue to improve as your child matures, age 6 can be a moody one. You will see extremes of emotions; he is absolutely thrilled that his friend is coming over, then despondent that you expect him to clean his room before the guest arrives. Delirious excitement can swiftly turn into pouting defiance. With all the self-imposed pressures of being right all the time and having to interact with teachers’ demands and other moody 6-year-olds at school, he can easily become upset. His mood is more likely to be good if he’s had adequate sleep (about 10 hours), healthy choices for foods and ample exercise every day. A good friendship, challenging but not overwhelming schoolwork and a harmonious household will also contribute to his feeling contented.

When a bad mood strikes, respond with calm and consistent consequences. Sometimes, he may need to be left alone to calm down. Sometimes, he may need to miss an after-school activity. When necessary, protect younger children and pets from the cruelty of a cantankerous 6-year-old. We don’t want him to experience any satisfaction from intimidation.

Frequent and severe emotional displays require big-picture solutions. School could be the source of too much stress, prompting a conference with his teacher or guidance counselor. Learning disabilities are often discovered in first grade when seemingly bright children struggle with assignments. He may be having trouble socially. Work on skills to make and keep a suitable playmate. This may take several weeks of coaching him through the inevitable conflicts that happen when they play together. And look closely at your child’s family life. Positive individual attention from a special adult can lessen bad moods when you remind him of how much you enjoy just being with him. And with his sharp mind ever ready for discourse, some one-on-one time will satisfy you both.

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.