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December 2011

Child Development Series

Your Expansive, Energetic Eight-Year-Old

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

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 determine if any special interventions are necessary.

“Mom, can Matt sleep over this weekend? No, wait, can I go to Matt’s house for a sleepover?” With an 8-year-old in the family, you either have extra 8-year-olds or no 8-year-olds. They are each other’s nearly constant companions.

Friends

An 8-year-old’s world is his friends. His life is wrapped around his social contact—through school, the neighborhood and after-school activities. As when he was 4, he does best with a steady bunch of friends so they can do the same things over and over, learning to play off each other’s moods and personalities. At 8, they may still enjoy make believe—with puppets, dolls or action figures, or with simple costumes and props. If you’re lucky, you get to be the audience for a performance. Fairy tales, television shows, movies and each other’s imaginations serve as inspiration for their dramas. Your 8-year-old needs a friend or two or three to play board games and age-appropriate video games, partly so they can argue about the rules. With a small group, they can play classic outdoor games such as hopscotch and kickball, and all the many variations of tag. Legos are still popular with this age and can consume hours of playtime with a good friend. There are always new toys on the market, and you can be sure that friends keep each other up to date. Some, like Pokeman and Bakugan cards, are designed to encourage trading. If you don’t yet know what a Beyblade is, ask your 8-year-old.

Enemies and Allies

Friendships can also spark enemies. “Let’s not like him,” can be a strategy to cement a common bond against a child who is socially inept. Eight-year-olds are very critical, looking for the weaknesses among their peers. Meanness, ironically, is a trait they will cite as a reason to ostracize someone. “Clique” behavior, as with 4-year-olds, can include not only leaving someone out, but telling them why they don’t measure up. Teasing, name-calling and bragging are the weapons of choice. We all know it’s not true that “words will never hurt you.” If you discover your child is among the teasers, you can help sensitize him to the perspective of the victim. You may also discover he himself is being teased. The silver lining here is that the experience may make him less likely to victimize someone else. You can try to inoculate your child against the stings of verbal aggression with all the tactics that keep self-esteem high. Give him lots of opportunities for success by supporting homework time, by helping him cultivate at least one hobby and by holding him responsible for his portion of the household chores. And keep your eyes and ears open for signs he is struggling with his social standing. Talk with other adults who may know more about what’s going on or who have the ability to manipulate who sits next to whom on a field trip. Adult alliances can discreetly minimize hurtful social behavior.

Family Friction

Social struggles go on at home, too. In fact, an 8-year-old is generally not happy to be part of a family. He challenges parental authority just like a 4-year-old. And, like a 4-year-old, he needs calm, consistent limits to be set and enforced. Since he will frequently be at friends’ homes for meals, this is a good time to set and enforce proper table manners. He’s more likely to cooperate if you frame your lessons around his being a welcome guest elsewhere.

Whereas last year he would plead to go along on an errand with you, now he’ll only go if his friend can come, too. Why not? They’ll amuse each other, and you might pick up on the goings on at school since they seem to think sound does not travel from the back seat to the front seat of the car. Interestingly, your 8-year-old will probably behave nicely for you on these outings since he is “on display” for his friend. At this age of boastfulness, he wants to appear to have a relationship with his parents that others would envy.

For sibling harmony at home, you may need rules about not invading occupied territory. Whether they are playing in the backyard, the basement or the family room, a good rule is that the 8-year-old and his friend(s) can choose to invite the sibling in or not. To keep the peace, the “by invitation only” rule applies to all the siblings. Help them negotiate a schedule if it seems that one sibling isn’t being fair about vacating the area or allowing a brother or sister to join them.

Expansive and Energetic

There is usually a minor growth spurt going on this year, just ahead of adolescence, so don’t be alarmed by his appetite and weekend sleep catch ups. You should also see an accompanying burst of energy that needs appropriate outlets. Organized activities, such as scouts, sports or the arts, will allow him regular opportunities to use muscles and gain skills. But sweet freedom is also an outlet for his energy. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where children can be out on their own—by bicycle or on foot—he will delight in proving his independence from you. It’s ideal if a playground or other hot spot to hang out with friends is nearby. Public libraries are great destinations for well-behaved 8-year-olds to test their wings of liberty. He should, of course, be instructed on how to cross streets, be well-practiced in using his bike and helmet properly and be trained to call you if he goes to a friend’s house. You must know where he is at all times. Clearly set the boundaries for how far he is allowed to go and when he must be home. This is also the age when most children can be trusted to be home alone. Start small—a nearby errand while he’s engrossed in a movie—after a review of what he can and cannot do in your absence and how to contact help if he needs it, and build up or cut back accordingly. “No friends allowed when no adult is home” is a good rule. (See below for reasons not to leave two 8-year-olds home alone!) As long as he proves how responsible he can be, he can enjoy the privileges that go along with responsibility.

Playing with Fire

When you are living life to please and be pleased by your friends, there are risks. Somehow when you are out of sight of adults, all your friend’s ideas seem like good ones. Even when they’re not. Alcohol, cigarettes and inhalants can tempt adventurous 8-year-olds, especially when there’s a friend to impress. So be forewarned; have those tough talks and monitor your own behavior and your hazardous materials. Matches, lighters or a carefully angled magnifying glass can beckon the daring 8-year-old to the brink of disaster. “We just wanted to see what it would do,” a remorseful child might admit after a fire gets out of hand. “We were always able to put out the fires before,” my son’s friend told me after their fun turned to fright. Fortunately, my husband happened upon the two boys madly trying to stomp out flaming two-by-fours in front of our new house under construction. The new house was just a few blocks from our old house—within his privileged area—and checking on its progress was something we all enjoyed. Good thing for the boys that Daddy decided to stop by on his way home from work that day. Bicycle privileges, however, were curtailed as a result of the dangerous behavior.

I’ve been told of other 8-year-olds’ experimentations with fire. My cousin’s son was with his friend in the woods behind the house when his father smelled smoke while walking the dog. My neighbor’s 8-year-old brother knew he didn’t want to get caught playing with the matches he had found, so he ended up burning some of the clothes in her closet. In fact, this errant behavior is mentioned in the movie Back to the Futurewhen Marty leaves his parents in the past at their high school dance to return to the present, and he suggests “If you guys ever have kids, and one of them when he’s 8-years-old accidentally sets fire to the living room rug, go easy on him.”

If you haven’t reviewed fire safety in a while, now is a really good time.


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.