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.


If she could pull a rabbit out a hat, a 9-year-old would.  Magic, manipulation and unpredictability are part of her mysterious package.

“Mind Readers” Exposed!

Up to this point, a child’s experiences have taught her that all the adults in her life seem to have an ESP with each other.  Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, friends’ parents, and babysitters have been, for the most part, a unified force.  As they shared information and made decisions about her in a seemingly seamless alliance with one another, she deduced that her well-being and good behavior was a priority for them all.  When, at age 6, her first loose tooth popped out of her mouth and into her breakfast, Dad was absolutely correct in predicting, “Your bus driver will be so excited when you tell her what happened!”  Likewise, it would have been futile for her to hope that a misdeed would not be found out.  If she messed up at school or at a friend’s house, there was absolute certainty that before she got home, her parents would know all about it.  And not only did the adults appear to have a psychic connection to each other, they could see her guilty conscience as plainly as they could see the nose on her face.

Around age 9, the official end of “early childhood,” the illusion of a common and all-knowing connection among her adults starts to crumble.  She starts to question how they come to know what they know, and—impressing herself more than anyone—she experiments with how to keep them from knowing.  She begins to master the fine art of flim flam.  She sees that, “Hey, if I turn my skirt around, Mom doesn’t notice the paint splotch from art class.”  She picks up on the notion that surface appearances can mask hidden flaws. Wow, if I want to make my room appear tidy, I just have to smooth out the blanket over my bed and shove everything else under it!”  She has a profound new awareness that “grown-ups don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads!”

Presto! A Headache!

After nine years of diligent research, she has learned which ailments are difficult to verify.  Whining about her tummy makes the grownups ponder, “What did you have for breakfast?  Maybe you shouldn’t drink milk.  I wonder if you’re catching the stomach flu.  When did you last use the bathroom?  Do you have pain in one spot or is it in different places?  Maybe I should call your teacher/mother/father.”  She’s been cataloging adult reactions to children’s symptoms such that she knows a few medical certainties.  A fever keeps you home no matter what (and is hard to fake).  Headaches and stomachaches, however, are good all-purpose diseases that could have unknown causes and hard-to-prove or disprove symptoms.  If she needs to get out of a chore or a school assignment, she can conjure up an illness for a pass.

Force her when she’s really sick? Or excuse her when there’s no excuse?  What’s a parent to do? 

Accept that malingering is a normal pattern for 9-year-olds.  In fairness, child development texts describe this year as one of intense self-reflection, coming to terms with faults and inadequacies.  She puts everything she has into being responsible one day, and can’t even try the next.  Sometimes it’s hard to pull herself out of the depths of self-reproach to rise to the challenge of really cleaning up her room or preparing a stellar school project.  If she occasionally feigns a malady and gets away with it, she will learn that if you call in sick the world will go on.  This is something overachievers struggle with.  Call it a “mental health day.”

Deception and Proof

A 9-year-old is testing out her rudimentary understanding of layers of truth, often in a good way.  She imagines what you know and what you need to know in order to persuade you to see things from her point of view.  You may argue,  “I’m not taking you to your friend’s house because you have unfinished homework.”  She will counter with logic designed to appeal to your side of the argument.  “If I finish all my homework, and show it to you, and it’s good, then can I go to my friend’s house?”  By 9, she should be included in more such negotiations—and be held responsible for her actions.  Assuming there is enough time for both well-done homework and a visit, it’s a deal.  The homework will be checked, critiqued and the evidence will either be in her favor or not. (Remember, she’s hip to those missing eyes in the back of your head, so be thorough with the ones you do have!)

Presenting a solid argument is good training for many future careers including research, sales, legal representation, and let’s face it, good parenting.  As you spar over what she needs to do and what she wants to do, help her to become a good debater: separate fact from opinion, respectfully concede the other side’s points, and always remember you are criticizing an idea not a person.  A debate can quickly dissolve into a squabble if “you always” and “you never” and other illegal jabs get thrown.  Help her stick to the issue and to use sound evidence.  She won’t always win you over, but you will help her improve her skills in negotiation and persuasion.  She’s learning to accept the consequences of her own actions; as in the case of a hastily made bed, she’s the one who has to lie in it.

In Secret

As she’s learning to work deftly around conflicts with adults, she’s also reaching deeper into friendships.  At 9, she may have fewer friends than last year, but she achieves a higher level of intimacy.  Deep secrets are revealed, trusts are held and dreams are shared.  Her rich inner world only lets in a few very close friends, and a “best” friend is a treasure indeed.  Sleepovers (however misnamed!) give two besties an ideal setting for lengthy discussions about whom they like and dislike and why, what they’re discovering they’re good at and not so good at and—that great mystery—their futures.

It’s fun for 9-year-old buddies to communicate in secret codes, such as Pig Latin, ubbi dubbi, or even Morse Code.  They also enjoy learning words and phrases in foreign languages or American Sign Language using online references or the public library.

True Mysteries

While you’re at the library, ask the librarian for a recommendation for a good mystery.  Books on magic tricks also hold appeal for this age.  For some 9-year-olds, an interest in science blossoms.  You can help her find books, websites and after-school groups to pursue an intrigue with rocketry, marine biology, computer programming, meterology, kitchen chemistry or animal husbandry.  There are so many marvels to uncover—including the discoveries she is making about herself.

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.