Reality Sets In Between Toddler And Teen Years

Guest

Natalie Angier, science columnist, New York Times. Read her piece, "The Hormone Surge Of Middle Childhood."

Middle childhood was often thought of as a developmental placeholder between toddler and teen years. But a special issue of Human Nature explains that's when children learn to reason, control impulses, understand and accept mortality and plan for the future, among other developmental milestones.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Parents know so-called middle childhood as the golden years, that relatively drama-free time between toddlerhood and puberty. It feels like a resting time, a breather between all the extreme physiological changes that children go through before and after.

But recent research shows it's actually a time of important advances in the brain. A recent special issue of the journal Human Nature explains children start to make sense of the world around them. They learn to reason, control impulses, understand and accept mortality and plan for the future, among other developmental milestones.

If you're a parent of a child between the ages of five and 12 or work with kids in that age range, what differences are you noticing? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, why patients want to see what doctors write on their charts, but first middle childhood. Natalie Angier is a science columnist for the New York Times, where her piece "The Hormone Surge of Middle Childhood" ran last month. She's with me here in Studio 3A. Thanks for coming in.

NATALIE ANGIER: I'm glad to be here.

LUDDEN: So one anthropologist describes middle childhood as the age when kids start making sense. What does this mean?

ANGIER: It means that until the age of five or so, kids live in the moment, and they're very goofy, and they laugh a lot, and they can't really focus. And all of a sudden, starting age five or six, they're able to think about what they're doing. They're able to plan for the future. They're able to take on responsibilities. It's a pretty dramatic shift in their cognitive capacity that is noticed around the world.

LUDDEN: It does seem that, you know, judging by the stack of parenting books I have at home and all, it's really toddler years and then teen years, and this seems to be kind of a neglected period. Why the new interest in the scientific community?

ANGIER: Well, it is actually neglected, and a number of the researchers I spoke with made that point, and that's why they're interested in it. They think it's an understudied area of development. And I think one of the reasons why it has been understudied is because it is relatively drama-free on the outside.

There aren't these hallmarks that are easily serving as markers. You don't have kind of the cute stage of toddlerhood. You don't have the secondary sexual characteristics and the events that bring on puberty. So it does seem to be a kind of holding pattern, but in fact it is not.

LUDDEN: So what are scientists finding?

ANGIER: Well, one thing that a number of researchers are looking at is this phenomenon called adrenarche or adrenarche, it has different pronunciations depending on who's saying it, but it's basically the maturation of the adrenal glands, which are on top of the kidneys.

And when the innermost layer of them mature, they start to send out this surge of hormones, notably DHEA, which is an androgen-like hormone, and that seems to be involved in a number of things that happen during middle childhood. It's involved in - I mean, on a sort of physiological level, it makes kids start to smell.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANGIER: You may notice this when your middle school kids, that all of a sudden they have body odor.

LUDDEN: Or late elementary school, yes, we've noticed.

ANGIER: And it actually seems to be involved in muscle maturation, and one of the things that happens in middle childhood is that kids lose that toddler unsteady gait. So they start to have a more adult-like gait. And then in the brain, it does seem to be - although the work is very preliminary - it does seem to be involved in the maturation of certain parts of the brain that hook up these social and emotional brains, in a way, so kids can start being part of a social scene.

They can start being part of their culture, which is another hallmark of middle childhood.

LUDDEN: Your article also noted that at this point, the brain is pretty much as big as it's going to be in adulthood. So what does that - what difference does that make?

ANGIER: So the brain is about, you know, 90, 95 percent fully grown, and a lot of the synapses have already been formed, but then there's the pruning that goes on in middle childhood, the great pruning, just fantastic amount of just cutting back and setting - establishing the connections that are going to work for the individual.

And what happens is the hormones of adrenarche seem to be involved in first of all the maturation of parts of the brain that are - you know, a lot of the brain actually at that point is slowing down its development, less sugar, glucose being used there, but in a couple parts of the brain, there seems to be an increase of sugar use, which suggests that these are the important parts of the brain, and these are the ones that are involved in social cognition, recognition of things like fairness.

And also these hormones help to - they're protective against a lot of - a lot of the things that happen, for example they're protective against oxidation, and they seem to help preserve what's going on so that you have the establishment of these links, and then you have this hormone that's helping to kind of set them. So that seems to be what the role of these adrenal hormones is.

LUDDEN: A lot going on in those - I guess they're not so little brains anymore. All right, middle childhood, let's get a caller on the line. Scott(ph) is in Tillamook, Oregon, hi there.

SCOTT: Hi, yeah, very interesting conversation. I happen to be on paternity leave with a brand new baby, and I'm not looking forward to the toddler years. So I'm also a fourth grade teacher.

LUDDEN: Ah, so you see what's coming ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCOTT: Yeah, and as a fourth grade teacher - many fourth grade teachers out there will agree with my sentiment in that we very much look forward to the beginning of our school year, when our students still act like third graders. And then in the - we lament the arrival of Valentine's Day.

LUDDEN: Oh no, I've got a fourth grader. I don't want to know what's going to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANGIER: What do you see?

SCOTT: Every year without exception, from (unintelligible) to the city of Detroit, to the rural areas, the international schools, no matter the socioeconomic level, in my experience, after Valentine's Day, the girls become catty, and the boys become obsessed with the girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Already?

SCOTT: Yeah.

LUDDEN: So this sounds like a preteen thing maybe you see in the classroom.

SCOTT: Luckily, yes, it's still innocent interest, and that's why I stick to fourth grade and not sixth grade.

LUDDEN: All right, Scott, thanks for calling in there.

SCOTT: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Natalie, what might be going on there?

ANGIER: Well, it's interesting that he mentions the girls becoming catty. And one of the hallmarks of middle childhood is that kids start playing in same-sex groups. So when they're toddlers, they tend not to care. So they'll play with girls or boys. And then starting in middle childhood, they become very sex-segregated, of their own choice, and they also establish dominance hierarchies.

And they're trying to feel their way in a social situation. So as babies and toddlers, they're kind of set apart from society, and middle childhood is their coming out, if you will. So you do start to see a lot of these social maneuvers and interactions because, of course social life is of primary importance to humans throughout their life, but especially while they're first getting their footage.

LUDDEN: And you've talked about a social connectedness. Do they see themselves in the larger group? Is that what happens?

ANGIER: Yes, they're actually able to contribute to their society, and in fact if you look at traditional culture around the world, what you do see happening is all of a sudden, these kids are considered to be, well, useful.

They're able to do work, and in many cultures, that's what they start doing at about middle childhood, and in this culture, of course, we decide that they're old enough for school. And so yes, it is the coming out, being part of society, being a contributing member of society, doing work, being useful.

LUDDEN: Let's get another caller, Jill(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina, hi there.

JILL: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I'm the mother of a six-year-old son, and we've been noticing that he is much more able to put his own will aside and participate in the family much better. He seems to understand now how his behavior affects the family as a whole, and even though he may initially not want to do something, he very quickly makes that decision.

You can see his mind working. He makes the decision to go along with what he's been asked to do. And it's a wonderful time, really, because we still are enjoying the wonderment that he has about learning things and discovering the world, but we don't have the emotional drama associated with toddlerhood. So it's really a lovely time.

ANGIER: Yes, one of the things that does happen in middle childhood is impulse control. Parts of the brain that allow kids to start controlling their immediate - whatever whimsy they may have, they're able to control that, they're able to plan for the future. They're able to consider how their actions might affect other people. That is very much a part of starting to make sense, and...

LUDDEN: And when you say plan for the future, do you mean assess consequences, if I do this, that will happen, or...

ANGIER: Yes, and in fact in a number of cultures, they're considered at that point, you start to know the difference between right and wrong so that you know you're not supposed to steal. You know you're not supposed to hit. You know all of these things, and for better worse, in some places that's considered the age when you can start getting punished for doing wrong.

And so yes, you're planning for the future, you're seeing the consequences of your actions. You have a whole new world view that you didn't have as a toddler.

LUDDEN: Jill, thanks so much for the call.

JILL: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Natalie Angier, you write another thing that middle children - children at this middle age can do, they can start to control their terror management, control fear.

ANGIER: That's right. Well, one of the things happens, kids usually learn about death, starting at around age two or three, and depending on how they're taught it and whether they have a religious component to their upbringing, that may be an important part of their terror management.

But when they hit middle childhood, they're able to conceive of themselves dying and not be totally freaked out by it.

LUDDEN: Oh not just their parents, but they realize they will eventually die?

ANGIER: They realize that they will eventually die, and at a younger age, it can lead to just a strong sense of, you know, just undifferentiated panic. But in middle childhood, they manage to start controlling that, this terror management, which is a hallmark of the human species that allows us knowing that we're going to die to still get up in the morning and do things.

LUDDEN: We're talking about middle childhood. We'll have more in a moment. If you're the parent of a child between the ages of five and 12, or if you work with kids in that age range, call us and tell us what differences you're noticing. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. We're talking about what's known as middle childhood, a period, as one researcher put it, when kids start making sense. Their brains, between the toddler years and the teens, are fully grown and ready to learn. It's also an age science is still trying to fully understand.

Natalie Angier wrote about this in a New York Times article called "The Hormone Surge of Middle Childhood." She's a science columnist at the paper. If you're a parent of a child between the ages of five and 12, or you work with kids in that age range, what differences are you noticing? Our number is 800-989-8255. Or you can email us at talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's take another call from Seth in Madisonville, Kentucky. Hello.

SETH: Good afternoon from the Bluegrass State. My wife and I, we have an eight-year-old daughter, a two-year-old daughter and a three-week-old son.

LUDDEN: Congratulations.

SETH: Thank you very much. Our eight-year-old daughter, she is extremely bright, and it's amazing to see her progress through life and be able to grasp, you know, complex ideas of social interaction, the family dynamic, and you can see that she has a grasp of right and wrong.

On the mortality issue, she understands and accepts death. I mean, last week, our hamster died, and her explanation to the two-year-old was our hamster died.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SETH: She has accepted it as that's it, you know, let's not get bent out of shape about it. It's going to happen in life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SETH: We're very proud of her. But it seems like simple tasks, daily tasks, they just do not register with her, you know, as far as the steps that you take in getting ready to go to school, or if - once you get to school, forgetting, you know, homework or backpacks or coats, and those things.

LUDDEN: Those things that you tell her to do every single day, every year after year. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SETH: But at this point, I watch it, and I'm not upset with her. It's just that I see in - I can see in her eyes that these things just are not registering, yet I can also see in her eyes that she's concerned with more - it's like she's seeing a big picture. It's almost like her mind's going a million miles an hour. I was wondering if this was common, and if this has something to do with the age that she's at in life and her progression.

LUDDEN: Natalie Angier.

ANGIER: Well, it's interesting you should mention that. Now, in a lot of traditional cultures, kids of this age actually do a whole lot of work. They really are working. They're doing animal herding. They're doing horticulture. They're doing childcare. A majority of childcare in this world is actually performed by girls of middle-childhood age.

So there - in a lot of cultures, there's work expected. In our culture, I think kids grasp that the most important thing for them is learning, that we place such a high value on that, that that's what they tend to focus on. And also they recognize that a lot of their life is going to be spent interacting with their peers, and that this is another domain they have to master.

So I think that our personal emphasis on learning, school, friends is why they see regular tasks that in other cultures are just assumed to be part of - that's part of your life. You've got to do it. In this culture, they say that is not actually my important job. My job is what's valued, and that is learning and social interaction.

LUDDEN: But you've written that, you know, as their abilities increase, parental expectations do, as well. And, I don't know, maybe Seth, maybe you feel the same. You know, you come out of the toddler years, and you think, OK. You should be able to do X, Y and Z every morning - since I've told you about it for years now - without my reminding you. But not necessarily?

ANGIER: Well, you know, it's interesting. One of the researchers I spoke to said that we overindulge our toddlers to a degree not seen anywhere else in the world, and that this actually sets up the expectation that kind of spills over into later youth of chores, and that if you want kids to do chores willingly, it actually does have to start earlier, when you're just having them always doing, contributing chores, even if it means that you have to actually do a lot of it because they're incapable as toddlers.

And that by the time you get to middle childhood, it's harder to start establishing those rules. But because in our culture we do - most of the expectations that we set for our kids, whether consciously or otherwise, tend to be more about school and social life. They actually pull through on that a lot better than kids in other cultures do.

LUDDEN: All right, Seth, maybe you can start a new regime there with the two-year-old and the three-week-old.

ANGIER: That's right. Now's the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Thanks for calling, Seth.

SETH: Thank you very much for having me.

LUDDEN: Let's take another call. Charlotte is - sorry. Virginia is in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi there.

VIRGINIA: Hi, how are you this afternoon?

LUDDEN: Good.

VIRGINIA: Good. Thank you for taking my call. I teach kindergarten. I'm going on my 10th year of teaching kindergarten. And I have - my classroom is set up with being respectful, being responsible and being safe. And my students really do understand those three dynamics.

And coming back after Christmas break, they are even more willing to help each other out, and just they've grown so much. And you're really amazed when you come into the classroom at how much they really do know about what's going on around them.

They will call each other out if someone calls a friend a name. They will be - you know, please be respectful and do not call the friend the name. And it's just - it's really interesting, if you're not aware of how much goes on in their little brains at that age. You do definitely see a lot of it.

ANGIER: Yeah, this is absolutely true. They are amazing. They are just learning machines. They are soaking it all in and incorporating it at a rate that is incomprehensible. And that's what they're - you know, we're sort of, in some ways a self-booting program, and a lot of this learning just happens because kids are so immersed in it and observant, and they're learning from each other.

One of the things that's been an interesting aspect of looking at this cross-culturally is how little actual teaching goes on. In traditional cultures, a lot of learning happens through the kids just being immersed in whatever it is they're doing.

So they are designed to just be able to kind of self-teach and to just be part of what's going on and mastering it in a day, in some cases.

LUDDEN: Virginia, thanks for the...

VIRGINIA: They are - and another thing that I also have in my classroom is we have a mission statement, why we are there and why we are in kindergarten, and they've all signed it. And, you know, they helped me come up with it, of course. But they understand that we're in kindergarten to get ready for the first grade.

We are there to care and share and be respectful and responsible and safe with each other. And I will hear them tell each other during (unintelligible) if somebody's not making a good choice, you know you're here to get ready for the first grade. You'd better be respectful. It's really fascinating in the kindergarten room. Thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Thanks, Virginia. Natalie Angier, you say this is a time when children's brain is at its peak for learning. Why is that? What's happening?

ANGIER: Well, what seems to be going on is because most of the brain is already in place, and so the synapses are there, and then it's a question of really kind of setting the patterns and emphasizing some and de-emphasizing others.

And so this is a kind of optimal time for learning, because the brain is all there. All the pieces are there, and it's still at its most almost liquid phase in its ability to set up connections and to make connections so that that's why it is that kids at this age can learn practically anything.

And then as you get older, of course, the options start to decrease because, in a very physical sense, the brain starts to harden. So this is an age when the brain is at its maximum size and its maximum flexibility, and so it is really prime to just absorb what it needs to know and synthesize and collate and do everything that it needs to do to...

LUDDEN: So sign them up now for piano, guitar, sports.

ANGIER: Anything that - you know, one of the other things that does seem to be the case is that it really helps if kids are passionate about something. So all the experts I talked to said make sure that the kid has something they care about. Don't just let the kid coast. Don't just let them kind of watch TV or play - find - they have to find something that they care about, and that that will help them to sort of expand in all the other areas. That seems to be the rule for kids around the world.

LUDDEN: All right, let's take a call. Nick is in Duluth, Minnesota. Welcome to the program.

NICK: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

NICK: Hello?

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

NICK: I work as a recess monitor for a K-through-eight school, and I see the changes from year to year and every year from all these different kids, like, all the time. One thing that I could say is as they get older, there's a lot less whining that goes down. But I think that happens to fall in as more routine that's given and the more, like, options and choices that we give.

Like, the example that I was giving earlier to the person who screened the call is I said I had this kid that was on the wall - because we have two choices. You've got to sit on the wall, or you can go to the principal's office when you put your hands on somebody or you're being disrespectful.

And this kid was sitting on the wall already. And I was, like, hey, buddy. What are you doing on the wall? And he was like, well, I was going to do something bad, so I thought I would just come down and sit myself down and have thinking time for five minutes.

LUDDEN: Oh, my goodness.

NICK: And he's just a kindergartener.

LUDDEN: Wow.

NICK: And I was sitting here, I'm like, OK. You're doing all right, man. That sounds good. You do what you got to do. And so he made that decision for himself already. And I'm like a question I had is - I was going to ask if - your guest - do you think the social technology that we have as advanced has hurt the way of the developing of a child? Could you see, like, we take away electronics as well, because we don't let them have in that school, cell phones or anything, just because it's a distraction for them, you know?

LUDDEN: Interesting.

NICK: And I'll take that off the air. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thanks, Nick.

ANGIER: Yes, actually a lot of the people I spoke to do things, you know, if there's one thing you can do, it's to turn off all the devices. They actually see these as being interfering with establishing these kind of social connections because almost all learning that happens happens in a social context, and that's what we're designed to be, very, very social. So kids learn from each other. They learn the rules of games from each other. They - so interacting with each other and not just looking at, you know, glowing blue rectangle, I think, is an excellent idea.

LUDDEN: Have you seen - I'm putting you on the spot here, but have you seen any science that looks at what all these - the screen time does with this hormonal process that's going on in the brain?

ANGIER: You know, this is an excellent question and they're interested in that. And we don't know yet, and it's a difficult - these are difficult studies to do because they just started being able to do some of these sort of brain scans on kids. And so, you know, there's been, I think, an understandable concern about putting kids through some of these machines. But now, it's been shown to be safe, so they're just starting to do those sorts of studies, to see what actually is going on, how much time you spend watching these, you know, whether it's an iPhone or a TV. How that may be affecting brain development is something that they're just starting to do those kind of studies on.

LUDDEN: All right. Chris is in St. Paul, Minnesota. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRIS: Hi. How are you today?

LUDDEN: Good.

CHRIS: Good. I was calling up, just following - well, first of all, you were just talking about the hormones that are going on and also following up with the fourth grade teacher that called about how at the beginning of the school year, the end of school year is a huge difference in kids. And my son has a summer birthday, and we kept him - we actually kept him back so that he would be the oldest in his class. He's a third grader right now, and he's had a really hard year this year. He's been having hard time going to school. He's been - he's the biggest kid in his class. He's starting to really change and like get that body odor thing. And I was just wondering - my question is, is what are your thoughts on, you know, those summer birthday kids, where they're at, like, where, you know, should the boys be held back. You know, that's a big thing that we heard is that boys being held back and they don't mature fast. And because we've had - we've been struggling all year with him at this age. And it's (unintelligible) before, but this year, it's really been a struggle for him. So...

LUDDEN: All right. Thanks, Chris. And let me just note that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So, Natalie Angier, more anxiety there in school.

ANGIER: Well, it is true that boys do mature more slowly than girls do, and it seems to happen on the brain level as well as physically and anatomically. Summer birthdays, I'm not aware of anything that's been looked at on this score. But I do think that if the kid is having troubles - to the extent that you can get them involved in a social group, that seems to be the cure too a lot of problems, to have them involved with a sport, have them involved with, you know, playing in a band, anything to have him interacting with other kids. That this seems to be the way in which kids really can pull out of themselves. And so I think, to the extent that can be done.

LUDDEN: All right, Chris...

CHRIS: He started at a new school this year, so that was one of the big...

ANGIER: Yeah, that's hard.

CHRIS: ...issues, you know, is getting him into those new social groups and getting to meet kids. And, you know, he's been clinging on - not clinging, but he's been focusing on his friends from his other school. So, you know, it's difficult and...

LUDDEN: Well, Chris, good luck and thank you so much.

CHRIS: All right. Take care. Bye-bye.

LUDDEN: I think we can set one more call in. We have another Chris(ph) in Boise, Idaho. Hi there.

CHRIS: Hello. First-time caller.

LUDDEN: Welcome.

CHRIS: OK. I've been listening for a long time. I have an 8-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, and they seem to mirror each other quite a bit. I know our 4-year-old, he tries to be, you know, more grown up like his sister, and she kind of, you know, we have noticed the huge changes. She's taken a lot more pride in her work at school and reacting with the other kids a lot better. My question was what - where's - where can I go to look up kind of like the patterning or the science behind this because this really interests me. I, you know, like I said, this is my first time call, so this is really keyed me in to wanting get some info on this.

ANGIER: Well, I would actually refer you to this issue of Human Nature, which is all - it's a special issue devoted to middle childhood and has a number of different articles in it. Really, it's a wealth of information. So I would refer you to that. If you go onto the Web and just - Human Nature and just look for that special issue devoted to middle childhood.

All right. Chris, thanks for the call.

CHRIS: All right. Thank you,

LUDDEN: We have an email here from Julie in Portland, Oregon, who asks, what does it mean if your child does not exhibit these middle child characteristics? Her youngest is six and a half. She says: As I listen to middle childhood being described, I realized my daughter seems more like a toddler in behavior, fears, in play. What might the cause of this be? And should a parent be worried?

ANGIER: Well, one of the things that's important is that development is not - it's not a fixed program and that it varies quite a bit. And if you talk to any of the experts that I spoke to, they'll all have a different age when they're sort of putting the bookends around middle childhood, and it can certainly be as late as seven or eight for a lot of kids before they really enter this age of making sense. So I don't think it's anything to worry about.

I do think that to the extent again, as I said, getting the kid into a social group and having them out in the world is perhaps the best thing for a lot of problems. And when kids become very inhibited and shy, these are things that can then kind of grow and then difficult to get a handle on later. So to the extent you can intervene and have them be part of a social group.

LUDDEN: All right. Natalie Angier is a science columnist for The New York Times. Her piece "The Hormone Surge of Middle Childhood" ran in The New York Times. You can find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Natalie joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks so much again.

ANGIER: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up: Should patients have access to the doctors' notes in their medical records? Most patients think so. Doctors, not so much. We'll talk about that, coming up. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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