That cute baby boy whom you cuddled in your arms shortly after his birth has changed dramatically since then. Now, during his school-age years, here are some of the characteristics you may see in him.
All children engage in pretend play. However, the themes of this play tend to differ between the sexes. Boys may assume the role of a heroic character (perhaps one that they've seen on television), and engage in fantasy activities that involve righteous combat or danger. They may want to wear a Superman cape, put on a Batman costume, play with swords, or wrestle with playmates. They might pretend to be cowboys, soldiers, or policemen. Boys in the middle years are also drawn to toys that move; that's why they like to play with trucks and balls.
In general, boys need opportunities to express themselves physically. They are more prone to engage in roughhousing than girls. In nearly every culture that has been studied, boys are more aggressive than girls on the playground.
One study found that boys spend much of their playtime participating in games, the majority of which are competitive; in fact, during play, fourth- and fifth-grade boys engage in competitive games about fifty percent of the time, compared to one percent for girls. Boys are also very focused on the rules of the games they're playing, and often argue with playmates over them ("You broke the rules!"). Boys are typically allowed and sometimes encouraged to be assertive, outspoken and loud, and their excesses are dismissed with the explanation, "Boys will be boys." However, you should guide your son toward channeling his aggressiveness in constructive ways, including burning off energy in physical play rather than confrontation. Roughhousing and fighting, although common among boys in this age group, tend to decline during the later years of middle childhood.
Remember that although these gender-specific patterns are commonplace, individual differences can be strong and often supersede group identities.
Friends and Social Relationships
There are both similarities and differences in the way boys and girls form and nurture their friendships. In the middle years, same-sex playmates are more the rule than the exception for boys as well as girls (just as it was during the preschool years). Even in school settings where children have a wide choice of friends, they are about ten times as likely to play with youngsters of the same sex. On the playground, boys and girls tend to play apart. In school cafeterias, there appear to be unofficial "boys' tables" and "girls' tables."
Boys need a peer group in which they can be part of a group, where they can relax and yet feel powerful. They tend to choose friends who have interests similar to their own, perhaps a shared love of soccer or collecting baseball cards, while girls may look for friends with compatible personalities. Boys are likely to play outdoors with friends, and they tend to "run in a pack" of boys. Compared with girls, boys are less likely to have a "best friend."
Even in elementary school, teachers treat boys and girls differently. Academic expectations tend to be higher for boys; both teachers and often their own parents expect them to do better in school. Boys are called upon more frequently in class. They also get more of everything from the teacher—time, praise, and criticism.
Boys do better than girls with visual tasks, which is one reason why boys are attracted to video games. But boys are also more likely to have learning disabilities and problems with language. Even so, academic failure by boys is often attributed to external influences, while success is attributed to their abilities.
Emotional Development and Self-Esteem
Boys in the middle years tend to lag behind girls in many areas of emotional development. Because they may have been encouraged to "be tough," many boys have difficulty articulating their feelings, and thus they are inclined to express themselves physically. By the age of nine, in fact, many boys have learned to repress their feelings—except for anger. For example, research has found that in the first year or two after their parents divorce, boys tend to become more aggressive, a phenomenon not commonly seen among girls in divorced families. However, when pressed, an obviously troubled boy may say something like, "I don't know how I feel." And they honestly don't know! Boys of this age are adventurous and rambunctious, and generally not inclined toward introspection and talking about their feelings.
Although boys and girls in the middle years have very similar rates of mental health problems, boys are more likely to receive mental health services. That's generally because their symptoms—including aggressive and hyperactive behavior—are more often visible to their parents and other adults.
Boys need as much or more emotional support and guidance as girls. They need to have emotional opportunities to foster their awareness of feelings and their ability to express their needs. One of your tasks as a parent is to make sure that your son is prepared to meet the challenges of childhood and adulthood with a more well-rounded perspective than, "I can only react by being tough...by suppressing my feelings." Let him know that it's often appropriate to say things like, "This scares me," that he doesn't have to hide these kinds of feelings.
In raising a son, show him respect, have a sense of humor, and make an effort to stay close and connected. Frequently, it takes an older male—a father, an uncle, or another role model—to support a boy's emotional maturation, and help him grow into a socially responsible, sensitive adult.
Sports and Physical Activity
Both boys and girls require plenty of opportunities for physical activity. More children of both sexes are participating in organized sports than ever before. These activities are an opportunity for them to master physical skills. But perhaps more important, sports are ways in which sons and daughters can develop self-esteem and discipline, and learn social skills like teamwork and sportsmanship.
Competitive physical activities offer middle-years youngsters opportunities to develop their personalities and self-confidence. Boys, especially, are inclined to judge themselves by whether they're equal or superior to their peers
on the Little League or youth soccer fields. Competition is also a way for boys and girls to learn to deal effectively with pressure and stress. Encourage your child to stay physically fit, which can enhance self-esteem and a sense of well-being.
In general, boys are more interested in sports than girls are, even as spectators. They are more likely to watch games on television, wear T-shirts with the names of their favorite teams emblazoned on them, and collect trading cards featuring baseball or other sports stars.