All the same there are some features of family relationships that seem general enough at this age. For instance, even though there is a lot of variation amongst children in how much they directly involve their parents in their activities, there is, by seven, an increasing tendency for their play to be with other children and to exclude their parents.
At four Tom used to involve his mother in playing with him. He liked her to take a part in his games of imagination. Looking back, she recalls rather ruefully how she used to have to be the g4ngster being captured by policeman hero Tom, but now she just occasionally gets asked to play a card game when there are no friends around.
This is part of a wider change in the relationship between children and their parents at this age, with more distinction being made between boys and girls. Laura’s mother enjoys a new kind of companionship with her daughter. They go shopping together and have long chats which makes Laura feel pretty grown up.
Keith and Robin’s father, as we saw, takes his sons on outings by himself, and especially enjoys their regular visits to the local swimming pool, and sees the great pleasure the boys themselves have in having his attention to themselves.
This pleasure in watching their children growing up adds to the respect these parents have for them as individuals. Keith and Robin have grown up with a reasonable experience of being listened to, being given some choice whenever possible, and of being allowed some space which was absolutely their own to keep their belongings. These experiences have been important in providing a basis for a new kind of friendly relationship between parents and children, now that the old, dependent one of infancy is fading.
In Keith and Robin’s family it was an advantage to have parents who complemented each other, one coping more easily with Keith, the other with Robin. In other ways too it can be useful to have two parents who counterbalance each other.
It is hard, if not impossible, for children to grow up happily in a home where mother and father have frequent, angry quarrels. Constant, unspoken hostility between them, or a relationship in which one domineers over the other are no better. Children are likely to take sides, openly or secretly, with feelings of hate, scorn and anger which can be powerful and enduring.
Where parents disagree about them, children may discover how to play one off against the other. As a result parents can make great efforts always to appear in perfect agreement, especially supporting each other over matters of discipline. If, however, the parental partners can accept that there are bound to be occasions when they disagree, and yet in spite of this can show that they continue to respect each other, their children are unlikely to suffer too much, may find they have a useful example to follow, and benefit from an idea of authority which is not too absolute.
Seven year olds ask different kinds of questions of their parents. The earlier questioning about babies, how they are made, where they come from, the differences between boys and girls have generally subsided. Hopefully, they have been answered well enough. This is not to say that all interest in these matters has gone, to reappear only in adolescence.
Your seven year old observes the adult world more acutely than might sometimes appear to be the case. There will be uncertainties which still need to be explored and questions asked. Sexual identity is part of the general picture of themselves that boys and girls have, and interest in it is natural and continuing.
There is another side to the rather harmonious picture that has been presented here. Parents remain the principal target for stormier feelings. The increase in tact, in awareness of others and in control of feelings which takes place during this year is much more evident in public than in private behaviour. On the whole, however, most parents probably prefer it that way round.
There is no one kind of home that guarantees happiness of course. Equally happy homes can have different atmospheres which are dependant on many things. Some of these will be to do with material aspects, how well-off the family is, how big the house they live in, how much private space is possible, whether there is a garden. Others will be to do with the structure of the family, the number of children, whether both parents are working and what visitors come from elsewhere.
There will also be the preferences which influence the family’s habits and customs. Some will be highly organised and orderly, others easy going, in some the emphasis will be on individual responsibility, in others a strong feeling for acting as a united family, and so far as discipline is concerned there is a wide range from the very strict to the very permissive.
In Leslie’s case there was a minimum of control. His family was artistic and easy-going, and the children were well-loved. Yet he started to have nightmares in which he was in frightening situations where he could do nothing. On the other hand at school he was creative and getting on well. Two stories which he told about some pictures illustrate his dilemma.
In the first he described how some chicks organised their own picnic, and when they had finished made their own decision as to whether to get any more food. When mother hen came and told them it was time to go home they cleared up and carried everything back.
This story seems to describe very well how self-reliant
Leslie was, with mother safely in the background. The next story showed that underneath he could still get frightened and need his mother to be more readily available.
This second story was about a baby rabbit who one night asked the mummy rabbit if he could go to bed, and she said “of course, you don’t need to ask me”. But when he was in bed the rabbit called out “I saw a ghost, I’m scared”. So his mummy came and turned on the light, and he saw it was only a chair with a white cloth over it. And so he went to sleep.
Leslie’s independence was not yet all that secure and it seemed he was worried about being left to make too many decisions for himself. Still, mother did come to the little frightened rabbit in his story and, in Leslie’s own very affectionate family, the long term prospect seemed a happy one.
A major focus of the relationship between parents and children now arises from the shared interest in school. Parents can find themselves apparently being compared with the teacher and found wanting, in knowledge, in authority and in judgment. The strong attachment made to the teacher is a reflection of her (or, less often, him) taking over some parental responsibility. It is also true that if Laura and Tom like their teacher they are more likely to be able to learn successfully from her.
All the same, however likeable and friendly the teacher is, her role is a formal one which, in the end, makes it quite unlike the relationship to mummy and daddy at home. Teachers do not as a rule enter their profession because of an urge to become substitute parents. Many of them may be parents themselves, and only too well aware of the different roles they have in their two jobs at home and in the classroom.
The opportunity for a new, intense, yet less emotionally charged relationship with a responsible adult outside home, gives children new possibilities for working out some of their tensions and conflicts.
Maybe the natural rivalry between parent and teacher can be more benign with the acknowledgment that both have the children as their first concern. The rivalry then, is about who can better help them grow up successfully, the competition over who can get the most positive response. There have been lots of suggestions for improving liaison between home and school in recent years, in giving parents more say and more choice, but the real concern here is with how the children themselves experience the parent/teacher relationship.
There is no doubt that a child feels more secure when it is clear that parents and teachers value and respect each other, leaving the children free to learn, to explore and to experiment with new skills and new ideas.