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Why Age 7 Really Does Suck

Photograph by Getty Images

As I clutched my squirming 9-month-old in my arms, the lovely brunette who would babysit my son three days a week opened the door, flanked by her round-cheeked, ginger-haired daughter. My son began to wail instantly, as though aware that I would be leaving him for a few hours. She patted me soothingly and began to coo to my son. "It really does get better," she assured me, and pointed at her daughter, who was already making faces to cheer up my son. "I feel like 5 is this magic age where they become civilized and helpful."

I held onto that kernel of wisdom over the years as my son grew to express his feelings in lengthy, intense outbursts that eventually came with the ability to throw himself to the ground, and then wield words with the same force. Age 5 did indeed bring with it a new level of maturity, a reprieve from the four intense years prior, and I grew lulled by his ability to communicate better in words, to listen to reason, to learn boundaries. Surely, every age after 5 would only get easier?

Nope. Age 7 was like an unexpected punch to the jaw.

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Where before he might have expressed disappointment at being denied time on the iPad or having to clean his room with a whine or an "awwww," suddenly he was kicking the back of my chair in the car and shrieking, "You never let me play!" or "No, I'm not doing anything you tell me!" with a fierce grimace and an intensity that had me texting my husband: "Overnight I feel like I can't communicate with our son."

If I expressed frustration with his outbursts, he'd launch into a wheedling series of questions designed to get me back into conversation with him: "Why aren't you talking to me, Mama? Didn't you hear what I said? I said I'm mad at you. You're mad at me and now I feel like a bad kid. Just don't talk to me right now!" And he'd stomp off to the other room and throw himself onto the floor with a thud.

They just manipulate and wear you down until you're too exhausted to fight back.

If I engaged in any way, saying, "I'm being quiet for a moment to calm my feelings down," he'd persist, hounding me, "I'm a bad kid. Now you're mad at me and I'm so mad … "

If I was simply quiet or took myself a time out, he'd feel abandoned. "Now you're never going to speak to me again, and I feel sad." Then he'd shoot me his baleful look, the most perfectly concocted pout of the lips and dip of the eyes that makes me feel as though I've dropped him on a street corner to fend for himself.

Lamenting one night to a friend whose son is 8 but who also had had a difficult year 7, she replied: "It's like they have the words to communicate, but they don't understand their own feelings, so they just manipulate and wear you down until you're too exhausted to fight back."

This was exactly it. I cried with relief at the validation that maybe our child really wasn't any more difficult than any other. Maybe he wouldn't grow up to be a more challenging than usual teenager.

The more I talked with other parents whose children were older, the more secrets of the shitty sevens oozed out the cracks.

The 7-year-old's brain, it turns out, is undergoing massive change. The frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, the seat of cognitive awareness, grow more now than at any other time in your child's life. These lobes of the brain are also making connections with the systems that control emotions. In essence, your 7-year-old thinks more widely and feels more deeply.

In Finland, where students outperform American children by miles, children don't even start school until age 7 because the brain is finally ready for the complex layers of understanding with which to grasp it and less prone to feeling defeated by what is hard.

Kids age 7 can hold compelling conversations, think critically and entertain more than one opposing idea at the same time. They can be compassionate and empathetic, and less prone to selfishness. But it's also a preview of the kind of emotional range they're going to continue to experience as hormones set in and do their work.

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As my son approaches the halfway mark of the year, we're getting a better handle on the intensity and I'm starting to see the other benefits—his sharp mind, our ability to have interesting, nuanced conversations about the world and people, his loving concern for people who suffer.

I've learned that it's OK for either of us to take a self-imposed time-out when we are angry, and that we can talk about it when we've both cooled down. I've learned that half of the battle is listening to or validating him, even if I disagree with his manner of expression. What's more, though it's challenged and stretched me like no age before it, I've begun to see 7 as a preview of the man my son will become one day, one with a huge heart and a thoughtful mind.

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