Question: My son just turned eight. In the past couple of months, we would occasionally see these bouts of snappish tones and sarcasm, but it's almost like his birthday hit some kind of bad-attitude switch.
Now, some days asking him to do almost anything leads to an impatient, annoyed attitude. Is this a normal transition at this age, or do I need to start digging for a reason that he's become more churlish? He was always pretty laid back before now. He complains about being bored a lot. It's getting harder for him to entertain himself, which he's always been good at because he is the oldest.
Screen time (all screens combined) is limited to 60 to 90 minutes daily depending on the day. He is less interested in his toys and when bored has started entertaining himself by watching whatever his five-year-old sister is doing and trying to take over her activity.
For example, last night, she was using a marker and colouring book, and he was telling her where to colour on a page, then hurrying her onto the next page before the entire page was coloured.
I had to tell him to back off and let her do her thing. Both kids are enrolled in enrichment classes a couple of times a week (gymnastics, dance, horseback riding), and their schedules are pretty well-balanced so they get some downtime, too. But he's gotten so bad at dealing with downtime, it's frustrating.
Answer: There is much to unpack here, and I applaud your willingness to strive for a balance with your son. Let's take a look at the average development of the typical eight-year-old.
If your son has grown up in an emotionally and physically safe home (which I will assume for the sake of this column), the eighth year of life will bring an individuality you may have not have seen yet. The eight-year-old will shed the "little kid" way of being and very much wants to be fully seen and heard in his family.
With this need, you will see willingness for real and challenging work and, for many kids, the more physical, the better. An eight-year-old has gained some mastery over his body and loves to use it. This does not mean there isn't occasional clumsiness and sloppiness; there is just a strong willingness to try to do well. Emotionally, the eight-year-old may be a bit more social and aware of how friendships work.
This doesn't mean the child has many friends, but it does mean the child is sensitive to social structures in school. As much as eight-year-olds love their independence, they can easily become needy when tired or when their feelings are hurt. This is a time when parents are no longer aware of everything happening to their children; their interior worlds are becoming increasingly complicated. Parents can assume the child is misbehaving because of something in the family when instead it could be about a teacher or friends.
Finally, an eight-year-old needs strong boundaries. Although they may be more aware and considerate of people's feelings, they are also able to hurt feelings with more of a sting. Rather than shame or blame, the parent needs to be ready to hold clear and consistent rules; complete with consequences that reinforce the behaviour you want.
So, moving on to your son. Because he has only recently become "difficult," I am guessing this is a mix of normal development and some serious boredom. You see, back in the day (whenever that was), churlish children were told to "go play outside."
Churlish children would meet up on street corners or in the woods and make their own mayhem. Could this play turn into "Lord of the Flies," where children were bullied or hurt? You bet. But mostly, children played. They pushed boundaries with their boundaries and in social circles. They exhausted their bodies so they could return home to eat and sleep.
Now, eight-year-old children are either in an activity or they are home. The lure of technology is strong and far more interesting than anything else at home, and this is where the struggle comes in. You want your son to entertain himself, but the evidence is clear that this is not going to happen. He moans and groans, and he bothers his sister nonstop. The Kabuki theatre of you asking him to stop and find something to do only reinforces his misbehaviour (he is getting lots of attention for being a pain).
You need a total reboot.
First, stop expecting anything to change with your son without some change on your part. Whatever used to work is no longer working (parenting in a nutshell), so just accept all of the frustration that comes with that. Second, take a look at those activities. Is there something he can dive into with a little more zest?
I am not suggesting you go full-tilt and sacrifice every hour and dollar, but the typical eight-year-old is ripe for a team. They generally love the organisation, (good) leadership and growth. The competition is fun, too. This will also keep his body moving and away from his sister. I am not saying a team will fix everything, but an exercised eight-year-old boy is simply easier to parent. Period.
Third, you need to set your son up with some real work in the house. Make the technology contingent on this work being complete.
It can look like this:
1. Call a family meeting (yes, include the five-year-old). As a family, make a list of chores and have the children choose one or two for the week. Can the 8-year-old handle more? Great, give him more! Make a chart using ideas from Google or Pinterest - there are thousands of examples out there.
2. Train your child to do the chores. One of the most important lessons I learned at the Parent Encouragement Program is that most parents assume that children know how to load a dishwasher or take out the trash, but we need to take the time to show them. This doesn't mean you helicopter your son. It's just common sense that you would want to set him and his sister up for success.
3. At this meeting, specifically say tech time is earned and he will not spend any time on a screen unless his work is complete. When he can show that it is finished, he has earned his 60 minutes. This may evoke some powerful feelings the first time your son tries to get on tech without having completed his chore (read: total tantrum), but stick to your guns.
4. Use a family meeting to generate a list of what else your son can do to fill his time. Is your house equipped with open-ended toys and crafts that will pique his interests? How else can you have other activities ready? I know trampolines can be dangerous, but they are lifesavers for many families with young children.
Any other activity outside is a good idea. (I love slack lines or good old-fashioned tire swings.) Is there a park nearby? A friend he can meet there (as you tag behind to be watchful)? Does your son have a bike or scooter? I know weather can be a challenge, but think outside the box.
5. Lastly, eight-year-olds love a true project. From organising spice drawers to repainting a wall to cooking a big meal, don't be afraid to bring your son into small and big projects. Although it would be faster to complete without your son, the time spent with him is far more valuable than the expediency of the job.
Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.
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