By Richard Brodie
The child from seven to twelve years of age represents childhood in its full flowering, from full consciousness at seven to highly cognizant and emotionally developed individuality at twelve. Only a year or two later, at thirteen or fourteen, the child will be an adolescent, a very different creature! But at twelve, highly developed though he may be, he still has the qualities of the naive, imaginative, wonderstruck child that seem to characterize children everywhere!
Even before modern science with its brain scans, hormonal analyses, etc., human society has acknowledged the tremendous threshold that is crossed from the end of childhood into the beginning adolescence. In Catholicism and Judaism, the thirteenth year is celebrated as a glorious culmination in development with the Communion and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah respectively. In Charles Dickens’ England, only a century and a half ago, a boy of thirteen was assumed to have arrived at manhood, and, having apprenticed at a trade from the age of eleven, could now legally become a master of his trade at thirteen, an age at which he could also legally take a bride and marry! Even Juliet, the heroine of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the symbol of impassioned womanhood everywhere, was only thirteen!
Clearly, then, some of the most important abilities and qualities of the adult are acquired in this period of late childhood. Most amazing about this period ending around twelve is that some developing abilities of the brain reach their peak in this period, and then actually begin to decline in the next period, i.e., in adolescence! These abilities involve the capacity to learn—comparatively effortlessly—certain complex cognitive and motor skills.
COGNITIVE AND PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT
The most conspicuous cognitive ability that one has in abundance in the period from seven to twelve, and that begins to decline thereafter, is the ability to learn a spoken language, or even several languages, seemingly without effort and without accent! Foreign languages learned in adolescence or later are almost invariably spoken with some accent—or even hesitancy—for the rest of one’s life, even by highly intelligent and gifted linguistic learners.
The most conspicuous physical ability that one has in abundance in this period is the ability to learn complex physical skills so expertly and seemingly effortlessly that they become—as the phrase so aptly puts it—second nature. These skills are most evident in the field of sports, athletics, and in the playing of complex musical instruments. If a boy, for example, has not learned to throw an object such as a stone or ball in boyhood, he may never learn to do it properly. Or at least, he may never learn to do it in a natural, intuitive fashion. The same applies to learning a complex instrument such as the piano, which an adolescent or young adult may learn to do very well, but rarely with the natural, intuitive mastery that comes with having learned the instrument in childhood.
Why does the brain actually seem to lose the ability to learn such skills with such thoroughness that they become “second nature”, when the brain, even in adolescence, is still growing? We can only assume that it is because the ability to learn certain motor and linguistic skills has been superceded in importance by the now more important areas of cognitive reasoning and sexual development. And why are these new areas more important for the adolescent? They are more important because, from an evolutionary standpoint, the motor and linguistic skills required for survival are presumed to have been acquired by age thirteen; and now, for the survival of the species, the individual must be able to 1) reason intelligently and 2) to procreate!
What is the message in all this for the parents and educators of the older child in modern society? Clearly, it is that the skills that will benefit the future adult must be taught as early as possible in the period from seven to twelve years of age. These skills include, among many others, the learning of important or useful foreign languages as well as one’s mother tongue with expertise; the learning of specific athletic skills that are likely to bring the individual pleasure later in life; and the learning of a musical instrument, most preferably for starters, the piano, which with its versatility and matchless musical repertory can bring a lifetime of pleasure to the individual in any culture in the world!
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