When Do Kids Behave Consistently?
Imagine this scenario: You've just instructed your six-year-old not to go inside anyone's house without first coming and asking for your permission. Next thing you know, you're standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes and you look out the window just in time to see your child enter the neighbor's house across the street with her little friend of the same age. You think to yourself, "What is wrong with that child? Didn't I just tell her not to do that?" Yes you did, but for some reason it didn't completely take.
Extending this scenario a little further, you go to the neighbor's, gather up your child, and take her home to question her about her misbehavior. She looks at you a little blankly at first, and then a little sheepishly, and says something along the lines of "I forgot" or worse yet, "You didn't say not to go in Jane's house, you said anyone's." This makes you throw your hands up in despair and wonder if you will ever get your daughter to the point where she can remember the right instructions in the right situations. The answer, of course, is yes. The bigger question is "when?"
This brings us the subject of this article, which is the child's attainment of what has been called behavioral constancy. Behavioral constancy simply means the capacity to know and remember what the rules are, and to then be able to apply them appropriately in the correct situations. In other words, the child can distinguish right from wrong and know how to actively use the knowledge when necessary. The difficulty for the six-year-old child above is that she knew what the rule was, but was not able to apply it in all the situations for which it was appropriate. If you consider that behavioral constancy involves two distinctly different skills, it is easier to see that the second of these is far more complex and sophisticated than the first. The second skill requires the ability to abstract from one situation and apply the same thought and action to a similar situation that is comparable. This certainly is much more involved than simply remembering by rote the exact rule given for a single situation which is spelled out ahead of time, and herein lies the problem for the child younger than approximately eight years of age.
Around ages five to six, children begin to be able to recall rules that have been given to them by parents both verbally and through reinforcement as each situation occurs. What stands out in this process for parents is the amount of repetition that seems necessary in trying to instill these rules. A second aspect of this process is the internalization by the child of what is deemed right versus wrong based on the parent's value system, and the guidance they give the child in trying to clarify these values in various situations. It is sometimes a very frustrating process because parents feel sure that after explaining a particular rule or value over and over, it seems impossible that children continue to forget or be unable to apply the rule when the situation arises. The problem is that very often the child simply does not have the cognition (mental ability) to make that leap between remembering the rule and applying it correctly. They are not yet using logic, but simply are remembering verbatim what they have been told. In the case above, Jane's house was not spelled out as being off limits. It's not that Jane wasn't part of the more inclusive "anyone", but more that Jane's name didn't match the name "anyone". These young children are very concrete in their understanding. However, at about eight years of age there is a cognitive shift that allows the child to begin to think somewhat abstractly. The brain actually goes through a process of maturation that increases the skills for thinking logically. The child can begin to differentiate between situations a little more, and can actually apply abstract ideas to concrete situations. If mom says don't go into anyone's house without asking, then Jane must be classified as part of the all-inclusive "anyone", and therefore her house is also off limits. Secondly, the child can now begin to assess his or her behavior in interactions and examine how particular behaviors effect others and as well as oneself. The emphasis shifts from merely trying to restrain the child to now successfully engaging the child's cooperation. So, when you're in that six to seven age range, and you feel like the repetitive parrot that says the same thing over an over, take heart - you will soon see the emergence of a more logical, thinking, little person that you can actually begin to reason with and engage in cooperative behavior.