Something dramatic happens to boys upon turning 10. How we guide them across this critical juncture will shape them for the rest of their lives.
Child development specialists have long recognized that at this stage, children undergo a marked change. Some describe this transition as the crossing of the line between early childhood and full childhood, while others speak in more poetic terms of a “fall from grace.”
“Prior to age seven or eight,” says author Thomas Poplawski, “most children are exuberant, joyful beings. Around the ninth birthday, however, a tinge of melancholy and self-consciousness creeps in. Up to this time, the child has lived and learned through imitation, taking in the world around and echoing its moods and its patterns. Now, the harmonious resonance between child and world quickly fades. This is a time of irritability and unsureness, of trepidation and aloneness. The young child’s experience of being one with the world vanishes and he must now learn to stand on his own.”
The surging emotions of a boy on his 10th birthday are poignantly rendered in this poem by Billy Collins:
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself.
The boy’s awakening to a sense of self and a concurrent change in the relationship with the world occur simultaneously with two other momentous events:
1. The boy begins to separate from his mother and “locks on” to his dad, or whichever male is around to learn what it means to be a man.
2. Puberty kicks in — now occurring much earlier than ever according to research published online in the journal Pediatrics.
In traditional societies, this was the moment when the male elders of the tribe would take boys away from their mothers to initiate them as men.
But that doesn’t happen much in modern-day America.
Instead, we unconsciously allow media to shape our sons’ sense of manhood, instill “values,” and teach them about sex and how to relate to women and the world.
American 8-to-12 year-olds spend close to 5 hours on screen media per day, according to a 2019 survey by Common Sense Media. Teens average 7 hours and 22 minutes — not including time spent using screens for homework.
You don’t have to think too hard to figure out the consequences.
“At the age of ten,” adds Thomas Poplawski, “the boy becomes more independent, developing new capacities, and is eager to work. He is curious about the world and how people choose to live in it. He is captivated by stories of adventure and misadventure. He identifies with heroes, delights at tricksters, and yearns for stories of larger-than-life characters with human strengths and foibles. These stories give the boy the imagination that he is a brave warrior who must struggle against adverse conditions.”
Media, however, meets young boys’ yearning for hero-hood with toxic or corrupted examples.
“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” says Sharon Lamb, PhD, distinguished professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts. “Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling, and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”
What can parent do, especially the millions of courageous single mothers out there?
First, I’d counsel you to exercise the same care on what your son nourishes his mind with as you do with what he feeds his body. Keep in mind: you’re the parent, he the child. Choosing what’s best for his upbringing is entirely up to you.
A ten year-old boy, feeling cast-off from the world of his previous childhood innocence, has a need for stories that mirror what he’s going through. He needs to be exposed to tales of exile and of heroes who overcome great challenges.
To get him started, here’s a preliminary list:
1. Favorite Greek Myths, by Robert Blaisdell.
2. The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling; illustrated by John L. Kipling, William H. Drake, and Paul Frenzeny.
3. Indian Winter, by James Willard Schultz.
4. The Golden Goblet, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
5. Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare.
6. By the Great Horn Spoon, by Sid Fleischman.
7. Icefall, by Matthew J. Kirby.
8. Stone Fox, by John Reynolds Gardiner.
(For tips on encouraging your son to read, click here).
What about a boy’s sense of manhood? Where can a single mother get help to guide her son on a path of generative and purposeful masculinity?
Finding a positive male mentor for you son is, perhaps, the most important thing you can do.
These organizations can help:
The change that children undergo between ages nine and ten can be confusing and challenging for both parents and their sons. Adults need to be aware that these changes represent a necessary stage in the development of the child and do not last forever. We need to provide love, support, and guidance to our sons during this transitional time of inwardness and loneliness. Above all, we need to be ready to let go of our “little angels” and accept them as unfolding young men in the making.
Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.
For tips on how to help tweens navigate the hormone-infused awkwardness of puberty, click here.