Something irreversible happens to us when we turn seven years old. We become capable of realizing the impact of our behavior on other people. As six-year-olds, our minds are full of what we want and how soon we can get it. But when seven rolls around, we become aware of other people’s needs, too.
This maturational shift is responsible for a more reflective, lower-key style at age seven, while six is expressed in robust, unrepentant activity. At seven, our divine oneness with our own motives is fractured into the realization that we and our bodies are separate, that there is a little separate “me” rattling around inside the tin can of embodiment, one who looks out and observes both self and others. We become capable of judging ourselves against the standards of social living. We forget the completeness and innocence of six.
Unfortunately, this new developmental capacity for self-awareness and empathy is often terribly misused by parents who want to control their children, especially their daughters. Unlike the six-year-old, the seven-year-old now hesitates with self-doubt instead of plowing ahead. They have become irreversibly aware of other people’s feelings and their impact in relationships.
The parent senses their sudden openness to guilt. The fact that a seven-year-old can be made to feel guilty about something a six-year-old wouldn’t think twice about can be irresistible to a parent who is thoroughly tired of a six-year-old’s unrelenting egoism. A door is opened to a new form of discipline: did you hurt their feelings?
The parent may mean well, but implications of guilt about hurting people’s feelings can usher in a lifetime of self-inhibition. We lose touch with our six-year-old confidence. Instead of getting excited about what we want to do next, we worry we might hurt someone with our impulsivity or forthrightness.
Six-year-olds have great energy because they don’t overthink things. Seven-year-olds begin to hang back a little as they realize what a minefield other people’s feelings are. This is particularly—but not exclusively—true of little girls, who are often over-conditioned to think of others first in order to be “good.”
It’s best for a child to gently become aware of other people’s feelings as part of the world’s delightful complexity. Once children realize that other people think and feel differently, they can become curious about people’s experiences and for the first time enjoy mutual relationships. They grow out of the self-involved, bossy play of the six-year-old and find it more interesting to figure out how to have a good time together.
But if children’s maturing empathetic sophistication is directed toward self-control instead of compassion, it is overly inhibiting for them. Their newly minted skills of empathy turn into the dread that they may be causing emotional pain to someone. When parents talk too much about hurt feelings at this impressionable age, children can become hypersensitive to anyone being hurt or unhappy with them.
Thanks to brain development, children’s new sensitivity to others means that they too can start judging themselves harshly for being insensitive. Once it sinks in that others have feelings too, it’s easy to make children feel ashamed of wanting their own way. Under this kind of pressure, children stop trusting that it is okay to act spontaneously. Who might they wound next?
As you can imagine—and may have experienced—life begins to get very small when you start imagining everyone’s reactions to what you might do. That rambunctious six-year-old, so full of fun things to do, can become the hesitant seven-year-old worried about making someone unhappy. Empathy and imagination begin to be used in the service of fear instead of creativity. Acting spontaneously is equated with being a bad person who has the power to hurt others. If this goes too far, the resulting self-inhibition can make a person feel unworthy and depressed. And all because they were told that above all, one should not hurt anyone’s feelings.
But if you are to enjoy your life in this world, that is an impossible standard. If you are going to live a vital life, of course you are going to hurt someone’s feelings at times. You can use your empathy to apologize later, but never allow your empathy to dissuade you from some crucial goal just because it would upset someone else. If you weren’t being malicious, the other person might very well get over it. They are the only ones who can handle their own hurt. If the other person is willing to be reasonable and fair, you can work out your differences. That means they won’t reject you as a bad person just because you want what they don’t.
Make the essential choices for your own life like a six-year-old who knows what he or she wants. Then, if necessary, apologize like a seven-year-old. Find people who love both sides of you, people who would never use your own best qualities against you just to keep you under control.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.