The fifth year is not talked about much. Everyone seems to get their kid to kindergarten and breathe a huge sigh of relief–“WHEW! We made it!” Compared with the last four years of childraising, the fifth year warrants this relief. However, it is a difficult age because a just-turned five year old is not quite out of baby stage. S/He has all the youth capabilities in infant form but most are not quite over the edge in true elementary school age capacities. They are straddling the world of infant and the world of youth, and on any given day or in any given context, they can kind of shift from one side of the fence to the other. Thus the wonderful phenomenon of kindergarten =)
Here are some qualities of five year olds:
Matter of Factness. In comparison to four year olds, who seem to live perpetually in magical thinking land, five year olds are starting to come back to earth. They are still exuberant and silly, imaginative and hopeful, but the average five year old has started recognizing the world of normalcy… He recognizes jokes or puns for what they are, might show irritation at too much silliness or play, can discern what’s wrong in a picture or situation, might scorn baby or little kids’ toys as being too stupid, etc. He is generally aware of life’s real parameters, and this can help in matters of self-care or morality: five year olds are starting to leave behind the truly immature, unreasonable morality of toddlers and preschoolers. They are transparent and see things for what they are. While this is nice because it means they’ll readily accept a friend who is different from them, it still means you’ll have to say, “Don’t point at his birthmark, that’s not nice.”
Pride. Five year olds are starting to be proud of themselves, which is sweet. They can distinguish real accomplishments from superficial praise, and they can muster determination to go after those accomplishments. They may feel embarrassed if they can’t attain them, so you have to watch for early bullying or sensitivity. They want to be a big boy or girl, more than when you were potty training, and identification with Mom or Dad is starting to become more salient. You can see this in the typical kindergarten classroom or playground. Girls usually don’t like stories where things are mean or unjust, and boys usually like stories where there is some evil drama that needs action. The two genders start reinforcing each other as their scope is just starting to broaden from only themselves to how they fit in in a group. You can capitalize on their pride and self-accomplishment, personally, though to learn even more. Lots of kids this age are really happy if they can read or tie their own shoes, and are not self conscious enough to be modest about it in grand company =)
Questioning. Whereas your preschooler probably already went through the “Why?” stage, a five year old is smarter when she asks, “Why?” and probably really wants to know. Combined with their matter of fact abilities, superficial answers that leave “magic” in the equation probably aren’t satisfying anymore, and a five year old can really want penetrating details on the subject! This is a good time to invest in some child encyclopedias that you can read (or they themselves if they’re ready) about space, weather, people, etc.
Social awkwardness. A five year old is not self-conscious exactly, but they are getting self-aware. This creates a kind of funny social manner that I have observed in various five year olds, but is hard to describe. They want to be noticed or praised but don’t know the proper way to go about it, so they kind of talk out loud to themselves or keep a witty commentary going about what’s going on with other people in earshot. They know they’re not supposed to be in-your-face about attention the way a preschooler is, but they still want it so they may exhibit show-off behavior, over-elaborate about a subject that’s being discussed, or follow you around. Their commentary is often semi-scornful (in a pleasant way) to show what big boys or girls they really are, and how much they’ve picked up what they were told… “We don’t want to go outside in the rain without our jackets on, right? That would be silly. We’d get so wet. That would be a silly, silly thing.” This usually elicits the approval of adults, that their age still earnestly desires.
Knowledge of rules. Five year olds are also rule-oriented creatures. They still have no idea about “the spirit” of rules, so you have to keep working on them in social contexts. But in general, they love rules and can pick them up really easily. They are actually more able to be micro-managed, I think, than preschoolers. Handwriting is a good example. The average five year old really takes to all the detail-oriented teachings about how to print letters… “Ok, now start your pencil at the top of the line–no, right there–and come down slightly, just a little bit above the second line, and then straight down to the bottom. Ok, now start at the top line again and loop around, just like a loop, to the second line. Make sure it touches. It should look like an ear, curving around, right on top. Got it? ok, do it again, just like that…” This type of commentary would overwhelm a preschooler, but five year olds grip their pencil, stick out their tongue, and work hard to get it. They are also able to memorize manners even though they still dont’ understand why yet–“When you know someone is in the bathroom, don’t knock, just wait.” “When Max comes over, give him the first chance at the new basketball hoop.”
Confusion about absolutes, cause/effect. Five year olds are just acquiring the ability to make absolute statements about things. This is good because you have been trying to teach them principles for many years now. But they are very early in the process and can mistake emotions for absolutes as in, “Daddy is late picking me up. He must not like me.” You have to correct them and say something like, “No, Daddy just made a mistake. It doesn’t have anything to do with you. He loves you just the same.” And most five year olds likewise use the words “always” and “never” a lot, and incorrectly. They are trying to imitate adult understandings of things, but usually you have to nuance with them—“sometimes” “might” “try to” “probably”—as well as restate the real absolutes.
Planning. Most five year olds have a newfound joy in planning. Because they can make more sense of things now, and because they can hold lots of details in their head, they may really enjoy “planning” their birthday party with you. And you should expect that they’ll like all kinds of things for strange reasons… i.e. “We’ll have to have strawberry birthday cake because that’s what Wendy makes Bob the Builder…” Sometimes small things can signify much larger things to a five year old, and you have to question them about their feelings and imagine what they could be linking together before you get it. But still, most five year olds have a desire to plan, even control or precipitate, what’s going to happen. This can be a really fun stage. The planning thing can also go along with routine, in that five year olds definitely expect certain things to be forever linked with other things (i.e. Grandma’s house means those special brown star-shaped cookies). They will be very disappointed, personally and sometimes over dramatically, if it doesn’t occur.
Tokenism. Most five year olds are still too immature to have a realistic way of evaluating things, especially the quality of things. A great day for them might be a day where they get to go to the pool, have M&Ms at dinnertime, and watch their favorite movie… with no sense that going to the pool was a more special thing than the M&Ms. They like some toys better than others, still for childish reasons (i.e. not because it is more expensive but because it is bigger or their favorite color). And they like some grown-ups better than others! (for the same reasons). If you can not take this personally, you can often use it to your advantage such as in convincing a five year old to try coming in the pool because then he’ll get to wear his new green Water Wings =)