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Brain Development in Children

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5 Years Old: The Schmoozer

Milestone: Pleasing Others

What You're Seeing: “I cannot go in my backyard without my five-year-old asking for a job to do. I'm all ‘play in the sandbox!’ But he's determined to help me out. ‘Can I pick up rocks? Rake? Water plants?’ I hope it lasts!” —Janet McElroy, San Mateo, CA

Why: “Five-year-olds become suddenly aware that their actions impact others,” says Guddemi. “They get that if they share, their friend will be happy, that if they count to a hundred, Mom will praise. They also find that acceptance feels good, so they seek it.” All of this newfound understanding is, in part, due to their burgeoning prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for self-awareness and decision-making.

Help Him Along: When your child is doing something thoughtful, like playing nicely with a younger sib, instead of just saying “I'm so glad you're cooperating with your brother,” add “I bet he feels really good that you're spending time helping him with his tower.” Recent research in Child Development found that when parents talked to their 5-year-olds about other people's perspectives, the kids were better at anticipating others' feelings in different situations.

6 Years Old: The Empathizer

Milestone: A New Perspective

What You're Seeing: “I overheard Connor explain to his younger sister that we take turns ‘to make the other person happy, so you can pick first.’ Tears!” —Kimberly Flynn, Collegeville, PA

Why: You know how you've been saying ‘How would you feel if your friend did that to you?’ Well, he may finally get it. “Younger children can't wrap their heads around other people feeling differently than they do,” says Pamela Davis-Kean, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Social Research and Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan. But now, your kiddo's frontal lobes, the brain's hub of emotions and judgment, are hitting a growth spurt, taking his viewpoint beyond his own small daily reality.

Help Him Along: Because children's brains are now capable of that kind of perspective, it's a great time to enhance that growth through music. In fact, after just 20 days of any type of musical instruction, a 6-year-old's brain can actually change, resulting in improved language and social skills, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science.