If you happen to have a 7 year-old, this well-known saying may make you feel a bit queasy. Despite waxing lyrical about various parental topics, in reality I’m governed by instinct rather than best practice. I just can’t help it. But when faced with the possibility that the past 7 years have made an indelible mark, I feel the burden of responsibility.
So reading this line recently resonated in a way it’s never done before. It also changed the way I felt about the quote itself. I’d previously thought that it seemed fair enough – especially given that Bowlby’s attachment theory suggests that our recipe for relationships is established in babyhood. More recently a link’s been found between maths/reading ability of 7 year olds and their future socio-economic status. Whilst this may all be true, now that it has direct relevance, it feels too constraining.
On the one hand, the seventh year of life seems rife with rites of passage: it’s when kids sit their SATs in the UK; with some even sitting exams for highly selective schools; it’s when medieval pages would train to become knights; when boys started school in ancient Greece; and when Danish kids start school nowadays. It was also the age of the children when they first appeared in the ‘Seven Up’ documentary charting their lives.
Some of these milestones are associated with ability and maturity, but maybe they also coincide with when they start to become them? That’d make sense if important decisions are being made which may influence their futures. However, the reality is that it’s the parents not the children who are making the decisions (although selective schools must believe that there is some predictive validity in ability at that age).
In contrast, as parents of toddlers we often attribute melt-downs to a host of external factors (sleep, hunger etc.) rather than to themselves. I once euphemistically described my 4 year old to a future teacher as an ‘unfinished story ’ – a bit cheesy I know, but I didn’t want to put him in a box.
But the truth is that we’re all ‘unfinished stories’. In the words of Bob Dylan, ‘if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying’ – it’s just that some of our ‘stories’ are longer than others. With more years under our belts we develop a consistency that becomes ‘us’. Before the age of seven, kids try out lots of ‘new ways of being’, then they plateau and settle into patterns which feel right for them.
A case in point is that I find it easier to describe how my older son is wired than his younger brother (who is 4 years old). Whilst I have a general gist with my youngest, I feel that I may not give him the credit he deserves by confusing ‘age and stage’ with ‘character’ (hence my reference to him as an ‘unfinished story’…).
My other difficulty with this rather fixed view of a seven year old is that conflicts with what I tell my kids after testing times: ‘tomorrow is a new day’. Viewing ourselves as able to change and adapt is something I feel quite strongly about – along with the notion that we can choose how we want to be. Nothing is set in stone. But that view makes Aristotle’s phrase feel restrictive as it could stop us from seeing the potential for future growth and development.
Whilst I’d like to hope that my seven year old has a solid foundation, I’m also hoping that age and experience will help him become more rounded. With this in mind, I could adapt Aristotle’s line to say: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the foundations of the man”.
However, this may be a moot point. The average life expectancy was only about 30yrs in ancient Greece, compared to 80yrs now. Back in the day a boy would have already lived 23% of his lifetime by the time he reached 7; compared to today’s 7 year olds who are only 8% of the way through theirs.
If we adjust the relative age of Aristotle’s ‘7 year old’ to a modern day one, they’d actually be 18 years old. We could therefore re-write the saying for modern times: “Give me a child until he is 18 and I’ll show you the man”.
Now, I don’t think anyone would argue with that?
Happiness is there for the taking (more from Aristotle…)