Morality in Tweens: Ages Ten Through Twelve

“The years between 10 and 14 are known as the storm-and-stress period,
because so much change – physical, emotional, social – can happen seemingly all at once.”
– Sue Corbett –

Tweens are sandwiched in an awkward space between elementary age children and the youth of adolescence. I say awkward because they have a foot in each world and often seesaw back and forth. Some tweens definitely lean younger, toward childhood. Others already seem to be young teens. But most of them vacillate between child and teen.

The biggest leap probably occurs between ten and eleven, which seems to be a transition period. Parents usually experience this transition as a decrease in communication. The door to the tween’s bedroom, which was always open before, is now closed and may have a sign on it: “Private.” Or “Knock Before Entering.” Or even “Keep Out.” In general, boys become more restless, and girls become moody. Many girls begin menstruating, although the average age for this is twelve and a half. The point is, tweens are moving into the world of emotional weather patterns we might call “hormonal disturbances.” Thrown out of balance, they’re uncertain and often uncomfortable with the changes they’re experiencing.

As in the previous stage, tweens have the task of continuing to develop a sense of industry, but now we can add the task of identity formation. Developing a sense of industry involves the child mastering skills and discovering abilities. This discovery becomes a foundation for the tween’s growing search for identity, which will continue through the teen years. Add the growing self-consciousness of the tween, and we get the beginnings of teen angst that worries, “What do they think of me?” Still, tweens don’t usually spend an inordinate amount of time in self-reflection, at least not as much as they will in the next stage.

The negative of identity formation is identity confusion. it’s important to note that if a tween is developing a sense of industry and identity, the strength of competence should continue to emerge, and the strength of fidelity should begin developing. Fidelity is faithfulness – in this case, faithfulness to who they are and what they stand for.

Tweens still have the rule-oriented, fairness-focused, double-standard morality that characterizes younger children, but they are shifting from Concrete Reciprocity (I’ll be fair to whoever’s fair to me) to Ideal Reciprocity (basically the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated). Dr. Lickona says that they generally define “what’s right” as “being nice so that others will think well of me and I can think well of myself.” Tweens still tend to reason with payback logic – getting even or balancing the score.

Now that tweens are beginning to reason abstractly, moral issues become more complex. They’re better at gauging right and wrong, but now they also see moral nuances, gray areas where right and wrong are not so easy to pin down: image vs. character, justice vs. mercy, friends vs. enemies vs. frenemies. But they’re also getting better at thinking through social issues and suggesting solutions. As they mature, they become more sensitive to inconsistencies between what they’ve been taught and what they actually see and hear from the significant adults in their lives. They quickly pick up on hypocrisy, astutely seeing disparities between what adults say and what adults do.

On the other hand, tweens tend to be relationally shallow and self-serving. They may act or speak impulsively, not thinking about the consequences. As they grow through this stage, they often test limits and challenge boundaries that seem arbitrary to them. And their dilemmas become increasingly more teenlike.

Tweens tend to conform to the wishes of the significant people in their lives – the people who spend time with them, work and play with them, and really listen to them when they have something to say. The biggest influences on their values are media, peers, school, and parents.

Advertising and media focus a huge amount of attention on kids this age, who have become the perfect targets. One reason is that parents spend more money on tweens than on any other age group. A second reason is that tweens are growing more self-conscious, peer-conscious, and body-conscious. In other words, image-conscious. And that perfectly fits advertisers’ goals, because they’re hired to make consumers believe that purchasing and using certain products will enhance their image.

A third reason advertisers target tweens is that kids at this stage are moving rapidly toward the adolescent stage, in which they are developing their personal identity, deciding who they are or at least how they would like to be perceived. Product creators, sellers, and advertisers want their products and brands to become part of the young person’s identity: “I’m a Pepsi guy.” “I’m an Urban Outfitters kind of girl.” The product-peddlers want to get a head start on claiming loyalty, so this age looks like their perfect match. All of this advertising attention contributes to the push and pull of the moral tug-of-war over values.

Ten Through Twelve
– one foot in childhood, one in adolescence

– rule oriented, fairness focused
– challenge boundaries
– story centered faith, questioning
– self-conscious, image-conscious
– peer and gender sensitive, forming groups

Conflict: Industry vs. Inferiority
Identity Formation vs. Identity Confusion
Strength: Competence and the beginning of Fidelity
• • •

adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley.
All rights reserved.

Top image by Guduru Ajay Bhargav from Pexels