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Think. Discuss. Act. Children

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Review: Latency

Sarnoff, C. (1976). Latency. New York City: Jason Aronson.


This is the first book wholly devoted to latency age development, and its problems and treatment from a clinical perspective. The author is a practicing child-psychotherapist writing for clinicians, social workers, and educators.

The latency age period is from ages 6-12, a stage noted because of the lack of “apparent sexual outlets.” Latency age children discharge their energies “in sports, intense horseplay and teasing, work and fantasy…cops and robbers or hide and seek.” And now commercial fantasy games of many kinds provide an additional outlet.

The Typical Latency Age Boy

The typical latency age boy is described as

mostly well behaved, patterning himself as best as he can after his father…understands guilt…[tries to] win approval of adults even when they are not present…develops strong and lasting friendships, but always with boys. Girls, though related to in passing, must be avoided when boy pals are around…he throws himself without cynicism or second thought into group activities…[as] microcosms…of adult life. When playing baseball, the score, the plays and the outcome are real and important. Sandlot play becomes the World Series. He is an inveterate collector. Cards, coins, stamps, pennies, shells and stones are lined up on shelves or glued to boards.

The Typical Latency Age Girl

The typical latency age girl is described as

a good little girl. She is sweet and cuddly, lovely to hold and to behold. She is mother’s helper and daddy’s friend. She follows her mother…in chores and…household skills. She forms close, if impermanent ties with groups of girls, and these groups tend to be larger than those with which boys are involved. Activities such as Girl Scout meetings are taken quite seriously. Ballet lessons become a basis for the belief that stardom and a life’s career in dance are only a matter of growing up. Boys can be treated as friends briefly, (until) the appearance of girl friends on the scene…Alliances among girls are less stable than those between latency age boys. There are fights, breakups, and makeups in unending series…Close groups of girls are often organized into short-lived clubs whose sole purpose, (may be) the exclusion of a classmate or friend who has offended one of their number.

Gender-Similar Latency Age Reactions

Both girls and boys of latency age find a ready escape from painful situations and disappointments by entering a world of fantasy which is believed in as firmly as the baseball games or ballet lessons just described. A period of arduous difficulty and chaotic interaction with parents comes to an end when the child can combat the humiliation that he feels by entering a dream world in which wrongs are righted and his image of himself is restored to a reassuring sense of improved self-worth.

Latency, for Sarnoff, is the period when the ego of the child has developed adequately to dissipate the anxieties from stress through fantasy. The child uses the words and myths provided by the culture as a means of discharging pent-up energies.

Certain children

failed to enter latency. Typically, these youngsters were intensely stimulated by parental cruelty, nudity, or seduction. Their capacity to form symbols was minimal, as was their awareness of the definition of guilt. They were over-excited and hyperactive, with little…attention span or ability to delay.

Some children can enter latency showing calm, pliability, and educability but cannot retain the state under stress. Thus, a child with good behavior in school can become anxious, excited, and disruptive in the less structured environment at home.

The eventual outcome of the use of fantasy to undo humiliation in latency is the shift in the symbolic content of the fantasies to signify whose identity and nature are realistic, and among the cherished cultural elements of a useful and creative society.

A child moves from latency to adolescence as he or she deals with stress through realistic future planning and programs of relief.


  1. Parents, teachers, and counselors need to recognize the distress that comes to children of this age and the anxiety due to adult and peer approval. Dreams, new skills, performance, and well-managed responsibilities all need affirmation.
  2. Similarly, the fantasies of children need to be respected. They serve as release for anxiety, exploration, and a means of controlling a safe environment.
  3. Children of this age have a great need for both parents. Parents are becoming less available. It is easy to understand the latency age kids’ special pain of divorce, death, abuse, or inaccessibility. Conversely, children of fine parents can experience problems that bring hyperactivity and misbehavior.
  4. Caring relationships and wholesome activities in a group or with a big brother or sister can be a powerful therapy at this age. Still, there are problems that demand the professional attention.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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