[Week 5 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Things you should understand about child development
Would you be curious if I suggested to you that scientific studies on child development do more harm than good? I do suggest this, and for two main reasons:
- Research results on child development are about as reliable as research on the next important dietary change everyone should make.
- Spending significant time with children is a much better way to know what they need than comparing them to a chart.
From reading some study findings, one might think that children never developed and matured until research proved it. All these studies have created academic child experts who rarely spend much time with even their own children, because they are busy studying other children. Children who should probably be spending more time with their parents, so how does that affect the results?
The development of a child is a very individual thing. No one really knows just how much environment, genetics, or training affect a child’s developmental stages. There are many things a child is designed to learn and grow into. It’s like a fail-safe system. Seems like this should encourage parents.
Parents who want happy, healthy relationships with their children will want to avoid getting hung up on the latest findings or cultural expectations. Try making a conscious decision to separate your ego and expectations from how your child is maturing. Let your child mature at his built in pace. When everyone’s kids reach adulthood, no one worth noticing will care who learned to read first. What matters is that they can read as adults.
What are developmental stages?
Developmental stages can be defined as points at which a child becomes capable of certain cognitive or physical tasks. That is, they can now understand things they couldn’t before and control muscles they couldn’t before. Before the pertinent development has occurred, it is futile to expect a child to be able to do certain things. An infant cannot walk; a toddler cannot balance the checkbook; a six-year old cannot have a baby.
Scientific studies lead parents to comparisons and expectations that are often pointless. Add to that the news of the wonderful progress of other children and you have a recipe for parental stress and childhood frustration. Never mind that we rarely hear when parents misrepresented or misunderstood what was going on with their child. They tend to keep that to themselves.
The best way to judge a child’s developmental progress is to think whether or not they have been making any progress since birth. Since the answer is very likely ‘yes,’ a parent should then simply support the child at the current developmental stage and patiently wait for the next one. If children are exposed to life, they will be hard pressed to not develop normally. No amount of comparison can make it happen faster. It is not something they, the children, are in control of.
Obviously not all is right with the world and occasionally there is illness, injury, or genetic abnormality that block normal development. Once in a while there are special tactics that a parent can learn to help a child overcome unique struggles. However, overall most children just need time.
There is a lot of room for variations in the supposed schedule of development, much more than many experts or charts would lead you to believe. Treating those variations like medical or psychological issues is like treating foot size and shape with foot binding. It grants cultural approval, but has long term crippling effects.
Demystifying parenting through developmental stages
One of the challenges of parenting is deciding when a developmental stage is solidly attained. A good parent wants to build on that with other teaching and opportunities. When can certain things be expected of a child? Here are some guidelines:
1. Watch for indications in the child’s own choices.
People have a way of giving themselves away when they have a chance to do something they like. Children are no exception to this. If a child can sit and look at a book for a while, he can also stay seated at the family dinner table for a reasonable amount of time. Many parents view this as a special family time. It can also help let a tired mom or dad finish their dinner.
If a child can concentrate on building a Lego tower, he can put his clothes away. It may be in everyone’s best interest for the parent to give very particular instructions and provide quick feedback, as the child is probably not as intuitively inspired for this task, but he is capable. A parent may also use this as an opportunity to work with the child and demonstrate how to make a chore more fun.
Then there is the proverbial opening of the cookie jar or some similar sound that a child will come running for. This indicates that the child is perfectly able to learn to come when called.
2. Have a consensus between parents/caregivers.
Parents help balance each other. Their different perspectives help to see situations more in 3D. Then, their teamwork results in better communication with the children. When children get a clear message, they take it more seriously. When they know they can’t pit mom against dad, their real developmental abilities become more clear and there is more peace in the home.
3. Don’t test or require too many new things at once.
Too many new things to learn at once creates confusion and mental exhaustion. This could make it hard to tell what the child really can do and be discouraging for all involved. It can also make it difficult for them to make good use of their new skills. It may even end up with them wanting to avoid new capabilities because it is so filled with tension. This doesn’t mean that every time a child balks at doing something they are really able to that they need to be coddled. It just means be aware of when problems like that are being unnecessarily created.
Keep in mind that just because junior can now follow instructions to throw his popsicle wrapper in the waste basket, doesn’t mean he is ready to empty all the trash cans and get it down to the curb! Just because your toddler can learn boundaries of ownership, doesn’t give excuses for older siblings to get mean-spirited about childish intrusions. If your young child has learned to finish his healthy dinner, he still should probably not be left unsupervised for long in a kitchen full of freshly baked cookies.
The goal is not to test the extremes that a child can perform, but to gently lead him to understand his new capabilities and inherent responsibilities. A young child who helps collect dirty laundry will gain understanding in the work involved and probably be more careful, but still shouldn’t be raked over the coals for accidentally dripping soup on his shirt.
4. Introduce new requirements in positive ways.
New things are learned most easily when we are fresh of body and spirit. This means
- physically rested
- not sick
- not a lot of other changes to keep track of (see #3)
- not on a tight schedule
- not at the end of the day
The obvious exception to that last bullet point is bedtime changes, for those can only happen at bedtime. However, even in those cases, the changes could be explained earlier.
It is helpful for a child to understand that new expectations and responsibilities are not punishments or consequences. You can explain that everyone grows up and gradually learns to help take care of things, from brushing their teeth to paying the bills. If the child hasn’t heard of paying the bills, you have a chance for the first lesson on money and budgeting!
Older siblings may need to be reminded that they were younger once and not as much was asked of them. This is just one aspect of helping all of them to understand that while they are all equally loved, they will all be treated as individuals. This may be related to developmental stages and it may have to do with attitudes and personal talents. A child who willfully drops a stack of books in anger will be treated differently than one who miscalculates his ability to carry a large load.
5. Don’t be afraid to adjust your expectations.
We all have blind spots or sometimes come to wrong conclusions. There is no virtue in clinging to a bad decision. If you were wrong about your toddler’s bladder control, you were wrong. Or maybe you were misunderstanding all the factors. A child who can stay dry when regularly reminded to visit the bathroom may not have reached the point of control when distracted for longer periods of time.
If your child doesn’t have the muscle control to write neatly formed letters, no amount of incentive will help. There is nothing wrong with letting your child see you re-group. Over time you will both find that honest evaluation of developmental issues will build your reputation as the parent.
Be the wise parents your child needs
Fortunately, one of the first things to develop after infancy is the ability to obey. Of course, children that young still need constant supervision, but they also benefit from learning how to listen to their wise parents. It is the rare toddler indeed, if any exists, that is wiser than his parents.
Parents are responsible for their children. It is this responsibility that motivates them to learn to understand their children’s developmental needs and progress. Until children have attained the physical and mental status of young adults, they need their parents to be responsible for them. This means more than being responsible to provide physical needs. It also includes teaching the children to be responsible at the level they are able. The best way for a parent to discern a child’s developmental level and abilities is to spend time with them.