How do you feel when the mother pushing her child in the bucket swing next to your laughing junior asks, “Is he walking yet?” The sparkle in her eye could mean two things: new friend or cul-de-sac conversation in one-upmanship. I never did appreciate the competitive nature of girls, and I certainly wouldn’t understand it from mothers, but I like to think that I would know how to answer with my values. “Not yet,” I’d respond. “We’re letting him move at his own pace. Harvard can wait.” Then I imagine I’d laugh to ostracize myself from the mommy pack in the park. I’d use humor because what I’ve heard from other parents is humor keeps you sane.
Though I don’t have children, I think I know a bit about them. At sixteen, I cared for a premature infant on a heart monitor, with his mother leaving the instruction, “Just tickle his foot if he stops breathing.” I au paired with families during summers. I worked with preschool aged children at an independent school, often taking notes as three-year-olds learned how to walk into school on their own. From my vantage point, kids develop as much through good parenting as they do when their bodies and brains see fit. However, there are standard milestones a child should cross, especially in the first year, like crawling, walking, and saying his first word. While all babies are different, certain milestones are necessary to make sure your child’s physical and mental development is on track, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
For instance, by the time your child is seven months, he should be expected to roll from back to front and front to back and to be able to sit without the support of hands. A child should respond to his name and to hearing “no” while discerning the difference in tones of voice. Some babies are crawling by seven months, but it is completely normal for a child to crawl at a later date. At seven months it’s more concerning when a baby seems floppy or can’t sit up or doesn’t respond to a parent’s voice or hearing her name. The big milestone, of course, is walking. Some babies pull up and walk with assistance as early as ten months—others aren’t walking until fourteen or fifteen months. By one year, most children can pull up to stand and walk, holding onto furniture or take a few steps unassisted, according to the AAP.
While it may be hard to see friends’ children meeting milestones at expected or early rates if yours is not—typically you have little to fear. The biggest concern for many mothers isn’t waiting for their child to cross that milestone, it’s the nerve-wracking comparisons moms make on the playground or in the playgroup.
Laura Smail, MSW and stay-at-home mom of two boys and a girl aged ten, eight, and seven, agrees. I spoke to Laura at her home in Chicago to see if after three kids her anxiety subsided, and to hear how she felt about new parents who mull over the timing of their child’s milestones.
“The current culture is fueling that need to be overly worried about your child because we are in such a competitive culture. We want our children to be as developmentally on target as other kids, and a bonus would be if our kids were developing even sooner as others, because that comes off as a feather in our cap.”
Laura believes that in such a competitive culture, many parents feel they have to parent like others and have matching milestones with other children.
Luckily for Laura, her pediatrician quelled her fears.
“They [her kids] all fell within the range, and each time I had another child, I relaxed, which benefited each subsequent child … My pediatricians were fabulous because they were very reassuring in telling me that my kids were right on target for their age. Ethan was an early walker, but they were all within the guidelines of where they should be.”
Helen Arnold, mother of three in Knoxville, Tennessee, had a different experience. Her first son, Grady, didn’t walk until sixteen months. Though he fell into the ninety-fifth percentile in both height and weight, Helen and her pediatrician were concerned.
“My mother-in-law said that my husband didn’t walk until he was sixteen months. As it turned out, Grady started crawling right after his check up, and took his first steps at sixteen months,” Helen shared.
Grady is a completely healthy five-year-old today and perhaps his siblings walked earlier because they had a big brother to keep up with!
We will never know why children develop at such different rates, but Laura has some advice to help deal with comparative talk in the park.
- Talk to your friends who have kids. Join or start a parenting group. Laura started a local chapter of the parenting group, PACES. “It was a huge support and I surrounded myself with more easygoing parents who helped me see the other perspectives of parenting.”
- Trust your gut; it’s your best indicator
- Talk to your pediatrician since they are in the business of knowing child development
- You have to come to a point where you are at peace with the fact that each child develops at a different pace. Some children develop at a faster rate and slow down, with others develop slower and later pick up. Usually everyone evens out at a certain age.
- Don’t read too many parenting books or magazines. By obsessing about it, you miss the tender moments and the little joys in parenting. If you have your face in a magazine, you miss the wonder and the joy of your child. If your face is in a book, you’re constantly comparing them to other children.
Laura wanted to remind new parents that the joy of parenting comes from forming relationships with other parents, other children, social interactions, and finding ways to celebrate parenting rather than getting caught up in culture of comparisons.
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