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In their own good time

It's hard to play by the rules when they keep changing the rules.  When I was a teenage babysitter, I was taught to put babies to sleep on their tummies, so that if they threw up, they wouldn't gag.  When Drew was born, we were told side or back was best; we even bought a little foam wedge to keep him on his side.  Three years later, when Franny was born, the rules changed again: "back to sleep" was the only way to go.  With every child, it seemed that the experts have reversed themselves on some point that they'd previously insisted on.  It's enough to make you question that nebulous "they" -- the pediatricians, psychologists, and experts who confidently dispense advice to all of us down here in the parenting trenches.

The current guidelines seem to describe a fairly narrow path between allowing our children to grow up too fast and allowing them to stay babies too long.  On the one hand, we're encouraged to make sure our children are strongly attached to us and warned never to leave them unsupervised; on the other, we're supposed to train them to be responsible and independent.  I'm afraid CPS would have me arrested if I left my nine-year-old at home for an hour while I ran errands, and yet he's expected to produce more complicated academic projects than the ones I did in junior high.  More and more, our standardized, prepackaged society expects children to conform to a narrow range of benchmarks which can be easily measured and documented.   The same experts who tell us there's a wide range of "normal" for child development are also touting the importance of early intervention programs and assuring us that if our children fall behind in kindergarten, they may never catch up.

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Books like the What to Expect series allow you to start comparing your child to some imaginary ideal early.  What to Expect the First Year and What to Expect the Toddler Years are both organized in a handy month by month format; each chapter begins with a list of skills that your child should have attained by that age, so that, at a glance, you can tell whether your kid is measuring up or is a candidate for early intervention.  And of course, once your child starts attending a play group, preschool, or daycare, you can discover the joys of competitive parenting: Your one-year-old is using baby signs to tell you that she needs to go potty?  Well my one-year-old is already saying her ABC's.  In French.

Even if parents don't compare their children, teachers sometimes use gentle contrasts to encourage the parents to work with their children on desired skills.  "Little Johnny's the only one who isn't potty trained yet," the teacher will announce mournfully (and no doubt, she's repeating the same story to half the parents in the class).  In later years, it's shoe-tying or reading or algebra, but the story's the same: Johnny's holding everyone else up.  Suddenly it doesn't matter if your child falls perfectly within developmental norms, he's behind.

In a world in which most children will be in some sort of preschool or daycare from an early age, students are expected to arrive at kindergarten already aware of how to behave in a classroom, trained to sit "crisscross applesauce" (previously known as "Indian-style"), and exhibiting reading readiness; the push to be ready for kindergarten starts as soon as children are out of the infant room.    In some ways, it's understandable -- if I had to change diapers in a class of ten two-year-olds, I'd be lobbying for them all to be potty- trained too.  And yet, child development doesn't conform to a narrow template; most children will master all the important skills, in their own time.  And in most instances, there's very little correlation between small delays in speech, motor skills, or reading, and later ability.  But in our standardized society, any deviation from the norm is perceived as a problem; the truism that early intervention can make a big difference for some children is misinterpreted to mean that any child who isn't performing on the right side of the bell curve should be getting "extra help."

I was a child who did things at my own pace, and I've been loath to push my kids too hard.  This instinct has been reinforced as my children have gotten older.  The child who  was three before he spoke more than a few words is now articulate and witty and the kid I never thought I'd be able to "sleep train" now puts herself to bed without any fuss.  To a very large degree it all comes out in the wash, and most of those early differences that parents and teachers get so worked up about even out in the end.  One of our favorite bedtime books remains Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego's Leo the Late Bloomer, about a tiger cub who "couldn't do anything right."  Each of my children has struggled, in some way or another, with being a "late bloomer," but like Leo, each of them, in their own good time, bloomed.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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