It’s understandable that parents want to offer whatever they can to help their children through the stages of growth and development. Parents have tried all kinds of ways of giving their child an edge on others their age, from flash cards to teach infants to read, to baseball gloves for one year olds, to playing Mozart in the womb. Rather than overwhelming your child with information he or she isn’t ready to process, it’s better to learn what the child is ready for, at what stage, and offer him or her the most efficient amount of information, access, freedom and guidance for that stage of development.
Baby humans are born with larger brains than most mammals, in fact brain size helps determine how soon in development a fetus leaves the womb. But that big brain isn’t fully developed yet, the way the heart and other organs are. It still has a lot of growing and changing to do. Infancy through early childhood is a time unlike any other. Your child’s experiences will help determine how big the brain will grow, and what parts of it flourish or die off.
Babies gain control from head to feet, they start by using eyes and mouth, then hands, and only then begin to control the torso, legs and feet. General movements to specific: large motor skills before fine motor skills, waving arms before finding hands before reaching for and then touching objects, before manipulating them; kicking before crawling before walking.
Developmentally Determined Behavior
Jean Piaget, the father of child development theory, saw through observation that children go through discrete stages of learning and skill development. He noticed that children can’t leap too far ahead in one bound. A newborn is not ready to play football; a toddler isn’t ready to read War and Peace. What children can do, Piaget found, is to move to the next stage of development as the opportunity to grow is presented, when they’re ready to take advantage of it. So if you take a two month old who is finding his hands, and put soft, colorful toys in his reach, he will sooner or later reach for them, a milestone he can achieve. If you take a toddler who is learning words, and speak to her in complete sentences, and help her label actions and objects, you will soon have a child who can speak in sentences. You can’t teach a toddler to run like a four year old, they’re not physically able to do it. Same with concepts like sharing and waiting turns, if the child isn’t ready to understand it, no amount of instruction, example or punishment will teach the child to do so.
There are a lot of behaviors that children do, that are tied to development. Some of these behaviors may seem like misbehavior, when in fact they are just “something kids do at that age” or what our parents used to call “just a phase.” Examples of this are: bedwetting, thumb sucking, ear pulling, tantrums, running away when you call them to you, and becoming upset when it’s time to leave one place for another. Each of these behaviors and others like them will disappear on their own over time. You can help the child through them, but punishing these behaviors only works at great cost to your relationship with the child, and often doesn’t work at all.
Therefore it’s important to learn what stage your child is in, what he or she is ready to learn or do, and what they may be capable of. There are good books at the library and bookstores that will help you figure out where your child is, developmentally, and what he or she is able to do, and how your child compares to others of the same age. You can also talk to your pediatrician, as well as observing other children as they interact in the playground, at your child’s daycare or preschool, or within your family or neighborhood. Getting a good picture of your child’s stage of growth and abilities will help you to have a smoother, more positive relationship and help your child to grow when he’s ready. If your toddler is making sounds that seem like words, for example, it’s ok to echo back the words it sounds like. It may very well mean what you think it does to the child, and answering back helps the child understand a little bit more about language. Don’t insist the child imitate you, but allow him or her the time to answer back. It’s a game, a learning game. Approach development with a sense of fun, and you’ll teach your child that learning and growing is not only acceptable, but valuable in gaining skills, autonomy, and closeness with you.