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An ocean-liner journey through childhood may be far preferable to Concorde transit. Allowing time for each stage of development can help a child arrive in adolescence without jet lag
by Istar Schwager, Ph.D.

Justine’s almost four. Sara’s the same age. Justine sounds out words from her books and is on her way to reading independently. Sara, on the other hand, has only just begun recognizing letters of the alphabet.

While these two kids are at different levels in reading, they’re both within a normal range of development.

Just the way some babies cut their teeth earlier and some later, children mature socially, physically, and intellectually at different rates And when it comes to growing up, faster is not necessarily better None of us would consider pulling our children’ baby teeth out at age six to make the kids more grown up. Yet some parents do the equivalent in rushing children through essential stages of emotional and intellectual growth, before the “new teeth”—or the new skills and competencies—have evolved to the point where they are ready to serve their child.


To really appreciate the richness and excitement that exist in childhood, we need to understand what’s going on at different points in a child’s development and how each stage fits into the overall scheme of childhood.

PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT follows very dramatic patterns. Because it’s the most visible form of development, it is the area in which parents are most likely to compare one child with another. Yet, as you’ve probably seen, children pass through a succession of stages in their own sweet time. Sooner or later, most children sit, crawl, stand, and finally walk. And a child who walked at ten months doesn’t become a better school-age runner than the child who remained firmly seated until eighteen months. Given time, kids learn to complete puzzles, stack blocks, and even tie their own shoelaces (a skill with little practical value since the advent of velcro).

takes a lifetime. Babies cry to let people know what they want. It takes time to learn the words necessary to express feelings—like “That’s my toy” or “!f you give me one more spoonful of cereal, I’ll get sick.’ It’s natural for little children to act on their feelings instead of waiting to find just the right words. And they try to exert some mastery over situations by letting people know in no uncertain terms that they will not go along with many things. Hence the popularity of the word “no” (said with emphasis) among very young children.

The “terrible twos” is a necessary stage, whether it takes place when a child is 18 months or four years old. It is during this stage that kids learn to feel they have some influence over their lives. And once kids feel they have more control over their surroundings, as well as more command of language, it’s a lot easier for them to be patient, to share, and to take turns and be social.

SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT follows a distinct pattern. As a matter of survival, babies think they’re the center of the universe. As they get older, and if their need for self-centeredness has been met, they become more aware of the existence and then the needs of others. But that takes a lot of time.

Children have a hard time understanding that Mommy has a headache or that baby brother does not want to play soccer. In time, they have an easier time conceiving of other people’s viewpoints. They understand more about the jobs people have, how people are related to one another, and that people have dif ferent personalities. They also have a better sense that people can come from different places and that there were people who lived in the past. Finding that they have a secure place in the larger world can help them achieve in other areas.

INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENT involves kids moving from very physical and concrete activities to more abstract ideas. Young children learn from direct experience with tangible objects. They need to lift and drop and shake things to find out not only about the objects themselves but about what the world is like in general. Sturdy, large, non-breakable items like plastic mixing bowls and empty paper- towel rolls prove very interesting to very young children.

It takes time for kids to learn some basic concepts that we take for granted. Playing and experimenting informally with real objects is the best way for children to learn such concepts as big and small, or that one item can be part of two different groups depending on how you arrange things. It often takes several years from when a kid first begins to understand an idea to when he uses it consistently in lots of situations. Parents can best help their children develop intellectually by providing the objects and the enthusiasm to foster their child’s natural curiosity.

Whether it’s reading, sharing, or tying shoelaces, much of what children can and can’t do at a particular age is determined by neurological and other maturational factors. The same way that babies learn to crawl at different ages, kids mature at different rates throughout childhood and adolescence.

Parents often become worried when they see a neighbor’s child excel in a skill their own child has not yet attained. They wonder if they should put a little pressure on their child so that she can “catch up.” According to Dr. Gail Ross, a psychologist at Cornell Medical Center who works with developmental issues concerning children born prematurely, rushing a child can have a distinctly negative effect. Children who are pushed into performing too early may end up with negative feelings about a particular behavior. For instance, a child who has been prompted to read before he or she is ready, may be turned off and balk later when reading is taught.

Dr. Ross also points out that if parents feel frustrated at their children’s lack of adeptness, they may convey their disappointment to the child, injuring his or her self-esteem. By rushing kids into activities they’re not ready for, parents may unintentionally make it more difficult for their children to succeed in those activities later on, when the time is right. And just as kids of the same age are often at very different developmental levels, within the same child, there may be many levels operating at the same time.

Development is often lopsided. That is, it occurs faster in some areas than in others. That’s one of the reasons educators are now so reluctant to skip children in school. The precocious musician may be the last to tie his shoes. The agile athlete may have trouble telling time. And over time, these discrepancies often shift.

It’s important to give kids leeway in our expectations of them. When children are tired or ill or experiencing stress, they often act in more babyish ways than usual. When changes occur in a child’s regular routines, it can be stressful, even if the changes are positive. For instance, a move to a new house, the birth of a sibling, or starting a new school are all likely to evoke behavior in your child reminiscent of an earlier era in his life. Temporary lapses are quite normal. Even seemingly small changes in your child’s life can sometimes wreak havoc. It’s important to be patient and supportive. If you have any serious concern about your child’s behavior, it may be a good idea to check with the pediatrician to get her or his advice. And if your child is in school, it would help to talk to the teacher about any changes in your child’s environment and changes in behavior.

Obviously experience plays a major part in the healthy development of children. However, experience has the greatest impact when a child is ready for the experience. Many parents give their child a toy that they later realize is too advanced. Their child may play with the toy in some very original and unintended way, which is okay. But if they put the toy away and take it out again as little as three or four months later, they may find the toy is just right.

One of the best ways you can encourage kids without pushing is to take the lead from your child. See what new activities your child gravitates to in nursery school or at a friend’s house. Give your child time to practice the activities that he or she is working on mastering, whether it’s doing puzzles or going down the slide. Keep a few materials around that your child can grow into, as well as some things that your child has basically grown out of. Having old, familiar toys around is comforting, and children play with the same toys in different ways at various stages of development. And having new, challenging toys around gives kids a chance to experiment with new skills without necessarily having to play with the toys in the way intended.

Exposure to interesting experiences is one of the best ways to help enrich your child’s life, no matter what her age. Trips to the zoo are great, but don’t be surprised if the most exciting part of the trip for your child is the animal feeder, the lost balloon, or the sparrow drinking water from the hippo’s trough. Also keep in mind that experiences don’t have to be exotic for children to find them wonderful. A walk through the park with a jar of bubbles or an afternoon doing the laundry with Dad may be the highlight of a child’s week.

We live in a society where children are often rushed into formal learning very early. However, the world of memorization and work sheets disregards the young child’s need for informal hands-on experience, encouraged by supportive adults. As Dr. David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child (Addison Wesley) stresses, “Kids don’t need —or benefit from—formal early learning.”

Children are all different from one another. Each one develops at a unique pace. There are certain experiences and activities that have an almost magical quality at a certain stage. Finger painting just isn’t the same in adolescence. And block building has a potent appeal among preschoolers that can’t always be recaptured in later life. Try to relish each stage of your child’s life. If he’s not a child now, when will he be?

1987 Sesame Workshop (New York, New York) All rights reserved.

-please share your reactions or experiences .

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