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As you can see, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of turning points parents need to consider, and most parents don’t really know what to expect or decide. They operate from hopes, fears, and a lack of knowledge about development. Some parents worry too much about such issues and some not enough. Can I give you definite ages and expectations for readiness? NO! Much depends on who your child is and what you are comfortable with. However, I can give you ways to think about these issues.
In the early years and, again, as adolescence begins, children are developing quickly in all ways. There are norms that are predictable and sequential, and the best reading you can do to inform yourself about these are the books by Ilg and Ames -”Your One Year Old”, “Your Two Year Old”, etc. They describe, in every area of development – social, emotional, cognitive and behavioral – what is “normal”. However, the books only provide a broad outline. You have to remember that your kids haven’t read the books and may be a bit ahead or behind in any area of development. Also know that the areas develop independently of each other. So, a child may be cognitively advanced while being socially underdeveloped. This unevenness is confusing for parents who are always trying to assess whether their child is “normal”.
To add to parental confusion, children develop or mature at very different rates. While development is predictable, it is also unique to each child. They can’t be taught or pushed or, in the case of puberty, held back! Many of the answers to your questions about readiness are determined by “nature’s timetable”. When a child is going to walk, talk, enter puberty, etc. is pre-programmed by birth, and there can be as much as a two year difference in readiness – even between children in the same family There really are “late bloomers! Now, while the environment you create mayhelp children shift from their natural pace and inclinations, you are not a bad parent if the shift is slight or not at all. Therefore, it’s useless to compare your children to each other or to children outside the family. Doing so can only harm the self-esteem of the child unfavorably compared.
If you do try to hurry a child who is developmentally unready for a new step, you run the risk of sending them the message that they are failures and, thus, damage their self-esteem, giving them a sense of inferiority. This can happen to the most well-intentioned parent when you unintentionally – or deliberately – manifest frustration or disappointment with one of your children regarding their progress. You may not express this directly but may do so through your facial expression, tone of voice, or body language. Respecting developmental difference will prevent you from unwittingly doing this. It’s also important to remember that rate of development is not a predictor of ultimate success!
Some children who are pushed too hard when they aren’t ready for a task get frustrated and can “act out”. Then they are at risk of being perceived as behavior problems or as having attentional issues which add extra layers to their feelings of inadequacy. This can, in turn, can become a permanent part of their identity. Other children react to overly high expectations by developing debilitating stress which is manifested physically, emotionally or behaviorally. The main consideration is that you be aware of who each of your children is and do your best to recognize and respect his/her readiness to take on new challenges.
On the other hand, if you allow a child to lag too far behind his/her peers in age-appropriate behavior, if you set your expectations too low, there is also a danger to their self-esteem. Children are usually observant of what their peers are doing – whether that’s giving up diapers, going to sleepovers, or joining sports teams – and can feel bad about themselves for lagging behind even as they are reluctant to take the next step or to overcome their fears. In these instances, it’s up to you to make a parental decision to become more insistent that you child move onto the next step in development. This may involve taking away diapers, cheer-leading firmly that your child learn to swim, or discussing with them why they are unwilling to learn to drive. Sometimes this will require some assistance from an outside resource such as a parenting coach or therapist.
On the third hand, there are times when children believe they’re ready for a new challenge BUT YOU DON’T! As children edge towards adolescence, they may start to lobby for greater autonomy. It is within your rights, and also your responsibility, to decide if your child has the skills and maturity to move on. Just because other parents allow certain freedoms, such as going out alone with a friend, doesn’t mean that your child is sufficiently mature to handle this situation. Just because a child turns sixteen doesn’t mean you feel they are responsible or developed enough to get behind the wheel of a car. You are still responsible for their health and safety and your assessment has to prevail. However, if your child is going off to college and you still aren’t comfortable with them going out without you, you may have to look at who has the problem!
Finally, a word about significant delays. Respecting readiness does not mean turning a blind eye or deaf ear to your own observations as well as the feedback you get from your child’s school about your child’s progress. Such input can allow you to pick up on an area that needs special attention. Then proactive parents can provide appropriate intervention which can make all the difference in children reaching their full potential.
Susan C. Stone is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles for 33 years.She speaks widely to the parents and teachers of children of all ages. Ms. Stone appears regularly on both radio and television as a parenting expert and is the author of THE INDULGENCE TRAP – When too much is not Enough!