How old am I? There’s a simple, short answer, but if I was going to go with that I’d not be writing a blog post about it, would I?
The whole question of a person’s age is loaded with preconceptions and expectations about how they should look, how they should behave, what clothes they should wear, what they should have accomplished in their lives up to that point. That’s a lot of shoulds, a lot to conform to. Lives reduced to Gantt charts; a series of phases.
Children aren’t just children these days. They’re projects complete with a development plan and milestones. Parents get judged on how well their child moves through the phases, whether they are on schedule. It’s highly competitive.
As a parent you want what’s best for your child. That’s natural. But you’re led to believe that constant testing and comparison against various yardsticks is paramount. Sure, it has its uses. It’s done for a valid reason: to identify developmental delays that may indicate underlying needs, medical conditions or disease. That is important.
Plotting their weight on a chart, or noting their exact age the day they first sat up unaided or took their first steps is one thing: it’s good to have a record and identify delays in case there might be a problem. But then you get those parents–you must have seen them–who brag about how their child was doing the Times crossword at 18 months. Well, maybe not exactly that but you get the idea.
To focus on these dates and numbers is to lose sight of a child as an individual person. Worse, in the face of all these expectations there’s the danger that if some aspect of your child’s development is delayed, or otherwise outside the statistical range deemed normal, you will feel disappointed. It can feel like failure.
And that can get projected onto your child. You feel that there’s something wrong with them. You feel ashamed of them when other parents in your social circle describe how their children are hitting milestone after milestone right on schedule. You feel left out, isolated. You might even resent your child.
That. Is. Your. Child. Not some project to deliver on time. Not a machine to be adjusted until it runs within tolerances. A child. Your child. A human being. A person. People, children, don’t function within tolerances. There’s variation. A lot of variation. That’s normal.
Your child’s physical and neurological development is largely outside your control. Once you’ve taken care of the basics, providing them with food, shelter and care, there’s not a lot else you can influence. At that point you’ve done your best with their environment and it’s mostly down to genetics.
Between 1-2% of children will be diagnosed as autistic: this is a type of neurology frequently associated with delays in language development (among other things: there are plenty of good resources about autism). These children are not defective, they are not broken. They are at one end of the scale of human variation. Just because 90% of children fall within a narrow band of characteristics that we label “typical” doesn’t mean those who fall outside have anything wrong with them.
Many of these children will face challenges as they grow and develop. A world tailored towards the needs of the “typical” majority often doesn’t provide accommodations for the rest of us. We face prejudices and preconceptions because most people expect us to be like that majority. We are pressured to conform to their expectations, to “fit in” regardless of the harm that might do us. Make no mistake: putting a child (or even an adult) under the pressure of such expectations to conform causes harmful stress and even trauma.
So what can you do as a parent to help your child? First, learn. Educate yourself, understand them and what they are experiencing. Second, conquer your fear. Once you understand what’s going on there’s no reason to fear it. Third, accept your child. Accept them as they are, accept who they are. Let go of your expectations and appreciate your child right here and now. Not what you think they might become tomorrow but what they are today.
Hopefully you will have many tomorrows with them, but today only exists in this moment. Make the most of it and show your love always.