Our daughter Naomi was born 2 weeks late. I remember going into the nursery and looking at her compared to lots of the other children and thought she looked more developed than most. I concluded that this would provide for an infant and toddler that would hit all of her milestones quicker. We are, after all extremely rational thinkers as first time parents. I often think back on a story my dad told me from his childhood. My grandmother insisted that my father was potty trained at 3 months old. When asked why my grandmother said she would look in his crib and because his eyes were watery she knew he had to go to the bathroom. A silly story of course, but it only reveals to me how we convince ourselves how special our kids are for the “normal” things that they do. Are children smarter because they talk earlier? Will they be more adventurous and dexterous because they walk earlier? Will they have a more developed and discerning palate if they eat earlier? If we read to them earlier will they read sooner? The questions can go on and on, but I can really say that by pondering these issues we were putting undue pressure on both ourselves and on our daughter.
The questions that we should have been asking were to the doctors and experts who created the benchmarks at age levels that may be realistic, but created a self induced paranoia that got us worried that there was something wrong with our daughter if she didn’t hit them. Admitting our guilt about these feelings was a result that we would find out was not necessary. Our daughter missed some of the so-called earlier benchmarks that she should have hit and those so-called failures fed into our neuroses. We questioned whether we were doing anything wrong or if there was anything actually wrong with our daughter. Our doctor assured us that benchmarks were only a guide, but in the competitive world of whose child was more mature and more advanced we were left wanting. There needed to be a reason so we could be blameless.
I remember when I was finally assured that in order to keep my sanity that I should ignore those benchmarks. We just needed to do what we could to encourage our daughter no matter where she was in the growth process. Like many parents in Manhattan and I’m sure in other parts of the world, our daughter was in one of the many Dance/Music/Movement classes offered. We really liked the leader of the class because of her ability to not only encourage and enhance the life of our daughter but to also be approachable to the us as parents when questions arose. There were kids of so many different ages and so many different levels in the classes that she offered. I remember the day of my "approach" like it was yesterday. I was concerned our daughter was lagging behind because she wasn’t crawling. I went to her after class, told her my concerns and she gave me a simple answer. She told me that when our daughter was ready to walk, to talk to sing or in our case to crawl then she would do it. We should allow ourselves the peace of mind to know that other than physical or neurological issues our daughter would do everything at her own speed and when she was ready. Sure enough she was right. We continue to recognize this idea while recently attempting to potty train our daughter. We realized that she understands the idea of going to the potty and will occasionally go, but that she just isn’t ready yet. She will tell us when that time arrives.
Looking back to the title of this article (Are Benchmarks Realistic?), I believe that benchmarks are certainly important as guides, but that is only how we should use them. We have a child that through love and encouragement is where she is supposed to be right now. When we put pressure on ourselves to follow those benchmarks as the rule of law, disappointment and doubts in our ability as parents were too often the result. There was so much more nuance to raising our daughter. Instead of paying attention to where she should be, we need to just enjoy her for who and where she was at every “Benchmark” age. Take it from a convert. Save yourself the anguish and enjoy your children as they are. The mood swings and tantrums of an almost 3 year old will make you long for the days when they couldn’t crawl, roll over or talk.
Matthew Pasher lives in NYC's Chelsea neighborhood with his wife Lori and daughter Naomi. A graduate of Kenyon, he is a part-time stay at home dad while looking for work, an avid reader and a Liverpool fanatic who can make a mean mac and cheese from scratch when asked. His blog, which needs updating, but some new articles can be found at 2011ajobsearchodyssey.blogspot.com. He refuses to be followed on twitter as that's too much pressure.