Charting Your Child’s Development
March 8, 2018
Your child’s journey through the first years of life will be an important and impressive trip. She will go from a totally helpless baby who is entirely dependent on her mother and father to a vigorous little person possessing an increasing collection of physical, intellectual, and interpersonal skills of her own. As her parents, you have a worrisome obligation to monitor her progress, as well as a wonderful opportunity to applaud her accomplishments.
Consequently, like many mothers and fathers, especially first-timers, you may find that a developmental chart of some kind comes in quite handy, letting you know what typically happens when with regard to a child’s constantly changing behavior and ever-emerging abilities. However, while an accurate chart may be convenient and comforting, without some knowledge concerning the problems inherent in mapping developmental milestones, even the best chart may be misleading.
One thing to note is that although most charts appear quite clear and concise, a child’s development is never a neat and orderly affair. For example, a chart focused on the first 36 months and four major aspects of development may be structured as a series of 36 rows with four columns in each row. And for the sake of appearances, the chart’s creator may feel compelled to put something in every one of the 144 spaces thus made available.
But a child’s development does not proceed in regular and equal increments according to a calendar. There will be some months when nothing much is happening in the area of social skills while motor skills are advancing in leaps and bounds. Later on, motor skills may slow their pace while social skills spurt ahead. Expecting each aspect of development to move ahead at the same rate, or expecting the same number of significant events within each area every month, is simply unrealistic.
Another thing to keep in mind is that most charts are designed to depict average expectations. However, each child has her own unique rate and pattern of development. While it is natural to be alarmed if your child is “late” in achieving one thing or overwhelmed if she is “early” in achieving something else, just remember that a lot of different figures go into the calculation of an average.
For instance, 98% of the adult male population in this country is between 5’6″ and 6’2″ in height, with the average being 5’10”. But only a fairly small percentage of men are precisely 5’10”. And you certainly would not consider one who is 5’6″ (or even 5’4″) a little person, or one who is 6’2″ (or even 6’4″) a giant. Expecting your child to hit every point on the chart on the button is obviously unfair, and worrying about seemingly substantial deviations may turn out to be unwarranted.
It also is helpful to know that not only is there wide variability among individual children, but there is wide variability among individual achievements as well. For example, the “normal range” for the onset of receptive language – when a child understands her first words – is relatively narrow: six to eight months. On the other hand, the “normal range” for the onset of expressive language – when a child says her first words – is enormous: six months to two years. And you should note that the appearance of an achievement anywhere within the normal range indicates absolute developmental equality. The particular point at which it appears – early or late in the range – is completely meaningless in the long run.
In addition, many “normal” children sometimes skip a listed achievement entirely. Crawling and stranger anxiety are two common examples. Despite efforts by some researchers to connect the non-appearance of these to various learning disabilities or behavior problems, there is no solid evidence to suggest any adverse long-term effects whatsoever. It is often difficult for charts to convey reasonable ranges or interesting irregularities. So whenever you are concerned about the untimely appearance or complete non-appearance of a particular achievement, it is a good idea to supplement the information provided with further reading on the subject.
Finally, it is critical to recognize that most charts may tell you what is happening with your child, but they do not necessarily let you know what you should be doing as her parents at each stage. For instance, while the understanding of words may not appear on the chart until the seven-month mark, and the speaking of words may not appear until the fourteen-month mark, child development experts will tell you that mothers and fathers should be speaking to their infants a lot right from birth.
Even more important is the fact that for safety’s sake, physical developments must be anticipated and prepared for well in advance. Although the ability to roll over may not be scheduled for several weeks yet, it is never too early to be careful about leaving your baby unattended on a changing table. And even though crawling and climbing may not appear on the chart until the second half of the first year and beyond, you would be well advised to put all dangerous items far beyond your child’s access long before that in case she decides to pull off a surprise.
In summary, a good chart can be a useful tool when it comes to keeping track of your child’s early development. However, by its very nature, it cannot tell you everything you want or need to know, nor can it always convey the information it does contain in the most appropriate manner. Furthermore, also by its very nature it cannot depict or predict your particular child’s developmental progress with absolute accuracy. Therefore, if you use a chart only as a general guide rather than as a precise blueprint, you will find the job of parenting will involve less fussing and fretting, and you will be able to parent more effectively while having much more fun.