Sunday, September 5, 2010
Tripping over milestones
Have you ever found yourself at the well-baby clinic for a baby's check-up, and while the nursing sister is busy filling out your child's chart, your eye catches the large poster on the wall, listing the developmental milestones children should have reached at various ages? It doesn't matter how big the writing is that says that those are just guidelines - all of us in that situation will do a quick mental check to see how our little ones 'measure up' ...and woe to you if your 18 month old can only stack 2 blocks instead of the required 4....or even worse - you never even knew he was supposed to be stacking blocks in the first place and now he's almost two already and oh my, how will this affect his future academic performance...and if you didn't know about the stacking, what else is there that you don't know???
A while ago my friend Nicky published a post about how she just about worked herself into an anxiety attack after watching a TV program about the developmental milestones of one year olds. Nicky's youngest son, Sam, has a condition called Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome, more of which you can read about on her blog, which is aptly named I AM SAM...THE CONQUEROR! Anyway, here is a snippet of what Nicky wrote that day:
"I am not sure if it was watching that documentary or something else completely but over the past few days I have found myself frantically trying to help Sam "catch-up" to where he should be developmentally...and it is EXHAUSTING! Now, let's first understand that Sam is nowhere near being neglected or ignored, he is 95% of the time either on my arm, in his pouch, on my lap or attached by some other means and I talk to him constantly, we sing...we dance...we play and I've been fairly satisfied that he is getting a considerable amount of stimulation - but all of a sudden it hasn't felt like enough, to the point where I started timing the periods in between interacting with him, for example, I put him him down so that I can attend to something quite basic, like brushing my teeth, (I have an OCD thing about teeth-brushing...it has to be done for a precise amount of time, in a particular way, a particular order, etc) but then I start thinking like "Okay, he's been in his cot now for like 3 minutes - is it okay for him to have no stimulation/interaction for three minutes?" and then almost every morning I land up standing next to his cot, spluttering some-or-other kiddies song through mouthfuls of toothpaste. Another example - I take Sam for a walk in his pram most afternoons. We only walk for about 30 mins and he usually kips for most of that time, but yesterday afternoon he didn't fall asleep AT ALL and I kept looking into the pram and he just appeared to be staring into space and I started worrying about how long it would be okay for him to just lie there and found myself hurrying the walk up, just to get home and onto something else. And that's basically the essence of how our days are being spent....okay, we've sang songs now for twenty minutes, time to press buttons on Noah's Ark to hear the different animal sounds...okay, time now to walk around the house and point out different objects and say their names...it's like running an endless race."
Can you relate? I could, and I am certain that there a many mothers out there, especially first-time moms, who know exactly what we are talking about.
I have not yet completely overcome this ridiculous tendency to want to stimulate my children all the time, but I have definitely relaxed a lot more about it. What has helped me a lot is, first, the idea of 'strewing', i.e. leaving things out for my children to discover on their own time, at at their own pace, and secondly, being OK with it if they are not interested or adept yet. The idea of 'natural', unforced learning really appeals to me, and motivates me to create a rich, yet comfortable environment for my children to spend their days in.
More importantly, though, is that I think we underestimate the tremendous influence our mere presence during the busy hours of every day has on our children. Here is how I commented on Nicky's concerns about Sam:
"Think about it: you spoke to Sam today, casually pointing things out to him or describing what you were doing. You were 'bathing' him in language, all the while 'teaching' his brain complex things like grammar and syntax and rhyme! He hears the changes in intonation as your emotions change - I can hear mommy is happy now, or oh, now she is upset with the dog! Carrying him on your hip from bedroom to living room in the normal course of the day, everyday, you are helping him make sense of his spatial environment (a mathematical skill!) You stimulate his senses by having him in the sling while you cook: he smells and tastes the food, he hears all the kitchen sounds and feels the sway of your body, and what a visual feast is there to be had in the beautiful colours of food! And about that walk in the stroller: you know, my *normal* one year old also just usually lays there. But even if he seems totally oblivious, his inner-ear, the part that helps with balance, is registering changes in road surface: now we are on gravel, now on grass. And besides, what can be more educationally valuable than quietly taking time to just stare at God's beautiful blue heaven!"
Of course I am not saying we shouldn't also challenge our children, and I feel very strongly about being intentional in providing them with a rich but well-balanced learning environment, but we should also not underestimate the learning that takes place, without us knowing it, in the course of a *regular* day when we are not intentionally trying to teach them.
I read an article a while ago that encouraged moms to make a "have done" list at the end of each day, as opposed to a "to-do" list at the start of it. I think if we all go write down everything we DID do with our little ones today, we will amazed at the learning opportunities we have created for them just by having them with us. Yes, by all means, let us read and learn and empower ourselves with knowledge about how to help our children become the best they can be. But NEVER because we want to keep up with a chart on a clinic wall, or with someone else's child. NEVER because we think our children's performance will reflect well on our parenting skills. NEVER at the expense of childhood joy and freedom and unconditional love and acceptance. Let's not trip over milestones. If they become a distraction on your journey to the point where all you can see is the next milestone, it may be time to take the scenic route: the fun, beautiful one that slowly winds its way through lovely scenery.