Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

What Being a Stay-at-Home Mom has Taught Me About Child Development

It's been over a year now since my oldest son started school full time. For those of you who are stay-at-home parents, you know that sending your child to school full time is like graduation day for you. I felt this intensely. As I watched his little 5-year-old body run (literally) into school, I felt that moment was 5+ years in the making. As a stay-at-home parent, I had spent the last 5 years pouring my heart, soul, time, and energy into him so that, in large part, he would be ready for school. Not just prepared in the educational sense, but also confident, happy and emotionally ready to be in a classroom and interact with his peers. Of course, I have much more lofty parenting goals too but this was a big one. There was a tinge of sadness in it for me, but I also felt proud of him and glad that he seemed more than eager to go meet this new experience.

Now his little brother is in that fun, sometimes challenging, stage between toddlerhood and preschool. He and I are beginning once again this journey of learning and discovery that will eventually take him to the door of kindergarten too.

Lessons Learned

As I look back at some of the lessons I've learned from child #1, I thought it was a good time to share how these insights have really added to my understanding of child development. As all parents know, children are the best teachers. I've read many a child development book, but I really didn't know anything until I had children of my own and learned day-to-day what child development really means.

1. Observe closely. Sure, we are all around our kids a lot; many hours a day in some cases, but how often do we really observe what they are doing; what they are learning. This is a lesson I learned very early with my first son, but only really came to appreciate a few years later.

As an infant, close observation meant trying to understand why he cried so easily, what movements or activities actually helped soothe him. I've written before about colic and maybe that's what he had but maybe it was just his temperament. Either way, close observation is what helped me "decode" his behavior and learn about his emerging personality.

Later, as he became a toddler, close observation helped me really understand when he was working on a new physical or cognitive skill. We can usually tell when a young child is working on a new physical skill like walking or crawling. What about cognitive skills? By closely observing sometimes you can tell when they're little brains are ready for understanding numbers or spatial concepts like "under," "over," or "behind."

2. Let your child's interests lead you. I really don't do any type of formal homeschooling with my kids but I do try to incorporate as much learning into our daily activities as I can. With very young children, they have such limited attention spans that this is really the best way learning happens in my experience. It just feels like play to them and we all know that's the best type of learning for little ones anyway.

Once my son reached late toddlerhood/early preschool age, it became clear that his interests would have to lead our learning activities. Maybe it was just his personality, but he usually had no interest in most activities or crafts that I just suggested off the top of my head. The activities or books that included something he was interested in were always a much more appealing.

I think many children are similar in this regard. I think this is why some young children struggle in conventional school settings--simply because the topics hold little interest to them. Many of the topics that adults feel are "educational" or "seasonally topical" don't make much sense to little kids. In her recent interview, child development author Erika Christakis discusses this in a beautiful way.

I think many young children go through phases where they are really "into" a particular topic, animal or toy. I think if you present children with plenty of books, experiences, ideas, (maybe even a little educational TV), they will find these topics to delve into themselves. My son went through  phases where he was "into" trains, ants, snails/slugs, robots, cowboys, and the list could go on. When he was really "into" that topic we would basically center most of our activities around that idea. We would go check out every book we could find at the library on that topic. We would go visit a museum or aquarium that might have exhibits on that topic. We might do crafts or coloring pages that featured whatever topic he was interested at that time.

I firmly believe that if children are given the space and opportunity to experience new ideas, they are natural learners and all you have to do is serve as their guide. These days spent exploring ants and slugs and robots are some of my best memories with my son.

3. Go to the library a lot...and not just for storytime. I love libraries. I want my kids to love libraries. When my son was a toddler we would go to the library and try to go to story time. Note the word "try." He would seldom sit down long enough to listen to more than 3 minutes of the story. I would often leave frustrated and downtrodden, thinking I was doing something wrong and that my child would never enjoy books. Well, I finally learned my lesson (and learned my son's temperament) and decided we would just go to the library to play or explore whatever he wanted to explore. That worked much better. Fast forward a couple of years and he was able to sit through story time, but he also would bring books to me to read to him at home.

If your child is like mine and will seldom sit through story time, it's still a great experience to go to the library. Most libraries have little toys or a play area for young children. I think just being surrounded by books is great and the love for books will eventually rub off on them. My younger son is much the same way, but he still likes picking out books and using the computer check out system. Picture books, even for somewhat older children, are key to not only language development but also visual literacy.

4. Be patient. Okay, patience is a skill that many of us parents struggle with maintaining. I struggle with patience on a daily basis. Spending your days with young children is taxing on most of us, but patience in many forms is a virtue that reaps many benefits.

Patience with waiting while your preschooler struggles to put on his/her shoes is one thing, but patience with the development of your child is a whole other concept. Child development is a process, not a race. Barring any developmental delays, most children go through the process of learning and growing in their own unique way, but at a similar trajectory.

I really thought my first son would never be potty trained. We thought he was ready when he was a few months shy of 3, but it took another almost 6 months until he was really completely clean and dry all the time every day. I read all those articles about "potty train your child in 3 days" but to no avail. Ultimately, it just took patience on our part and him really wanting to do it himself. No amount of bribing, cajoling, or talking him into would work.

The same thing happened with my second son giving up his pacifier. We tried every technique in the book, but he had to eventually just give it up himself when he was really ready. I think talking about it with him helped, along with watching a few videos and reading books about giving it up. Ultimately, though he had to be ready and one day he just threw it in the trash.

Many aspect of child development are like this. We, as parents, want certain phases to be over or we want our child to meet certain developmental milestones. When it comes down to it, however, development goes at the pace that's right for each individual child. We can help move things in the right direction. We do have to introduce potty training or the idea of giving up the pacifier, but with many of these changes, the child has to want to make the change.

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