Milestone mania: Lesson learned by inserting foot in mouth

Repeat after me: Every child develops at his or her own pace. It’s the mantra drilled into our brains from the moment our children are born.

My child, for example, is a skinny little thing. Always has been. He eats well, but is consistently a five-percenter in the weight category. I’ve heard many a story from parents about how their soaring, strapping teenager was once a little peanut, too. So I’ve quit worrying about his weight, for the most part. Roy just happens to be a wee guy.

I appreciate the reassurance. It’s kind to take a stab at alleviating another’s worry when we can. Which is why I felt so terrible the other night when I did the exact opposite.

We were on the tail end of our nightly walk. As we approached the final corner, it became apparent that we were about to intersect another family that eerily resembled our own. Had we all kept going at the same pace, we’d be a jumble of stroller wheels and puppy dog legs in the lilac bush and who knows how long it would have taken us to sort out who went with whom.

Of course we each slowed down, which created that awkward “now what?” space that I just had to fill. “Looks like cute babies and black-and-white dogs are the thing to do,” I tried.

Other Dad mumbled something about lots of people around here having dogs, and I resisted the urge to explain my misguided attempt at humor and let the requisite niceties commence. Names, dog breeds, verification of sons’ adorableness and age.

So when they offer that their son is almost a year old, I instinctively throw out, “Ooh, is he walking yet?”

See the problem there? I sure didn’t. Until the hemming and hawing started. The answer was no, he hadn’t. Which, as we all know, is normal. Every child develops at his or her own pace. But I’d just unwittingly phrased the question so that “yes” was the only correct answer. In doing so, I’d made them feel obviously uncomfortable, possibly judged and probably more worried than they may or may not have already been. Glad you could meet me! You’re inadequate! Let’s do this again sometime!

I add to the hemming and hawing a bit, reassuring them that when he is walking, they’ll look fondly upon this idyllic sedentary time, and we wrap things up so I can kick myself the rest of the walk home. And, obviously, then some.

The next day, I mentioned the interaction to a friend and fellow mama. Stefanie said that in response to learning a child’s age, she liked the phrase, “What milestones is he hitting now?”

I like it, too. Celebratory. Gracious. Adaptable. It’s loaded in the mental holster for next time.

Have you ever been on either end of this type of scenario? Have any other phrases designed to diplomatically encourage light parental bragging?

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  1. by Eve

    On June 3, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Oh, I like your friends pharsing. I’m going to start using it right now.

  2. by Stefanie

    On June 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    A neighbor, Liz, had asked me that the day we talked about it – I loved how it made me feel – my guy is large and therefore movement is at a slightly slower pace – and it is easier to explain without sounding like I’m defending myself when it’s asked that way. However, when we do ask things that way it’s not the end of the world – and people understand you meant only to break the tenion:)

  3. by Julia

    On June 3, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Hmm, it didn’t publish my comment before, so I hope this doesn’t post twice.

    My daughter didn’t walk until she was over 18 months old (she had a gross motor delay), so I got a lot of comments like that. Don’t kick yourself too much! It didn’t really upset me.

    I like to use a phrase similar to your friend’s: “What new things is he up to these days?”

  4. by Berit

    On June 4, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Thanks, ladies! I think you’re both right; that people understand the intent. I’m still happy to have some kinder ways of inquiring ready.

  5. by Eve

    On June 5, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    This actually made me think of the pregnancy question I hated: “when are you due?” at one point, while wandering aimlessly through Target, and most likely crying, I truthfully had to respond, “13 days ago.”

  6. by Brian Larson

    On June 9, 2011 at 9:58 am

    I second the “don’t kick yourself too hard”. I actually had to read this a few times to find out where the big foot in mouth incident was. I’ll bet your doppelgängers thought nothing of it. It’s not like the kid was two and/or had no feet.