Why You Shouldn’t Obsess About Milestones

When your child starts walking or using the potty doesn’t matter as much as you may think it does.
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Our grandson is taking his first steps. Some of his playmates started earlier, and some haven’t started yet, but we’ve learned not to worry about his timing on such things. He’ll let his parents and us know when he’s ready to walk and when he’s ready to run.

Comparing your kids to others is natural. My wife and I used to joke that when our kids were young they were the only non-gifted, non-talented kids in school because everyone else’s kids seemed to get tested and labeled “GT.” Our kids just went to school, most times happily, sometimes grumpily, and did their work (most of the time). We never tested them, always hoping they’d find their own comfortable zones for achievement without a label that separated them from their friends and classmates. As young adults today, they all seem to have turned out okay, despite never having been officially designated as special (except by us, of course).

Inevitably, in day care and preschools everywhere today, as was true yesterday and will be tomorrow, parents are watching the other kids to see how their own stack up. Developmental milestones are the most common measuring sticks. As everyone knows, children are supposed to roll over at 3 months, sit at 6 months, walk at 1 year, potty train at 2 years, ride a tricycle at 3 years, and get their driving license at 16 years. Right?  Wrong. Well, maybe the driving license is right depending on which state you live in and how brave you are as a parent, but the rest is not nearly as predictable as developmental milestone charts would have you believe. Child development is a continuum, a gentle ramp or incline, not a series of discrete steps on a staircase. Although the differences between a 6-month-old and a 6-year-old are very dramatic, the differences between a 6-month-old and an 8-month-old are much less so. Some kids walk at 9 months, others at 15 months or later. That doesn’t predict their future SAT scores or athletic scholarships.

Anyone who’s ever looked at the fine print on a board game (those are the games that come in boxes instead of on digital devices) knows that just because Candyland says recommended for 3- to 5-year-olds, and Monopoly is recommended for kids 8 years and older, doesn’t mean that 3-year-olds will like Candyland or 7-year-olds won’t beat you in Monopoly. Even board game development is a continuum.

One of the great wonders of childhood is its unpredictability. Kids will surprise you, and surprise their pediatricians like me, with their unique progress through the developmental milestones. Your 3-year-old is not delayed or abnormal just because he hasn’t shown the least bit of interest in a tricycle (nor is she gifted and talented just because she rode a tricycle at 2 years and 8 months). Of course, if you have concerns about your child’s developmental progress, speak with his doctor, but don’t obsess about the timing of each milestone. Kids have a way of finding their own pace and following the beat of their own drummer.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is a Parents advisor and the author of books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting940 Saturdays, and Miracles We Have Seen - America's Leading Physicians Share Stories They Can't Forget. Visit his website and blog at harleyrotbart.com and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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