Have you ever asked yourself, “Is my child capable of the expectations that I have for her?” or, possibly even worse, “Have I set my expectations too low for what my child is capable of?”
Establishing age-appropriate expectations is essential to help facilitate child development. But this task is easier said than done.
Despite what developmental checklists—like this one from the Center for Disease control and Prevention—may seem to represent, developmental milestones don’t just magically occur with age. These milestones are met because of the interactions that adults have with children and the activities that the children are exposed to that help them to develop the skills listed on the checklist.
These checklists are the benchmarks that helps parents to understand if their child is on track, or perhaps ahead or behind his or her peers, but they certainly do not suggest what a child’s true potential might be if exposed to the optimal learning environment. Plenty of 9-month-old children are capable of some of the milestones on the 12-month-old checklist if they’ve lived in a supportive, encouraging environment that helps to promote these skills.
Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist and child development researcher, suggested that children learn best when challenged to step just outside of their developmental capacities, but not too far out to make it too difficult for the child to succeed in the task at hand.
He suggested that if children are asked to do what they are fully capable of doing, they learn very little and don’t progress in their developmental capacities. But, at the same time, he suggested that if children are asked to complete a task that is significantly out of reach for them due to their development, they will fail and learn little from the experience, as well as develop a poorer self-esteem because of that experience.
Only when the task was slightly out of the developmental capacity and when the child received a small amount of support from a caregiver—just enough to give the child the skills that he or she lacked and nothing more—was the child able to learn best and develop new skills.
So what does this suggest for parents and early childhood professionals?
It suggests that setting age-appropriate expectations means to set expectations that are just slightly out of reach for the child—and each child’s reach will be different—so that the child can experience the true potential in learning.
It suggests that making an excuse for the child by saying, “He’s too little to understand” isn’t helpful, but instead finding the level of understanding that is just out of his reach and helping him to get there is the best way to help him learn and grow.
So, what does this look like? I want to share a few examples of some kids that I’ve met in my work—in the field of child care, counseling and working with parents and early childhood professionals, and even in observations of daily life—that have demonstrated skills far beyond what any developmental milestone checklist ever would have suggested was possible for them. As you read about these examples of kids, think about developmental opportunities that could have been lost for this child had the parents or caregivers lowered their expectations to the bare minimum of what should be expected for that age.
Can a 1 year old be asked to sit at a table while eating, without being restrained?
What is the answer to this question? Is it developmentally appropriate to expect a child, aged 13 months, to sit unrestrained at a table to eat and not wander around?
From my experience talking with some parents, my guess is that most parents would say that their 13-month-old child is not capable of this. They might say, “She’s too little to understand” and allow her to walk around with the food, or restrain her in the seat to ensure that she stays there.
Well, I’ve seen a 13-month-old do exactly this. His parents didn’t think that he was capable, and therefore didn’t want to set this expectation for him. His daycare provider, on the other hand, was sure that he would be able to achieve this task with some assistance.
Each day, that daycare provider placed the child in the chair and said, “We sit while we eat.” After a few moments, the 13-month-old would get up and walk around with food in his hands. The daycare provider, understanding that the 13-month-old still didn’t have full understanding of what the expectation was, simply grabbed the child gently and returned him to the table, again stating, “We sit while we eat.”
This pattern was repeated daily, during breakfast, lunch and snack, multiple times during each meal. Within a few weeks, that 13-month-old child sat at the table and waited until the daycare provider washed off his hands before he walked away from the table.
Initially, was that 13-month-old capable of sitting at the table while he ate? No, he wasn’t because he didn’t understand that this was his expectation. But, after just a few weeks of consistent focus on this task, the daycare provider was able to teach him the lesson with no punishment whatsoever.
Can a 1 ½-year-old be expected to stay quiet during important moments of silence like church, saying a family prayer or listening to a story?
What do you think? Is it appropriate to expect that a 1 ½-year-old will know to stay quiet in church? What about during the family prayer? Does she have the cognitive understanding to know that she has to be quiet and use her inside voice when she’s in these settings?
Again, from my conversations with parents, I think that many parents would say that a 1 ½-year-old isn’t capable and shouldn’t be expected to know this yet at her age. But I met one who was.
A few weeks ago at church, the children were asked to join the pastors for a Kid Talk. A 1 ½-year-old little girl started walking towards the front of the church where the Kid Talk is normally held. In the life of a 1 ½-year-old, last week was a very long time ago. Yet, for her, she hears the word Kid Talk and knows that she is to go to the front of the church without any input from anyone. I find this to be very impressive!
But on this particular day, the pastors had a plan for Kid Talk at the back of the church. So, this 1 ½-year-old looks around, sees no one up front and of course looks back to her parents for guidance. Her parents and a grandparent guide her in the right direction and she joins the group.
At the end of the Kid Talk, she starts to get the impression that things are coming to a close, as evidenced by her beginning to walk back towards her parents. And then she hears these words: “Let us pray.”
This little girl—a 1 ½ year old who is completely independent of her parents at this moment—stops in her tracks, bows her head and folds her hands. She sits, quietly listening for the word that she knows to listen for. As soon as she hears, “Amen,” her head pops back up and she continues her walk back to her parents.
Most kids aren’t capable of this. And I wouldn’t expect them to be capable of this without practice. But this little girl has had practice. It is likely that her parents say prayers with her each night before bed, before meals and that they coach and guide her to understand what this means for her behavior each time a prayer is said.
At 1 ½ years of age, this little girl is able to know what to do, even when her parents aren’t right there to show her, because they showed her and taught her how to do it before she was ever capable of doing this on her own.
This little girl has helped me to recognize how much we are missing out on teaching children because we think that they are just “too little” to understand.
*A special note about this little girl. I do not intend to suggest that this child has an accurate cognitive understanding of what it means to pray. This is too complex for her to understand at this moment. Instead, this example is to help you to understand that children can connect words like “Let us pray” with actions like bowing her head, folding her hands and sitting quietly. This provides an opening for how to teach kids to perform certain actions in association with certain words.
Can a 1 1/2-year-old be expected to lie down on a nap mat without getting up?
Many parents reading this question are probably thinking, “If this is possible, please let me know how!”
At this age, kids are unaware of their need for sleep. Despite being tired, a child this age will want to continue playing, continue spending time with you and continue to do anything else besides sleeping! Some parents may have a difficult time putting the child to sleep without staying nearby until the child falls asleep.
A mom of a 1 ½-year-old boy wanted to teach him to fall asleep on his own. She was sick of having to come into his room, rock him to sleep and rub his back until he fell asleep. But, since this was the pattern she had started with him, she was hesitant that it would never be able to be changed.
Each night, she would go into his room, place him in his crib, and rub his back until he fell asleep. And, if she didn’t do this, he would scream, sometimes for hours if she let it get that bad.
The child then experienced a change in his life. His mom got a job and needed to take him to daycare. She talked with the daycare provider about her struggles getting her son to sleep and asked the daycare provider for any suggestions to help him to fall asleep on his own. The daycare provider said that she would try to see what she could do and then share it with mom.
For the first few weeks, the daycare provider stayed present with the child while he tried to fall asleep on his nap mat. She didn’t want to traumatize him during his transition to a new daycare.
But then, after this boy had seemed to develop an attachment with her, she began a new routine. She followed some of the things that mom had done at home, including allowing him to have a sippy cup and a favorite blanky. She even included some back rubbing time. However, instead of rubbing his back until the child fell asleep, she told him that she would rub his back for only 5 minutes.
The first time that she did this, she gave him a kiss on the forehead and walked away. He followed her. She returned him to the nap mat and sat, “It’s nap time. It’s time to lay down and rest.” She walked away. He followed her. She repeated this again…and again…and again…and again!
This took an entire week before things had improved. By the end of the week, he was able to lie down on his nap mat and only get up one or two times to reach out to the daycare provider.
When he returned next week, he had relapsed to some of his old habits and needed a refresher. His daycare provider continued the same process each day that week. By the time he returned on the third week, he now knew that nap time meant that it was time to lie down on his mat and fall asleep on his own, without walking around to find the daycare provider.
The daycare provider asked mom to try doing nap times at home on the weekends with a nap mat. Mom was amazed when she tried it for the first time. She simply laid the nap mat on the ground and her son ran over to it, cuddled up with his blanky and sippy cup and rested…even after she left the room!
After making this a habit at nap time, she was able to implement a similar process at night in his crib. Mom finally had the opportunity to put him in his crib at night, complete a short bedtime routine and then leave him to fall asleep on his own. Something she thought was never possible truly was possible!
In this situation, this little boy wasn’t trying to manipulate his mom or daycare provider. He was simply sad to see his caregiver go and wanted to have some attention with her. This behavior is very age-appropriate, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t be taught a lesson during this developmentally appropriate behavior. He wasn’t fully capable of it at first. But with time, he learned that his daycare provider’s expectation was that he lie down and rest. He quickly learned to assimilate this experience to other settings when he is asked to sleep and his mom was able to copy the experience and use it at home with him.
Can a 3-year-old be expected to put her Velcro shoes on by herself?
What do you think? Is a 3-year-old capable of this?
Many adults—myself included—are guilty of being in such a rush that we do things for kids that they are more than capable of doing by themselves. We may do it because we are running late, because we don’t have the patience to wait as we watch a 3-year-old try to figure this out for herself, or because of some other reason. But the truth is that by doing so much for kids—no matter how logical our reason seems to be—we actually rob them of the ability to learn and develop the skills they need to do well in life.
A 3-year-old girl was asked by her mom to get ready to go outside to play with her little sister. Mom had shared that they had 30 minutes to play outside before they would have to come back inside, make lunch and then get ready for naptime.
This 3-year-old was struggling to get her shoes on and her mom said that she would wait. The child gave up quite quickly, whining that she couldn’t do it and needed some help. The child became increasingly concerned about the time that was lost putting her shoes on that could be better used playing outside.
Mom stated, “I know that you can do it by yourself. I’ll wait.”
She noticed that her child was having difficulty getting her foot into the shoe because of the tongue. If mom in this situation simply does it for her she provides no developmental benefit to the child. But, if she ignores the difficulty and expects her to do it on her own anyways, she also provides no developmental benefit to the child because the child will likely fail and therefore learn nothing about the task in addition to developing a lower self-esteem in the process.
So, instead of doing it for her and instead of letting her continue to struggle with no guidance, she said to her daughter, “See that thing right there? [child points to the tongue] Yup, that. That’s called the tongue. Pull the tongue out of your shoe, all the way forward so that you can put your foot in there.”
She waited and watched as her daughter did it. “Great work!” she said. “Now that your foot is in, you can put the tongue back in, on top of your foot.”
She waited until her daughter completed the task. When she had finished, mom said, “I think you know what to do with the rest of it.”
She watched as her daughter fastened the two Velcro strips on her shoe and beamed with pride. She said to her daughter, “Now, try the same thing with the other shoe.” In a matter of seconds, the child had the second shoe on and was ready to go outside.
How many of you would have had the patience to do what this mom did? Unfortunately, I’ve seen too often that most adults don’t seem to have this patience. They want to get out the door and will quickly do the task for the child.
There are cases when we just don’t have the time, like when we are running short on time and the kids will be late to school or you’ll be late to work. But whenever possible, taking the time to allow a child to do these tasks on her own has much better developmental benefits for the child than doing the task for her.
So what happened with this child? Well, she headed back to daycare that week and became helpless again, until her mom and teacher talked and worked together to encourage this child to know that she is capable of doing things on her own, even if it takes her more time than she wants it to.
What is your child capable of?
Have you been holding your child back by setting expectations that are too low for his or her potential?
Have you been setting your expectations too high without providing the appropriate level of guidance and coaching to help him or her to achieve the task independently?”
What can you do differently to set an expectation that is just out of reach for your child and to provide some guidance to help him or her achieve the task? I’d love to hear what you come up with!