Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Measuring up

Well, now, here's the annual Newsweek “Birth to 3” supplement, come into our homes to make us feel badly about our children’s development. Oh, I’m sure there are some people who read it and feel great about their children’s development, or smug--those whose kids measure up perfectly against the magic yardstick, or have sprouted ahead--but most of us surely must look at it with dread, hold our breaths while reading the lists of milestones, panic at each mark that our youngsters haven’t hit.

When, exactly, did childhood become a race? Surely, on some level, everyone acknowledges that every child is different, every one of us develops at our own pace and in our own ways, faster here, slower there. Look at any group of children, and you’ll see diversity. Some are bigger, some are smaller; some talk a lot, some stay silent; some run easily, some lurch about; some are confident, some are shy; some are overachievers, some couldn’t care less. It’s abundantly clear that humanity is not one-size-fits-all.

Yet we’re constantly shown these milestones, in parenting magazines, in parenting books, in Newsweek supplements, on daytime talk shows. How does your child measure up? Should you worry? How can you not? The implication is that every other child at the day care or the nursery school will be running and jumping and skipping and doing advanced algebra, and your child will be sitting in the corner playing with his toes. And though intellectually we may know that there will probably be other toe-players keeping him company, that doesn’t stop the hurt and the worry and the guilt.

It’s particularly hard for parents whose children are decidedly not with the developmental program, those with what are charitably called “special needs.” On a day to day basis, you can love your child, enjoy your child, dote on each hard-fought word and cheer each wobbly step. On a day to day basis, within the reality that is your child, you may not even be aware of his differences. But then comes the IEP meeting or early-intervention evaluation that measures his worth in months instead of years, that puts in concrete how very off the beaten path his development has strayed. Then comes the doctor’s appointment when you have to check off milestones, and find yourself checking very few. Then comes the Newsweek supplement with all the pictures of happy healthy babies who are eating solid food and speaking in full sentences and managing their parents’ stock portfolios. And your undersized toddler’s major achievement in life is producing prodigious amounts of drool. It makes a parent discouraged.

Thankfully, my kids are out of birth-to-3 range, so Newsweek has no hold on me (though I’m sure if I leafed through, I’d see that my 7-year-old is still missing some 3-year-old milestones. I’m sure not going to look.) Still, I wish they’d knock it off. All these inchworms measuring the marigolds that are our children aren’t stopping to see how beautiful they are, in all their permutations of talent and ability. I’d guess that if you looked at any representative group of the most successful, talented, famous grown-ups around, you’d find a fair amount--maybe even a majority--of folks who weren’t the most on-target, on-pace, developmentally adept youngsters. Some of them aren’t all that on-target now. There’s something about the human spirit that can’t be measured. So we should just stop trying.

Or at least stop reading magazines about it.

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