Avoid comparing milestones between toddlers

By Kristi York on February 19, 2013
We’ve all heard the saying “You can’t compare apples and oranges.” The message is that since the two fruits are special in their own way, to evaluate them side-by-side is inaccurate and irrelevant. Despite this logic, there is still a parental instinct to compare our own children to others of a similar age. Often, when I meet a mom with a child around the same age as mine, it’s usually only a matter of time before we start politely inquiring about the other child’s development. It’s as if we’re searching for any reference point that will help us determine how our little one is doing – and in turn, how we’re doing as parents.

During my son Eric’s first year, I gleefully let the video camera roll as he babbled, clapped, rolled over and crawled. I wasn’t preoccupied with monitoring if he was doing these things in the right order or at the right age. It was during his second year that a kid-to-kid comparison left me rattled. I was visiting with my neighbour and her 18-month-old son, making plans to go to a Mighty Machines show. I said to Eric (20 months old at the time), “We’re going to go see the big machines!” Eric responded with “ah-da”, his go-to sound for everything from “Dad” to “sippy cup”. My neighbour’s little guy waved his arms and exclaimed, “Bulldozer!” I nearly fell over.

My first instinct was to figure out what I was doing wrong. Eric was an attentive toddler. We read books together, and I talked to him so much I felt like a play-by-play announcer of our entire day. Yet, compared to another child, his development seemed behind schedule.

“Ages to reach milestones are just a parameter, not an absolute,” explains Dr. Tracy Mihalynuk, a family physician in Victoria, B.C. She advises parents: “Rather than worry about stages and their timing, focus on how beautifully unique your child is. Treasure his health and existence – not his rate of development.” She also points out that it is counterproductive for concerned parents to fixate on a certain skill and practise it excessively to help a child “catch up” to her peers. She warns that “this can interfere with normal play and development in other areas that might not be denoted as a milestone.” It’s important to notice and celebrate all the skills acquired in the early years – not just the ones that typically appear in a baby book.

In situations where a child’s progress falls dramatically outside the usual developmental range, Dr. Mihalynuk notes that “it is good for the parents to recognize this and to bring it to the attention of their health care provider. In some cases, it can signify a problem, and assistance or special testing may be needed.”

For his part, Eric talked when he was ready. After his second birthday, it was as if a switch marked “talk” flicked on inside him. He is now in kindergarten and demonstrating excellent verbal abilities. Ironically, when I received a letter inviting me to his class’s observation day, it had this statement in large print at the bottom: “Let’s keep in mind that no two children are alike; please try to avoid making comparisons.” I was grateful for the reminder. Comparing kids, as with apples and oranges, is fruitless.

When siblings aren't similar

Ever look at your kids and feel mystified that offspring from the same parents could turn out to be so different? Here are some reminders to help you enjoy each of your children’s distinct qualities (even if you can’t figure out whose gene pool they came from).

Expect differences

Each child has a personality all their own – and it will inevitably contrast with a sibling in some areas. One child is terrified of the vacuum, while the other begs for a turn with it. Perhaps one swims like a fish, while the other dreads setting foot in the bath tub. One might munch happily on crackers, while the other dumps them out to play with the empty box. The list is endless.

Forget you first's firsts

It’s tempting to use your first child’s milestones and experiences as a frame of reference for child number two, but don’t bother, as children have their own inner schedule. The good news here is that you’re likely so tired from your parenting duties that you no longer remember the exact dates and details anyway.

Celebrate variety

If everyone was the same, life sure would be boring. Take a moment to think about what each of your children has taught you (or may still be teaching you). It may be patience, sensitivity, a renewed sense of humour or the ability to lighten up and live in the moment. Be proud and enjoy the fact that each of your kids is one of a kind.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2013.

By Kristi York| February 19, 2013

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