Sneak peek: Having realistic expectations for age-appropriate behavior in our kids can make a huge difference in our parenting.
When we begin our parenting journey, few of us are really prepared for what it will mean to be someone’s parent. Perhaps if you’ve worked with kids a lot, you have some sense of what parenting will be like. Although I have an advanced degree in Human Development, I was not even prepared for what it would be like to have my own kids.
Some of us come to parenting with “hypothetical” kids in mind. You know those kids in your mind’s eye who rarely misbehave, who are exceptionally intelligent and love to read from the first day they pick up a book.
Did you have those hypothetical kids in mind too when you became a parent?
In reality, the kids we raise are the ones that are uniquely, wonderfully made and are oftentimes not anything like those hypothetical ones. And that is okay. It is also sometimes a little difficult to get past our parenting assumptions and experience our real children with all the joys and challenges that come with it.
This is where having reasonable expectations for age-appropriate behavior in our kids is so crucial. While our real-life (non-hypothetical) kids may not follow the age-appropriate behavior chart to a “T” it does give us a more reasonable understanding of what to expect. This insight into child development and parenting can help overcome some common challenges.
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Unrealistic Expectations Make Parenting More Difficult
The organization Zero to Three conducted a series of surveys that shed light on this issue of age-appropriate behavior and our expectations as parents.
In the survey, they asked parents questions like,
“When do you think children can share and take turns?” (43% of parents responded that kids can master this before age 2). In reality, this skill is usually not developed until age 3-4.
“When do you think children have enough impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden?” (36% of parents surveyed said that children under age 2 could master this). In reality, this type of control doesn’t usually develop until age 3.5-4.
This is eye-opening! Many of us are parenting with a mindset and expectations that are making it so much harder than it has to be. If we are expecting our young children to be able to master skills and meet tasks that they simply cannot do, our expectations will rarely be met.
Simply put, the gap between parents’ expectations and child development reality is just wide enough that it makes parenting very challenging.
Why are Age-Appropriate Expectations Important?
These survey results give us a glimpse into one reason why parenting is so challenging today. Somewhere along the way, the societal understanding of how young kids develop has become separated from the actual science of child development. If we can shift our mindsets just a bit and adopt a more age-appropriate understanding of children’s behavior, parenting can become a bit easier. Here’s why having reasonable expectations for age-appropriate behavior can help us.
Developmentally appropriate expectations help us stay calm.
Imagine for a moment how different parenting life looks if you go into each day understanding that your young child has, for example, very limited capacity for self-control.
- When your toddler daughter tries to dig in the trash can (for the 20th time) after you’ve told her it’s off-limits, you know it’s because she’s immature, not because she’s intentionally being defiant. You may also decide to hide the trash can under the sink.
- When your toddler son tries to drink out of the dog’s bowl (for the 100th time), you realize it’s just immaturity. You can respond with a bit more patience and understanding.
When we have developmentally appropriate expectations for our children’s behavior it is a lot easier to be patient with them. We realize they are not intentionally trying to push our buttons, they are just immature and have limited skills. What a difference this can make!
An informed parent can be a much more patient parent.
Other Factors that Affect Developmentally-Appropriate Expectations
Besides the obvious benefits to our parenting, understanding age-appropriate behavior in our kids helps us in other ways.
Although this may sound like a complex idea, asynchronous development just means that some aspects of our child’s development might advance quicker than others.
By having developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior we can begin to see which aspects of our child’s development might be ahead or behind other areas.
For example, some kids may learn language sooner than expected but might be slower to learn certain social skills. Similarly, one child in your family may have developed gross motor skills (like walking) quicker than average but took longer to develop fine motor skills. His or her sibling might have developed in the opposite order.
Related reading: Do Toddlers Really Have Their Own Language?
Generally, these areas of asynchronous development are just normal variations between kids. However, if you ever have concerns about the nature or timing of your child’s development, it’s always advisable to chat with your pediatrician.
All this is to say that by having developmentally appropriate expectations for our children’s development, we can spot these differences. This can give us great insight into what skills we can foster in our kids. This insight helps us avoid the “one size fits all” approach to parenting and we can begin to meet our child where they are.
Development is not a smooth path.
Human development is complex. We sometimes like to think that our children developing new skills is a “one and done” type phenomenon. In reality, however, many skills that our children develop progress in more of a “two steps forward, one step back” type pattern.
For example, one day your child may seem to have such good ability to share and interact with friends. Another day, he might struggle with these skills. It might be due to other factors like fatigue or a growth spurt. Sometimes the cause might be a mystery.
Related reading: Finding Meaning in the Mayhem: How to Spot (and Survive) a Toddler Growth Spurt
Although children, for the most part, develop along the same basic trajectory, there is a lot of individual variation. Having realistic expectations for age-appropriate behavior gives us some guidelines but each child is unique.
The Role of Temperament in Age-Appropriate Behavior
One often-overlooked factor when considering developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior is temperament. I like to describe temperament as sort of like your child’s operating system (kind of like a computer). It’s there underneath the surface influencing so much of how your child interacts with the world.
Take this quick Child Temperament Quiz to learn more about your child’s temperament
Depending on your child’s temperament, some developmental milestones might come easier than others. For example, there is some research that suggests that children with a more extroverted or uninhibited temperament may elicit more interaction from adults, thereby advancing their experience with and learning of language.
This is just one example of the complex interplay of factors that occurs during a child’s development. Researchers continue to delve into all these fascinating ways that a child’s temperament might influence their development.
Do you need greater insight into what is age-appropriate behavior for your child?
Download this age-appropriate behavior chart
It provides insight into common milestones that parents often wonder about in young children.
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