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the path of childhood – full of change yet predictable

January 25, 2009

the path of childhood - full of change, yet predictable
Child development  has been studied and observed for years. One of the most well-known researchers was Arnold Gesell (1881-1960) who set up shop  at Yale as a psychologist and pediatrician.  He documented  patterns of growth in children which resulted in norms still used today. While he was criticized for not seeing children as individuals, his work did produce the framework for looking at benchmarks of physical, psychological and cognitive growth. Louse Bates Ames and Frances Ilg continued his work and wrote a series of books, Your Five Year Old, Your Six Year Old, etc. If you don’t already know these books, they’re worth checking out. My favorite “users manual” is Chip Wood’s Yardsticks. Chip builds on the work of Gesell and Ames/Ilg team  in ways both parents and teachers find indispensable. If you can’t get your hands on his book, check out  Chip’s site http://www.yardsticks4-14.com.


Having armed yourself with literature that can serve as your owner’s manual, be warned: kids move along the  path rapidly and change, sometimes almost overnight. I remember a card I received just after my daughter was born that had Victorian painting titled “babies don’t keep.”   We all know they grow up, but the behaviors, attitudes, joys and challenges just don’t keep either. It often just about the time you figure out the what/when/where/how that works for your child and your family, when you exhale and find  things slipping out of control again. Gesell referred to these predicable phases as “equilibrium” and “disequilibrium.”

You know what this means – those six months when you love every minute with your happy, curious, engaging child which is inevitably followed by a rocky phase when you wonder just what or who is inhabiting that sweet pea you love. If you have more than one child, you might have equilibrium and disequlibirum simultaneously or have a lot of one or the other. This is what keeps adults constantly climbing the learning curve of parenthood.
Children often sense the shift in their skills and needs and their behavior, language and emotions signal things are moving forward, even if the behavior feels like regression.  They will make you aware of these changes if you listen, watch, and are prepared to make the shift along side of them. Let them know you notice their “growing” needs – the need for order, independence or extra nurturing. Don’t be afraid to identify the changes you see objectively – “I see that you are using lists (or calendars, or notes). You look like your really becoming 7. It seems like it’s time to get you your own calendar/note pad/office supplies.” Or, on the disequlibirum side, “I notice that you are easily frustrated. Sometimes you want to be able to do more than your body is ready to do. Let’s think of ways to make you be successful with…” Or simply respect their need to work and be alone more often, to be sullen and moody without taking it personally nor making it personal about him.

Be ready to modify  routines, chores, expectations to meet your child’s needs, even if you’ve worked hard to establish those patterns.  We all know life throws unexpected glitches at us, but some change can be anticipated, predicted and even well-managed.  Model an awareness and openness to address those shifts in positive, purposeful ways. Here are some of the ages and phases Gesell identified that you can use to gauge your responsiveness to your changing child:

  • 2, 5, 10 and 16: Rejoice in the smoothness. Yeah!
  • 2 1/2 , 5 1/2 to 6  and 11:   Expect some rough patches and be ready to pick your battles as things “break up.” Don’t take it personally.
  • 3, 6 1/2 and 12 : Embrace the rounded and balanced feel. Life is good.
  • 3 1/2, 7, 13, and 15: Give them extra space and quite assurance at when they are “inwardized” and focused on themselves and their skills.  For better or for worse, you’ll all survive.
  • 4, 8, and 14: Provide the physical space and opportunities for activity when they are vigorous and expansive. Expect messes, literally and figuratively.
  • 4 1/2, 9, and 15: Be patient and supportive at these more troubled phases when they can be both inwardized and outwardized and trying to sort it out. Count your blessings, stay strong.

During any of these phases and changes, consider your larger community or at least your family, and the support those systems can offer.   Do you have access to parenting classes or discussions? Peer parenting forums can provide both information, opportunities to share stories and strategies, and a few good laughs. Your pediatrician or teacher might have helpful benchmarks and tips.  If behaviors are stressing you,  find ways to juggle parenting duties with your partner that might work better for all of you.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help or swap stories; none of us are in this alone.

No matter what stage your child may be in, remember, it’s a phase. It’s one chapter of the wonderful story of life –  life you have the power to influence in positive, responsive, and caring ways when you know a little about what to expect and you’re open to providing your child with what she needs, when she needs it.  Enjoy this stop on the path of childhood!

Life is a progress, and not a station.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

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One Comment leave one →
  1. David permalink
    January 25, 2009 5:42 pm

    Lisa, your advice and insight are great, as usual. I’d like to add another resource for parents. Parents will always be the experts on their own child. However, teachers have taught many students of a particular age group. They can be experts of that age group. They know what to expect, developmentally as well as academically, during the year a child is with them. Talk to your child’s teachers.

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