Sometimes I wonder if developmental milestones should be called developmental millstones as this topic causes so much anxiety for parents. I want to thank Nielen, a first-time mother, for sharing her story. She writes:
It feels like the first words I heard after meeting my baby daughter was “watch out for those milestones”. Yes, it’s probably a slight exaggeration, but it’s definitely the phrase I remember hearing most when she was younger.
Many parents feel overwhelmed by the thought that their precious child may not reach their developmental milestones. The idea of milestones has been around for ages. The milestone story comes from long ago when stones were placed along a road to mark a mile as a simple way of measuring. Developmental milestones have been worked out as average markers for a child’s development broken down into areas that can be easily measured, such as sitting, walking and how many words are spoken at what age. Other milestones, for example empathy, kindness and sharing with others are more difficult to measure, and are therefore ignored even though they may be as important for life.
An uncertain journey
Many children reach developmental milestones naturally, with ease and subsequent joy. Each milestone reached by the child is celebrated as if it is the parent’s own achievement. Yet this can also be an uncertain journey of hopes and dreams as there is no real knowing the future, as Nielen explains here:
Every first-time mother (and often father) I’ve ever met is hyper-aware of her child’s milestones. Discussion boards and parenting groups are rife with questions like ‘is it normal for your child to not walk by 13 months?’ The power of Google has opened rabbit holes of anxiety surrounding every small issue.
My daughter, our first child, was born at 30 weeks, 10 weeks prematurely. She spent almost seven weeks in the neonatal ICU (NICU). Other first-time mothers were lovingly posting pictures of their children at 3 weeks, all swaddled up at home. I was trying to take pictures where it wouldn’t look like she was in an incubator.
Being a ‘good’ parent
As parents we tend to measure our own parental ‘goodness’ through our children’s achievements and reaching their developmental milestones. We all do this as there is no easy way to know how to measure being a good parent. We allow fear of not being good enough to guide us rather than love itself. Yet, we know through research that children who feel loved and secure explore more and are therefore more able to learn.
I wasted a lot of my daughter’s first few months of life by being petrified. I was scared of her getting hurt in that NICU, but to be honest, I think I was more petrified of what was waiting for me when I should leave. I wasn’t certain I would be a good parent in the first place, much less with a child who wouldn’t follow the ‘normal’ route.
We so easily waste energy dwelling on and living out our fears that our children will reach their milestones, rather than investing time into how best to support a child through the tough and good parts of life. It may be paradoxical but children are more likely to reach their milestones if they feel supported.
Focusing on end goals
The celebration of reaching a developmental milestone may make it seem as if children just stand up one day and walk. This focus on the end goal may cause parents to forget the many times children fall and get up again to learn another step. It is apparently ‘normal’ to fall a thousand times or more before achieving the walking milestone. Each fall may demand much more love and support than the final achievement of walking. For in this a child learns that a journey of both the ups and downs are important to loved ones. Parents can learn that the ups and downs are both equally valuable for learning lessons.
Milestones remind me of the long wait for my daughter to finally start smiling. We were told she was born 10 weeks early and would take 10 weeks longer to reach ‘normal’ milestones. For some reason, maybe because it’s one of the first things a child learns to do, I was hung up on getting her to smile. I was literally counting the days, petrified of her smiling only after that 10 weeks permitted. Would that mean she was doomed forever? Would everything be futile if she smiled at 11 weeks? I certainly believed so. She did eventually smile, I think within that 10-week time frame, but I’ve learnt to be a bit gentler on myself and on her. It’s not easy and I think I struggle more than I let on, but I think it’s crucial.
As parents it is easy to focus on a developmental milestone or end goal. We do need to appreciate that skills, effort, falling and learning through mistakes is also necessary to reach any milestone, and may even be more important than reaching it. The process of achieving developmental milestones should not be a competition among parents in regard to whose child is better and will reach the goal first, but rather a celebration of learning and growth.
Let us learn to be gentle with ourselves as parents.
Let us learn to love and support our children through all of life’s ups and downs.
Let us learn that all our children are precious regardless of reaching developmental milestones.
Gifts vary in shape, size, wrapping and content. This is the delight of gifts, the unexpected surprise. Children with their individual uniqueness are our most valued gifts, an unexpected and unknown that is revealed with time. This mostly cannot be planned or even controlled. I have asked Michelle to join me in sharing our stories about giving and receiving gifts.
Michelle writes: As a child, I always made a mental ‘wish list’ of toys and books I would love for a birthday or Christmas gift. My secret hopes were mostly on the most extravagant gifts. When I was 12 years old I lost my heart to a hair styling curling iron and expressed this to my parents on a wish list for Christmas. I would spend hours looking at curling irons in shops, imagining my beautiful bouncing curls. On Christmas day I scanned my pile of presents, my gaze beamed on a curling iron shaped gift with my name. I saved the best for last and ripped open the gift and there was a book of short inspirational stories to ‘warm a teenager’s heart’. My hopes were crushed. The disappointment was tangible and I could hardly look at the book. I somehow managed to thank my parents as they taught me to be grateful and see the intention behind a gift. I pretended to like the book with a poker smile and some comment about reading before bed.
Through the years, my wish lists have changed but I still put much thought into the things I hope for. My siblings remind me and I can laugh at my 12 year old disappointed self with curling iron hopes. However, that unexpected book became one of my most treasured possessions. This was the surprise.
Two years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter. Six weeks after her birth I was told that she had severe brain damage that would make most tasks we take for granted unattainable for her. In the moment I felt many emotions. I was crushed and disappointed that the gift I had imagined receiving would never be. I felt the same pang of guilt and sadness grip my heart as I wished for some way to fix my ‘gift’. Just as my 12 year old heart had managed to accept the book for Christmas, I was thrust onto a very slow journey to understanding the gift of my daughter. Perhaps like the book, time together, reading the story, loving and honestly appreciating my daughter’s being and presence will make this another most treasured gift.
Jacqui writes: Travelling by plane for me comes with some sense of anticipated anxiety. The last time I flew I nearly missed my plane, and last weekend I had a mishap with my luggage. The pottery bowls I had made and carefully packed for my hosts broke. I was so sad and had no other gift for them, just myself and a few broken bowls that could become the next upcycling project. However this experience made me aware of my intentions in giving, to show fondness and appreciation of my hosts. I felt the vulnerability of showing my broken bowls to my hosts realising that the gifts we give to others comes with some fragility. A gift that is given might be used or not, exchanged for something better or enjoyed and appreciated. There is no knowing how a gift will be received and used.
I am sure that there is no perfect gift nor intention in giving and receiving. We just do our best and hope that this is good enough. I have a feeling though that the value of our gifts is not so much in what is seen, such as the curling iron, book, broken bowls or child, but in the unseen, unknown and unexpected. This could be in the joy a child brings, the love expressed in a handmade bowl, the long term view of inspirational stories and the journeys of growth and love through giving and receiving. Each child is a gift, with a particular story, genetic material and experience of life. Each child has their own gifts and also imperfections, some obvious and seen as in a physical condition or delayed developmental milestones, others not seen as in emotional struggles. There is no knowing how a child’s life will unfold, but with time together, sharing love and life experiences, we find the treasure in each child.
At this Christmas time of giving and receiving gifts, let us be open to the unexpected surprises and unknowns in each gift, including our children. Being open may not always follow the hopes of our imagination but there is greater value in learning to appreciate the surprise and unexpected gift in each child. Each and every child, no matter the wrapping or contents is our most treasured gift.
Have you ever felt that awkwardness of saying something to a group of people and the response is complete silence? Not a word, not a smile, only quiet. Even though the silence may not be long, the waiting for any response drags giving you time to think again about what you have just said.
This happened to me after giving a short talk about ‘The Power of Play’ for the Western Cape Department of Health First Thousands Days network meeting. I waited in the silence wondering what I had said that caused such a still response. Could it have been that I ended my talk with the words?
“If relationships matter, play is the medium”
The First Thousand Days programme is a national initiative promoting the well-being of infants from conception to two years. The three pillars of the programme are Grow, Love and Play. As with so many programmes, the focus is on nutrition and survival as first priorities. Attachment and bonding have been added as part of love. Play sits poorly defined in a space that is not clear, as it is not seen as an equal priority to other more complex and demanding needs. Play is seen to be so simple that everyone must obviously know about it and thus it is not given the attention it deserves.
The theme that “Relationships matter” has become key in the First thousand Days campaign and also the recently launched WHO Nurturing Care Framework. My reason for making the simple and yet strong statement “If relationships matter, play is the medium” is that play connects humans. When the group members at the First Thousand Days meeting emerged out of their silence, their first response was, ‘yes!’ Play connects even strangers and diverse people together in a fun and equal way. A story was told about a new group of mothers from different backgrounds who were meeting for the first time. They were standing around uncomfortably looking at each other - until they played a simple game, which was ‘Stand up if your baby has messed all over you’, and ‘Hands up if you are tired from sleep deprivation’ etc. Standing, putting hands up, laughing and recognizing that each had a similar experience immediately connected the group.
Then, after my presentation, stories about play and memories of positive play experiences flowed out of the silence, such as cooking with grandmother, playing with sand, clay and water and making things out of scrap. Play forms our experiences and relationships with each other. This forms us into the people we become and the memories that we treasure.
Play is the link between the other two themes in the First thousand Days programme, which is Grow and Love. Family meal times can be an important time when stories are shared, jokes are told, tears are shed, and food is enjoyed (if there is food available for which we must always be thankful). We can no longer afford to encourage adequate nutrition or the survival of young children without also promoting development and play. Surviving and thriving in childhood go hand in hand together.
Play is not only for children. We all need to play. Play is good for everyone. Adults who are involved in play, such as sport, creative arts, music, and dance, are more likely to be better connected to other people and have a more positive outlook on life. Team building exercises are mostly playful and bring relationships together.
There is much to be said about playing with children because of the joy that playfulness gives to adults. Inter-generational play is special. It has contributed towards better and positive aging and well-being in elderly people. Many studies have been done of preschool children playing with the elderly in old age homes with positive results. Play connects adults and children across generations.
Play is the starting point of creating an imagination for acting out what children see but also what they cannot see or ‘thinking out of the box’, without fear of making mistakes. This is play. I have a feeling that adults who can imagine and think differently are those who are pushing boundaries and changing society. Think of the Wright brothers for their play that developed over time into aeroplanes. We learn through play. Play is so often underestimated for its role in learning, that we limit play to focus on reaching learning goals.
Let us be open to the simplicity of play that helps us to find ourselves and each other, no matter our age and ability.
My day started off well when I met ‘Blessing’, who was a cheerful young man living out his name. I couldn’t help myself and asked him the origin of his name. “I was a blessing to my mother when I was born, so she called me ‘Blessing’, my official name on my ID”. How wonderful to start life with an identity of being a blessing to a mother. Such joy and affirmation to the unfolding life of a delightful person. I can identify with this mother who was indeed blessed with her new born son. I have three sons who are each in their own way a blessing to me. I can also identify with this mother who opened her heart to baby Blessing; he was her blessing and she was his.
Children are our biggest blessings in our communities. They bring joy, laughter and delight with their new discoveries. Children however are just in themselves a blessing without even having to do something. I was reminded of this playing with my new friend, Anya. When I met Anya, a three year old who was initially shy, I even wondered if she had lost her tongue. She watched me and worked out that I could be a reasonable playmate. Her observations may have been accurate, and we made up a game together that involved her sitting on my rhythmic lap that was a pretend wave in the sea and enjoying the waves until she slid off onto the ground and rolled around in the shallow waters. There was no toy, just a simple game, and a time of being playful.
Opening myself up to this ‘wave game’ was a choice and became a mutual joy. Anya had fun playing on a human wave, and I enjoyed being a wave. I have always secretly wanted to be a wave. Anya was a blessing to me and I was a blessing to her. This joy lifted both of our spirits.
It is perhaps hard to think that as parents we can be a blessing to our children, especially if our own parents did not delight in us. This is not important to a child, as they see their parents as a blessing, no matter what. Children in their innocence see beyond parents’ insecurities and are open to absorb any adoration. But to be honestly enjoyed and loved is a huge blessing in itself for anyone. We are learning something about love; children learn about love by first being loved and enjoyed. It didn’t surprise me that ‘Blessing’ was such a cheerful person and this was his world view; his mother had shown her attitude and love towards him by choosing his name, my Blessing.
Let us all choose to be open to little children and the blessing that they bring to us. Let us be open to the challenges children face, illnesses, disabling conditions, failures and disappointments, adoption, effects of drug, alcohol and emotional abuse. This is not the choice of any child. Let us look beyond all this harsh reality of life and choose to see each and every child in our community as a blessing. By every child, I do mean every child including those with disabilities. If we are open to children who are different, and ready to play with them, we may see their own uniqueness and the joy that they bring to us. Every child deserves nurturing care and opportunities to reach their own potential.
Let us be a blessing to all children. Let all children be a blessing to us.
“How are you?”
One of the earliest lessons we all teach our children is social etiquette, which includes saying “hello” and asking “how are you?” When I lived in a rural area, called KwaNgwanase, near Kosi Bay in KwaZulu Natal, one of my early lessons in learning to speak Zulu was to greet others. I enjoy the Zulu greeting which starts with “Sawubona” or “we see you”. I became used to walking on the streets and greeting fellow travelers, “we see you’ (sawubona) and received the same reply “we see you’ (sawubona). I felt so much part of the community just walking along the road or to the shops as people could see me and said so. I was not an invisible person walking in the street; I was seen and noticed. I found this to be affirming of my presence and making connections with others. If there was to be a start to any conversation, then the etiquette would be to ask ”Unjani? “or ”how are you?”’ Each culture and language has its own way of greeting, of making a connection with another.
We interact with our children in the same way. Waking up and seeing a child in the morning, we ask ”how are you?” and ”did you sleep well?“ Or, if they are still babies, we look for signs of a good rest and wellness. Facial expressions and body language can at times communicate better than words.
Last week I was asked to give a presentation on ”Growth and Development’’ for nurses at a professional development conference. I decided to include aspects of parenting into the presentation including asking “how are you? to patients and their offspring. This is the basic information needed to find out about and monitor growth, development and wellness through the new Road to Health Card. I was interrupted in my formal presentation by a comment from the audience that just could not wait for question time. A nurse told me that in reality she didn’t ask her patients how they were as she was too afraid of the answer. The nurse explained that the problems in the community are so huge that inquiring about the well-being of a patient is too difficult. I understood this as I too don’t ask people questions if I don’t want to know the answer or if the response is going to be something that I don’t want to discuss. I know that I sometimes avoid people who may tell me things I don’t want to hear. I also know that we often don’t ask families about their ‘different’ child, loss in the family, depressed or anxious relative or gay friend. Anything that makes us feels uncomfortable tends to be ignored and not asked about. I was glad that this nurse could be honest and say what she felt, as she represents many of us. I was also glad that the dialogue between the nurse and I continued through my presentation and in the end she came to her own solution: we need to ask ourselves how we are, before we can hear how others are.
So I wonder if we start each day greeting ourselves, ”I see you” and ”how are you?”, would this make a difference to our well-being? I wonder if we ask ourselves about the things of life that make us uncomfortable, would this help us to connect better with others. I also wonder if patients asked nurses how they are, would this make a difference. We assume that people working with responsibility for others are just fine, but perhaps we need to ask.
Let us become the person who has taught our children good manners for a worthwhile reason: to acknowledge and to show some kindness to others, even those who have a different story. There is much value to teaching our children an openness to others, and hopefully we can also show little ones how to do it in simple ways.
Let us be courageous to connect with ourselves and others. If we are brave enough to ask ourselves how we are, we might be surprised to hear the response. In greeting others, we may find ourselves in conversations that are tough and uncomfortable but may also find some encouragement from each other. Let us become what we teach to our children.
I am very excited about sharing my new website, a new beginning for me to engage with others in a different way. Starting anew makes me think of something fresh and hopeful. Each New Year is often celebrated with a party, saying goodbye to the old year and to bring in the new one. Who does not get excited to see and hold a new baby? I love the fresh smell of the new-born baby with a body that just needs to be held. A new-born person full of hope waiting to unfold and grow. The new-born baby also brings an end to a pregnancy and ‘child free’ couple or parent. In all new beginnings there is also a letting go of the old.
In starting this blog, I am learning about new ways to communicate with others. I hope to reflect on my experiences and observations of life as a parent relating to other parents just trying to do our best. What do I need to let go of? I don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, even if I do know quite a bit about early child development and relationships. To be honest, I am still learning many new aspects about early child development. Let us learn from our children who are essentially open to learning and willing to try out something new, even if it means making a mistake. This is how we learn about the ‘new’.
I enjoy watching little children learn about new aspects of life; they explore, feel, enjoy and play until they have understood the ‘new’ and can let it go for something else. Children are motivated to keep on learning about new aspects of life and many times do so without fear of making a mistake, adapting and playing in different ways. I guess this is why we often say that children learn like 'sponges’, soaking up the new aspects, such as words, interactions, games, stories, etc. I am always grateful for the adaptable nature of most children, as it allows me to be able to make a mistake and say sorry, then we can both let go of the old and move on to other interactions and games. At what point do we get stuck as adults, and stop learning? Is it at the point when we assume that that we know and don’t need to learn about the new?
I am excited about this new blog, a new adventure and a new way to learn to communicate my interest in little children, parental support and early intervention. I am learning a new way to communicate and so expect to make mistakes, but like a child I will hopefully grow through this. I hope that you can enjoy my reflections and experiences expressed through this blog. Feedback is welcome.