By Sheryl Paul
The race to achieve and succeed begins in utero. From the first prenatal appointment, the health provider measures the size of baby and compares him to other babies of similar age. We're then set on a course of measuring and comparing, secretly hoping that our child is within the realm of "normal" or, hopefully, in the lead. The comparisons continue at the starting gates of life with more charts and percentages defining a baby's growth. And the race only intensifies from there.
From learning to sit up, crawl, walk, and talk, the first two years are defined by developmental milestones. We may not consciously subscribe to the cultural race to be the biggest, fastest, smartest, and best, but when you baby doesn't walk until sixteen months or talk until two (or later), it's difficult not to fall prey to the insidious belief that "something's wrong." Conversely, when you baby crawls at seven months and is saying their first words before their first birthday, it's difficult not to secretly ascribe significance to these developments and assume that it means that you baby is more intelligent than the others in his age group.
The truth is that none of those milestones have any correlation to intelligence. From talking to learning how to swim and read, weaning to sleeping through the night, we rush and sometimes push our babies and children to learn and "complete" often before they're ready. A true child-led parenting style means watching and listening to your child's cues while sensitively, in conjunction with your own needs as a parent, allowing the child to determine the timing of as many events as possible.
I was at the local recreation center last week taking my boys for their weekly swim. My oldest just learned to swim last summer and my little one adores his Floaties. I tried swim lessons for him every summer from the time he was four through six, but he usually lasted one lesson and then would look at me and say, "Mommy, I told you I'm going to teach myself to swim." Still, I persisted, and still he resisted and insisted that he would teach himself. Sure enough, his first time in the pool last summer he dove underwater and emerged with an ecstatic grin on his face, then proceeded to swim beautifully across the pool. "I told you, Mommy!" It was a celebratory day for everyone.
While at the pool I observed a father with his young daughter, no older than three. They seemed to be enjoying each other and we exchanged several smiles. Then he put her under her back and, despite her screams and tears, kept her there for several minutes, urging her to roll over onto her belly. She screamed and he held her there until she finally rolled over. Yes, she could technically swim, but I couldn't help but wonder at what cost emotionally.
Along these lines, I'll never forget when my well-meaning neighbor observed my seven-year old boy riding his bike with training wheels and said, "He's still not riding on two wheels?" His kids, several years younger, had been riding a bike for many years. To be honest, I can't even recall when my oldest learned to ride a bike (was it last summer or the one before?), but what I do know is that it was a joyous moment determined by his own readiness. What does it really matter if a child learns to ride a two-wheeler at age four, seven, or nine?
I will acknowledge that the fact that we homeschool eliminates the social pressure that often inspires early learning. If my son were the only one in his class who couldn't ride on two wheels, I imagine he would have forced himself to ride earlier than he was ready. For us, this is one of the great benefits of homeschooling: we can allow our kids to learn and grow at their own pace without peer pressure effecting their choices.
Both of my kids self-weaned well into toddlerhood. I didn't see any reason to deprive them of their most consistent source of comfort, so I allowed them to decide when they were done. My older son, now nine, who was such an avid nurser that I often joked that he would breastfeed until he left for college, self-weaned one sudden day just after he turned three. I grieved that night, wept for the end of our beautiful breastfeeding relationship that had began with such challenges, and then celebrated both of our independence. My little one, now four, recently self-weaned after announcing to me, "Mommy, I'm going to be done drinking mee-mee in a few days." And, sure enough, a few days later he took his last sip. I felt immensely proud of him that he knew his body well enough to communicate his needs. I hope that that acute level of self-trust continues throughout his life.
Weaning, swimming, riding a bike, learning to read: what's the rush? Why do we culturally transmit a belief that earlier is better? And the race seems to be running at increasing higher levels of pressure and intensity. When I was child, it wasn't uncommon for kids to learn to swim or ride a bike at the later end of single-digits without receiving any social stigma or pressure. Now, if your child isn't reading, swimming, and riding a bike by the time they leave kindergarten you all run the risk of being judged. And don't even mention breastfeeding a four year old.
Following your child's lead encourages your child to trust his or her rhythm and needs, and is one of the most important actions you can take to help him preserve and develop healthy self-trust.
In my work with adult clients, the root cause of much of their anxiety is a lack of self-trust. Ruptured self-trust affects every area of life, from speaking up in relationships to deciding whether or not to vaccinate. Self-trust is a cornerstone of developing a strong identity as a mother, and the evolution of healthy self-trust appears early in the mothering process when it comes time to make decisions about important topics like prenatal tests and caregivers. Sadly, many women give away their authority to doctors, spouses, or mothers, following in their familiar vein of believing that others know their own body better than they do. If we want our children to grow up with a strong sense of self, we need to pull back the reins of "keeping up with the Joneses" and instead follow the brilliant and innate rhythm of learning and growing with which every child is born. What a healthier world it would be.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide via her private practice, her e-courses and programs, her books, and her website, http://conscious-transitions.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Her home study course for pregnant women and new mothers, Birthing a New Mother: A Roadmap from Preconception Through the First Year to Calm Your Anxiety, Prepare Your Marriage, and Become the Mother you Want to Be, can be found at http://birthinganewmother.com. She lives in Boulder, Colorado where she and her husband homeschool their two sons.