|Most baby books dwell at length
on the developmental landmarks of early childhood - sitting,
standing, crawling, walking - and the host of behavioral concerns
that will surface as your child grows older. These milestones are
of legitimate interest to proud parents, but only rarely should
they be a matter of concern, and I don't need a whole book to give
you my advice about them. I'll do it in one sentence: unless there
is something obviously wrong with your child, don't worry about
how soon he sits, stands, crawls, or walks.
If this is your first child, you will be
sorely tempted to compare his progress with that of other children
his age. I know that nothing I write will keep you from doing
that, but I hope I can convince you that such comparisons are more
apt to mislead than to inform. During the first few years of life
the development of individual children varies so widely that
comparisons are meaningless. However, if you want a rule of thumb,
try this: most children suit with support at 6 to 8 months, sit
without support at 8 to 10 months, walk at 12 to 18 months, talk
at 18 to 24 months, ride a tricycle at 3 years, and copy a square
at 4 years. Having said that. Let me urge you to resist the
temptation to boast if your child reaches any of these milestones
at an earlier age or to worry if his development is delayed. At
some point in their development, all normal children arrive at the
same place, and whether it is early or late makes no difference.
Sooner or later your children will learn to
do what you expect of them if your expectations are realistic. All
of us know, but we sometimes forget, that all children do not
learn at the same rate, within the same time frame, with the same
ease; not can they be expected to reach a uniform level of
achievement by the time they become adults. That knowledge,
unfortunately, does not prevent us from having grand expectations
of our own children, which began with their birth. Nor does it
keep us from making behavioral comparisons with other children
that are both meaningless and dangerous. Today's "early
bloomer" may be the backward child of tomorrow, and vice
Our rosy expectations of our kids are
beneficial if they encourage us to give them the attention and
support they need to achieve the potential they have. They can
also be devastating to our child's development and self-image if
our expectations exceed his potential, or if we lack the patience
to allow his skills and interests to develop naturally during the
It is sometimes difficult for parents with
high expectations, who may themselves be high achievers, to
remember that the occupation of children is to play and to learn.
We must learn to accept the fact that during their developmental
years, children cannot be expected to exhibit adult behavior. More
likely, many of the things they do will seem almost calculated to
drive you up the wall. Nothing I have to say in this chapter will
make your child's annoying behavior any less worrisome or
exasperating, but it may be easier to live with if you understand
what's normal and where the child is coming from.
Physical Behavior That Concerns Parents
First let's separate physical behavior from
emotional behavior. What are the physical things that parents most
commonly worry about? All babies, often to the initial distress of
their parents, cough, grunt, belch, hiccup, sneeze, pass gas, spit
up, and vomit. You may worry about this at first and wonder
whether it indicates some deficiency in your child's diet. You
needn't, because as long as the baby is eating right and not
losing weight you can regard all of this behavior as normal.
Let me caution you also not to get hung up
on burping. Somewhere in the distant past, some mother found that
her baby was less apt to spit up his lunch if she patted him on
the back until excess air was released from his stomach. This
procedure has become such a ritual that some new mothers appear to
believe that their child will not survive if he doesn't burp
loudly after every meal. In fact, there's nothing carved in stone
that says your baby has to burp. Some babies swallow a lot of air
and readily produce an earsplitting burp. Others swallow very
little and don't need to burp at all. If you find that burping
after a meal keeps your baby from spitting up, you may want to
encourage him a bit, but don't make a production of it. There is
no medical reason why he has to burp at all.
While we're on the subject, let me say a
word about colic. This is the name mothers and doctors give to a
phenomenon that usually occurs before three months of age. A
previously placid and contented baby suddenly begins drawing up
his legs and having paroxysms of screaming. It may surprise you,
considering the eons that babies have been on earth, but there
isn't a shred of scientific evidence indicating what causes it.
However, the word colic is a convenient term for doctors, who use
it to explain crying that they can't explain. Some medical
textbooks refer to "gas" in the intestines, caused by
excessive fermentation of carbohydrates, as a possible cause. But
then they note that removing the carbohydrates doesn't relieve the
condition, which seems to cast grave doubts on this explanation.
The simple truth is that many mothers and most doctors talk about
"colic" as uncontrollable crying caused by
"gas" in the baby's stomach. Scientists say that they
don't know what causes it. I'm with the scientists. I don't know,
Crying is the second worrisome behavior that
appears at birth. The first cry you hear is reassuring, but from
then on crying is something every parent could cheerfully do
without. Over the years doctors have given parents a lot of bad
advice about what to do when their baby cries, and a lot of kids
have suffered because of it.
Children Cry Because They Have Problems
Children cry because they are hungry, or
lonely, or tired, or wet, or in pain. Compassionate people do not
withhold comfort from adults who are crying, for whatever reason.
Why in heaven's name should a loving parent withhold comfort from
a little child? If your child is crying, don't let it continue.
Pick him up and find out why. If he cries at night because he is
lonely or afraid, take him into your bed. [Editor's note: It is
even more beneficial to keep your child with you all night. See
"Ten Reasons to Sleep
Next to Your Child at Night".]
Psychologists and psychiatrists always give
me a bad time when I make that last recommendation. I recall being
on the Phil Donahue show with Tine Thevenin, author of The Family Bed, and a psychiatrist who was invoking the Oedipus
complex and other pet theories to try to put her down. Donahue
turned to me for my opinion, and I told him I agreed with the
psychiatrist. I said that psychiatrists should not take their
children to bed with them, but that it was quite all right for
Bowel habits, diarrhea, constipation, and
toilet training are also parental concerns that begin at birth and
continue through the years. Many first-time mothers are
inordinately concerned with the appearance and condition of their
baby's stools, particularly if the baby is being breastfed. The
color and consistency of a baby's stools vary considerably
depending on his diet. Breastfed babies, for example, usually have
stools that resemble loose scrambled eggs. This is not diarrhea;
it is perfectly normal and not a matter of concern. There is a
danger, though, that your pediatrician may use this normal
condition as an excuse to switch your child from breastfeeding to
If that happens, pay no attention to him.
The most sensible rule to follow is this: if your child is
thriving and gaining weight, don't worry about the consistency of
his stools, whether they are extremely loose or as hard as
marbles. You need to be concerned only if he is not thriving, is
losing weight, or if the stools are bloody. In that case, see a
doctor. However,. if this does become necessary, be wary of
medications unless your doctor is able to diagnose a specific
cause. Pediatricians are inveterate stool-gazers, inclined to
treat loose stools with opiates such as Lomotil. In the absence of
a specific disease, a more sensible course, which really doesn't
require medical supervision, is to look for food allergies, and
then eliminate the offending foods. The most likely food is cow's
This is also true of constipation. There is
no magic number of bowel movements your child should have and no
reason to be concerned if he fails to have at least one every day.
If your child seems to be constipated, look for the cause in his
diet and see a doctor only if the constipation is accompanied by
pain or bleeding.
As for toilet training, pay no attention to
medical advice, because your pediatrician doesn't know any more
about it than you do. It's a family affair. It doesn't make any
difference, except in terms of your own convenience, whether you
train your child early, late, or neither of the above. Some
children train readily. Others don't, and I have no magic formula
you can use if you have one of those [children]. My daughters
have, though. They turned to their mother for advice on training
The emotional behaviors of children that may
provoke frustration and anger in parents are almost endless, from
the "terrible twos" to the "turbulent teens."
What you must remember, when your nerves get frayed, is that they
all stem from developmental processes without which your child
could never become a functioning adult.
Your immediate reaction is likely to be
anger when your toddling child jerks the cloth from a table and
smashes your most cherished vase. If it is, you must learn to
control it, because punishment won't solve the problem; it will
merely confuse your child. A more appropriate response will be to
remind yourself that the child isn't being deliberately naughty.
He's simply exercising the normal curiosity that will enable him
to learn, and trying out his newfound motor skills. Then put the
rest of your cherished objects out of reach.
Punishment is not the Solution
Virtually all disturbing childhood behaviors
stem from some emotional cause. Your response is not to punish the
child but to isolate the cause. Often, the child who was finally
toilet-trained after a long struggle may suddenly begin to wet his
pants again. This isn't deliberate, because no child really enjoys
wet pants or the negative maternal responses they evoke. It is
virtually certain, when this happens, that the child is responding
to some environmental stress. Don't spank your child, try to
identify and eliminate the stress.
Remember, if your child suddenly becomes
violent with his playmates, or becomes a discipline problem in
school, that he is probably reacting to some situation or problem
that is beyond his control. It could be illness, exhaustion,
hunger, visual or hearing defects, or simply a reaction to turmoil
at home. It may even be a response to his deteriorating self-image
because you have unrealistic expectations of him. If so, he won't
respond positively to punishment. Emotional support and constant
displays of love and affection are more apt to be the cure.
Children must, of course, be guided toward
responsible adult behavior, but parents shouldn't expect them to
achieve it all at once. Nor is there any convincing evidence that
it can be effectively achieved by employing the old maxim
"Spare the rod and spoil the child." Corporal punishment
at any age confuses and traumatizes the child, because he can't
understand why the mother and father he loves, and who are
supposed to love him, are suddenly raging at him and causing
physical pain. He is made to feel insecure, resentful, and even
worthless, and the consequence may be psychological harm.
The impact of physical punishment on child
development has been studied extensively, and the consensus of
this research is that violence damages both parent and child. It
fails to teach children what to do and yields only a temporary
benefit, if that, in teaching them what not to do. I won't deny
that I've never raised my hand in anger on occasion, but for the
most part I have tried to achieve the desired end with my own
children through the use of example and the provision of tender,
Loving encouragement. I am more than satisfied with the results. I
hope and trust that my grandchildren, likewise, will rarely endure
punishment of any kind.
Some Maxims About Childhood Behavior
- Children aren't adults, so don't expect
them to behave as though they were.
- Children learn by doing, so don't expect
to approve of everything they do.
- It is a rare child whose behavior equals
his parents' expectations.
- Children are more likely to do as you do
than to do as you say.
- It is often less important for parents to
control their children's behavior than it is for them to
control their own.
- Children react to anger; they respond to
love and affection.
A secure and loving home environment and
emotional stability within the family appear to be the major
elements in overcoming some of the specific behaviors that concern
or displease parents. These include thumb-sucking, nail-biting,
nose picking, rocking and head banging, bedwetting and erratic
sleep habits. You can deal successfully with these problems if you
refrain from making an issue of them, pay close attention to the
emotional needs of your child, make sure that he knows you love
him, whatever he does, and exert yourself to make him feel secure.
If you develop that kind of warm relationship with him, you'll do
more than eliminate annoying habits. You'll be rewarded with a
happy, confident, and emotionally stable child!