- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

Rebecca Colnes was 18 months old and not yet talking. Her mother, Laura, was concerned and, eventually, stressed out.
Mrs. Colnes compared her daughter to other children in the neighborhood and at the playground. The Springfield mother read Internet posts on a parenting bulletin board, where it seemed all the other toddlers could speak dozens of words. She pored over the pages of parenting books and noted that Rebecca was not doing exactly what the authors predicted she should.
Mrs. Colnes finally explained her concerns to her pediatrician. The doctor assessed Rebecca, and said to stop worrying, and stop believing everything she heard from other parents.
"I literally came home and threw away my copy of 'What to Expect the Toddler Years,'" says Mrs. Colnes, who now has two children. "I decided not to worry, and that it was just crazy to be stressed out over everything my child did or did not do. It hit me that all kids excel at different times. Eventually, they are all up to speed."
Parenting in the millennium can, at times, resemble a big contest. Almost from the moment of birth, many parents are comparing their children to their peers and to the milestone markers in parenting books.
That can make for annoying gloating over the ordinary ("Stephanie is 2 and can use the potty. She must be a genius."), dejection over natural differences ("Brian is the only kid in the play group who is not crawling yet. Is there something wrong with him?") or anger toward the in-laws ("Jeff's baby knows the alphabet and he is six months younger than your Susie. How come she doesn't?")
Parents need to remember that child development has wide variables depending on such things as genetics, gender, caregivers, cultural expectations, even whether a child was premature, says Dr. Nathaniel Beers, assistant professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University. Whether a child is the first on the block to walk or the last in the class to draw a circle, it usually makes little difference in the end.
"Parents definitely should not take the differences personally," Dr. Beers says. "There are differences in the rate of development between boys and girls and from child to child, even from sibling to sibling. You can have two kids equally smart and still develop at different rates in different areas.
"We live in an area where there is pressure to have a spectacular child. You as a parent end up competing with other parents. I tell parents to stop and enjoy the child for that moment."
The parenting Olympics is not new, says Brad Sachs, a Columbia, Md., psychologist and author of the book "The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and be Perfectly Satisfied." He says the competition, however, is stiffer than ever.
"I think the fact that people are having fewer children and having them later in life has helped boost the competition issue," Mr. Sachs says.
Parents living farther away from their own parents have also skewed the view of child development, he says. Without mom and grandma around to offer a reliable perspective, parents look to other parents to see how they are doing.
Add to that the Internet and volumes and volumes of books, and everyone feels insecure, Mr. Sachs says.
"Because of the rupture of the extended family, a number of self-appointed experts have rushed in to fill the vacuum, and have created more stress," he says.
Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, a New York neurodevelopmental pediatrician, psychiatrist and co-author of the book "The Trouble With Perfect: How Parents Can Avoid the Overachievement Trap and Still Raise Successful Children," calls today's competitiveness "peer-pressure parenting."
"Moms today grew up believing they could have it all," Dr. Guthrie says. "Many of them are older than in past generations, and are successful in careers. They are used to handling and organizing. Some of them approach parenting the same way they approach jobs, it becomes 'who is the greatest mom of all?' which is very narcissistic.
"The bottom line is, you get what you get," she says. "You can spend a zillion dollars at [the] Zany Brainy [store] and it won't make a bit of difference. If your child walks a few months ahead of the other kids, it doesn't mean he is going to be the best walker. It just means you have to put things out of reach in your house sooner."

Keeping perspective
Parents will feel better about their child's progress, and ultimately about themselves, if they remember a few important points, Mr. Sachs says.
For starters, there is a wide range for milestones such as sitting up, walking, talking, using the toilet and educational skills such as reading. That is why it is important to establish a relationship with a medical professional who can give educated and unbiased advice. Sometimes, however, concerns may indeed be indicative of an underlying problem.
"It is important you have a pediatrician or other doctor to trust," Mr. Sachs says. The physician can help determine whether there is something that might need to be addressed, he says.
Dr. Guthrie says parents should be aware of the range for certain milestones, but not to use them as the ultimate yardstick.
"Far too much is made of milestone deadlines," she says. "It really is the overall picture you need to be aware of, not every little milestone."
Having a network of supportive friends can be a great place to share concerns as well as achievements.
Maria Bonaquist, an Oakton mother of a 7-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, says she relies on her friends with children for both of those things.
"You want to feel your child is on track," Mrs. Bonaquist says. "Even if it is only a matter of a few weeks, it makes you nervous. That is why it is very important for moms to have a peer group. Even if you feel like your child isn't doing what the other kids are, you might discover that everyone feels that way about some aspect of development. You need a place to share your pride as well as your concerns."
Mrs. Bonaquist learned from her own experience that there is no predicting what each child will do, even within the same family. Her son. Marc, took his first steps at 14 months, which was a bit after the other children in his play group. Her daughter, Anna, sat up well at 5 months, which was earlier than most of her peers. But Anna still didn't take a single step until she was 15 months old. In the end, it made no difference.
"I have learned that unless the doctor or a preschool teacher are concerned, to just relax," Mrs. Bonaquist says.
Mrs. Colnes says she learned to take the claims of some parents with a grain of salt.
Rebecca Colnes is now 5, and "we wonder why we ever taught her to talk," Mrs. Colnes says jokingly. A few years ago, Mrs. Colnes expressed concern to her daughter's doctor after some mothers on an Internet message board claimed their 18-month-olds could say more than 50 words.
"I thought, 'Oh, no. My daughter says two words,'" Mrs. Colnes says. "My doctor said those 50 words probably included 'goo-goo' and 'ga-ga,' so stop stressing out."
Mr. Sachs says parents should keep in mind who is making the claims that may cause insecurity.
"I do think it is important to be thoughtful about which influences we allow in. Some parents aggrandize themselves and their children," he says.
Mrs. Bonaquist says there is bound to be a braggart at some playground or play group.
"Everyone has dealt with that," she says. "As a new mom, it might make you nervous. I just say, 'Good for you.' I'm always skeptical of someone who potty trained at 15 months, anyway."
That is a good attitude, says Dr. Guthrie, who tells parents to remember what her mother used to say to her:
"She used to say, 'Don't believe anything you hear or half of what you see,'" Dr. Guthrie says. "And even if what some parents say about their children is true, it still doesn't matter."


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