To Be Better Parents, We Need To Understand Kids' Brain Development

Why It’s Important To Understand These 4 Stages Of Child Development

photo credit: Brandi Riley

My almost two-year-old son and I were snuggling the other night when, he stopped gently rubbing my face and poked me in the eye. I was startled, and it stung like hell! I exaggerated my pain a bit to help him understand that he hurt me, then took his hands in mine, looked him in his eye and said, “No touching eyes.”

A few weeks ago, my tween daughter was caught watching TikTok videos in her bed under the covers. Thankfully, it was only a bunch of little kids being silly and lip syncing to music. Still, we told her that she wasn’t allowed to use the app, and she did it anyway. She’s been going without screen time except for schoolwork since that day.

Although neither of these situations felt very good, I was able to stay level-headed and deal with my children in a reasonable way because I understand that what they’re doing is age appropriate. I didn’t fly off the handle like my mom and dad might have done if it was me when I was growing up. It’s not because I’m better than my parents (although I’m trying), but I know how to calmly handle incidents that come up with my kids because I’ve done the research and I know what to expect.

Most of us, when we were growing up, our parents didn’t do a lot of research and studying about child development. Maybe our mothers read Dr. Spock or What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but those books really didn’t go into the neurological development of kids. It’s not like that now. There have been so many scientific advancements when it comes to kids and their brains that we moms and dads don’t have to go into parenting blindly anymore.

When I had my first child, I consumed everything I could about early childhood development. It helped that I worked for an educational organization and had been teaching kids for years. I have no doubt that  being able to put that information into practical application on a daily basis helped me to be a better mom.

The main thing to know about the brain development of kids is that there are four main stages based on their age: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations.

The sensorimotor stage

My son, the little guy who tried to gouge my eye out the other night, is in the sensorimotor stage. He uses his senses a lot to figure out what’s going on around him. When he was younger, he put everything in his mouth. He had to taste it to see what it was. Once he started talking, he liked to try out different sounds to mimic us, and to see how people would react to them. Although he’s almost out of this stage, he’s still very observant and notices everything! He is constantly on the lookout for things he hasn’t experienced before.

For some parents, the sensorimotor stage can be intense, and it definitely has been for me. My son is learning new things every single second it seems, and I have to be his guide to help him make sense of it. I sleep when he sleeps. Still, it’s so cool to be able to observe human brain development in real time.

The preoperational stage

We’re moving into the preoperational stage next, and I’m looking forward to it! When my daughter was in this stage, from age two to about six or seven, she was just so charming. I didn’t think kids could get any cuter than when they were tiny babies, but my daughter proved me wrong. Kids who are in the preoperational stage see things in black and white and from their own personal perspective. They do, however, start to understand that everyone doesn’t see everything exactly the way that they do. When they make that discovery, expect a lot of questions and what-ifs.

My daughter and I had the best conversations during this stage, and I couldn’t get enough of watching her figure out human nature. I see my son’s little brain starting to try to make sense of different situations, and I love it.

The concrete operations stage

Kids in the concrete operations stage are often their parent’s best friend. These kids are six or seven years old to about 11 or 12, and they’re so interesting to be around. They have empathy at this age, can grasp more difficult and abstract concepts than they could before, and are super in touch with their emotions.

In my experience with my daughter who’s in this stage right now, listening and helping her to figure out relationships and her feelings is critical. She wants to talk everything out. As she shares the things that are on her mind, I am getting a better sense of how I can support her in being a strong-willed, confident teenager who makes good choices. I enjoy the connection my daughter and I have. I hope that if I keep listening and showing her that I’m going to be there for her no matter what, we can stay connected even as she moves into the last phase of kid neurological development.

The formal operations stage

A lot of parents are nervous about moving into the formal operations stage, and there’s good reason for that. When I was a teacher, I spent most of my time with kids in this stage. From age 12 through the teen years, kids develop reasoning skills. They can’t always act according to reason because they’re making decision from their midbrain which is the center of their emotions.

Whenever my students would get in trouble for something that was obviously not a good idea, they always knew it. It was almost like they had no control in the moment. Between their brains not being fully developed, peer pressure, and tons of emotion, my poor babies were trying but sometimes it was just too hard to do the right thing.

That’s the main reason I created afterschool programs targeting that age group in particular. Keeping them busy and giving the the chance to make plans, and use their brains to figure stuff out is the best way to help them get through this tough stage.

I know that being a parent is time-consuming enough without adding all of this extra research into it. The time spent learning more about the way my children’s brains work at each stage has actually saved me time, though. I don’t have to waste my breath yelling, or spanking them, or losing sleep trying to figure out what’s wrong with my kids. I know what’s wrong. They’re growing, and I need to support them as they do.

This information is making me a better parent, and my kids deserve that. I can tell by the way my children and I engage, and how they’re happy when we’re together that I’m doing a good job. And that’s one thing I don’t need a scientist to help me prove.