My first child arrived two days after her due date, but was early in every other milestone. She cut her first tooth at three months and rolled, sat up, pulled up, and crawled by six months. It didn’t take long for her to start walking around the house with a push toy. I happily egged her on because there was something irresistibly adorable about seeing a tiny, bald human upright and cruising from room to room. By the time she was nine months old, she didn’t need to hold on any longer and was an independent walker.
I’ll admit, I was pretty smug about her accomplishment. My baby was clearly superior to all babies and was well on her way to athletic greatness. I expected everyone to be impressed with my coordinated genius. I was an ass.
I, like many first time parents, put too much stock into these first year milestones with my first daughter. It started with her stats at birth. Her weight, length, and head size put her into certain percentiles and I treated those numbers as if they would determine her financial future, emotional intelligence, or happiness. But why the fuck did I care that my kid’s head put her in the 80th percentile for head size in newborns?
Because I was stuck in the belief that for my daughter to be healthy, she had to be high on a chart I barely understood. I did this because parenting is terrifying, and doing better than her baby peers seemed like the only way I could tell myself she was just fine—that I was fine. I needed reassurance that I was somehow doing a good job as a parent, and comparing her development to what was considered “normal” seemed to be the only way to get validation. And since my child was walking much sooner than her buds at daycare, it seemed obvious that my kid wasn’t just normal, she was extraordinary.
What she was, simply, was on one end of a big range of “normal” for early childhood development.
The World Health Organization reported on windows of achieved motor milestones in children. On average, children begin to walk at a year old. However, the earliest walkers were mobile at eight months and late-walkers were on their feet at 18 months. That is a very big — and for some, a worrisome — stretch of time for a skill that parents wait for, encourage, and then brag about. When my daughter was walking at nine months, she was just as “normal” as a child taking their first steps at 18 months. Her ability to sit up and crawl early didn’t make her special either; some kids never crawl, or do so in their own unique style. And while parents like to brag about something most of us do every day without much thought, walking early does not create a competitive advantage over children who walk late.
A study done by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) concluded that a child will not be smarter or more coordinated if they walk early. And by the time kids start school the playing field is level. There was no found correlation between the age at which the children were able to sit up and walk and their “performance in the intelligence and motor tests between the age of seven and eighteen.”
It’s important to acknowledge that we need to reevaluate what typical is when it comes to calling a child healthy or “normal.” Some kids may never meet certain milestones, or achieve them in ways that are considered ‘normal by mainstream standards, but that doesn’t mean these kids are not healthy or normal.
A child may never walk or talk. A child may struggle with fine motor skills or have delays in other areas of cognitive development, but that shouldn’t indicate that something is inherently wrong with the child. We shouldn’t make it more difficult for a child to navigate a world set up for “normal” development by discounting their abilities through comparison to standardized growth and development charts. And we certainly should never consider parents neglectful or uninformed if their children appear to be lagging behind the pack, or crawling instead of walking.
Yet, I got caught up in being a boastful parent as if my daughter’s motor skills were some kind of testament to my parenting. Her teeth just made breastfeeding more uncomfortable and her mobility meant she was into more shit throughout the house. The timing of these firsts had nothing to do with me. But when her twin siblings were born two years later, I worried when they didn’t walk until they were a year old—I even worried when one of my twins walked before the other. All three of my children are athletic, but my oldest daughter and earliest walker is the least coordinated out of the three, and my latest walker turns out to have the most body control and spacial awareness.
Parenting is such a weird event. The primal want and need to have a child is an uncontrollable chemical surge that is hard to explain; we think we know what we want and what we are in for, but nothing can prepare you for the heartbreak and heart-bursting pride that accompanies raising a child. The want to be a parent feels almost smug and selfish in some ways; the actual role of parenting feels like the most selfless role we will ever have.
It’s easy to get caught up in the milestones that seem to guide and reassure us, but let’s not turn the achievement of these milestones into a competition. It’s okay to trust your parenting skills if your child seems to be behind or slower than their peers. If you have concerns, talk to your pediatrician. If yours is anything like mine, they may just remind you to relax. I am reminding you not to be so braggy.