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The Importance and Limitations of Developmental milestones

As parents, and especially as parents of young children, we track the development of our children closely because we want to ensure that if there is anything amiss, we are able to address it timeously. With the Internet and social media literally at our fingertips, we have access to a tremendous amount of information (and misinformation) regarding things like the “standard developmental milestones” that our children should reach as they progress from infants to toddlers to primary school children. Many parents can attest to the stress caused by their child not reaching a milestone within the prescribed timeframe - or worse - missing a milestone altogether. Social media pages abound with forums where things like “rolling over, sitting up straight, recognising her/himself in a mirror, crawling, first steps, first words”, etc are discussed. Underlying most of the concerns parents have is a shared understanding that there is a “standardised” developmental milestone roadmap that each “normal” child follows. However, as pointed out by the Harvard scholar, Todd Rose, the reality is that no child “adheres” to the average developmental roadmap - just as no human being ever conforms to the so-called “standard” behaviour or development identified in any social or psychological developmental metric. As a unique individual, each human being deviates from what is regarded as “standard behaviour” in multiple ways. In his fascinating and groundbreaking book, The End of Average*, Rose addresses the fallacies underlying our use and understanding of the concept “average” and how it is mistakenly used as a deterministic, fixed roadmap of milestones that each “normal” individual should follow. He recognises that there are obvious red flags during child development which should not be overlooked, but these will mostly be quite pronounced and hard to ignore. However, this is not the same as seeing some deviation from developmental milestones as an indication of “abnormal” development. For instance, Rose highlights research done by Karen Adolph on how infants progress from crawling to walking. In one study, following 28 infants, she discovered that among them they used no less than 23 different pathways from crawling to walking - a very different picture than the one painted by the “standard” developmental milestone model. David Tracer has shown that children from the Au tribe in Papua New Guinea (Rose, 2015:127) never crawl at all. The point Rose makes is not that developmental milestones are useless, simply that they should not be seen as fixed, normative, single path roadmaps which every “normal” child should follow if they were to develop “properly”. Parents should know that each individual is different and that there are multiple possible ways in which children can progress through the different stages of development. In fact, it is quite possible and it often happens that some children skip certain milestones altogether, or that they move back and forth between milestones. Keeping this in mind will save parents many anxious moments and unnecessary stress.

*(The End of Average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness. 2015. Harper Collins. - I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It should be compulsory reading for every parent and teacher.)

Dr. Jacobus (Lieb) Liebenberg


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