Should we talk about ‘milestones’ for kids?
I saw a blog post the other day about someone recording one of their kids’ first days at preschool and their other child walking for the first time. Fair enough; it is of course something to remember and record, but the title of the post was “Celebrating child & baby milestones”.
It got me thinking. For a while I’ve felt uneasy about posts talking about ‘milestones’, but I didn’t quite know why. I decided to dig into my brain and the Web, and I realised that there are a few reasons that I just really don’t like the term, and why I think it can get in the way of relationship. Here they are:
- Milestones were, traditionally, quantifiable measurements of distance. They were stones set up along roads to mark the distance in miles to a particular place. By talking in ‘milestones’ we are measuring our kids by putting in quantifiable expectations of them. Crawling is a milestone. Walking is a milestone. Starting school is a milestone. Leaving home is a milestone. There’s nothing wrong with documenting or celebrating these things, but they aren’t things that we should expect our kids to do according to a generalised chart. If children aren’t talking by two, people get worried. They refer to doctors, and therapists, and make a big deal out of the fact that the child is doing something not according to adults’ expected schedules. It puts pressure on children and parents to meet these milestones at a specified time, with the implication that something is wrong if they aren’t met. It frames children more as cookie-cutter products than unique individuals with vastly differing abilities and interests.
- Milestones were for a specific, pre-set path. They were set along a route. They weren’t strewn around the countryside and in the desert and on the bottom of the ocean floor, where there is plenty of cool stuff to be discovered. They were installed neatly at specific points along a pre-determined route. By talking about milestones we imply that our children are getting closer to a destination, and that these milestones are essential things to pass on that journey. But what if our kids aren’t on the same journey as others, or going to the same destination? If starting nursery is a milestone, what route are home educated kids on? If talking is a milestone, how does this account for non-verbal children’s equally valid journey? If ‘first steps’ are a milestone, what about kids who will never walk? Some people will make out like this is ‘political correctness gone mad’ but they aren’t the ones with those kids, constantly having to fight for their place and acceptance into society. Milestones set a precedent for ‘normal’ that excludes many children and imply that they are ‘less’ because of it.
- Milestones celebrate what a child does, not who they are. In general society we value and pay attention to children’s individual behaviours far more than who they naturally are as a person. Being kind, having a passion for something or going against the grain are not factored into ‘milestones’ that are publicly celebrated, despite them being far more important than one-off events.
- It creates competition. Creating competition in adult-engineered environments is not good for kids. By making children compete for things such as grades, we are conveying a solid message that in order for them to succeed, others must fail or do worse than us. It does not foster a culture of helpfulness, because helping others risks us looking worse.
5. Milestones are arbitrary. There might be an average age by which kids do things but the expectations are different according to culture and context. In Bali an infant’s foot doesn’t touch the floor for 105 days after birth (but what about tummy time?). Western babies roll over, on average, later than Asian babies. In some parts of South America, babies’ physically development is deliberately delayed because of environmental hazards such as open fires; in Jamaica babies are expected to sit up (and trained to do so) earlier than European counterparts. Vietnamese babies are often nappy-free from birth, so learn to use the toilet far earlier than other cultures. Swedish and Japanese children are left home alone or in caring roles earlier than British kids. It’s all contextual, which means that the incessant worry that many parents go through because their child isn’t doing something by a certain age is futile and would be quelled if they took a plane ride to a another country.
I’m not saying that we should completely ignore the development of certain behaviours, or that some children don’t have real problems in some areas that require help- of course they do. What I am saying is that maybe milestones aren’t really milestones; they’re guidelines, for most people, and they can isolate people who don’t pass them on a pre-set path. I’m also saying that the worry, guilt and potentially loneliness attached to the invisible chart we are handed seconds after birth or adoption, with all those child & baby milestones embedded into it, is rubbish.
Thank you for reading!