Have you seen anyone drinking out of a baby bottle at age 50? I haven’t yet, though it certainly would be unforgettable to witness an adult chugging down formula at any age. Imagine walking past a construction site, and instead of eating sandwiches for lunch, the workers whip out their handy bottles and start suckling. I guess it would be a lot easier than making a sandwich.
This scene just doesn’t happen in today’s world though, it never has and it never will. Yet many parents at some point will worry about when their babies will quit the bottle, the sippy cup, and diapers. The list goes on. When will our kids walk? When will they talk? When will they count, say their ABCs, and grow out of their shyness? We sit there and watch our baby or toddler intently, looking for signs that those miraculous milestones will one day occur. Sometimes, we’re so fixated on the missing milestones that we overlook what our kids are doing for themselves.
I’ve been there too many times. For example, I wondered when my toddler son would learn to drink out of a straw. Months ago, I spent an hour teaching my son about straws using a makeshift lesson plan. He thought it was funny, and looking back I can see why. I can’t fault myself for trying, but my plan didn’t work out and he didn’t learn to drink from a straw that day. I figured that he just didn’t get it. It felt shameful to think this way, but a mommy sensor went off in my head and bleeped out, “What if he never learns to drink from a straw?”
One day recently, my son grabbed a huge cup of soda we'd ordered with some fast food. I was about to take it back from him when suddenly he stuck the straw in his mouth and started to drink! I was shocked. All those times I'd given him a straw while shaking my head, thinking that it was beyond him to use it, he'd gradually gotten familiar with the practice. It all happened right in front of my face, without any huge “milestone moment” announcement, banner, and confetti.
If I had sidestepped my mind’s constant alarms regarding straws, I could've used more of my mommy common sense. I’ve used common sense from time to time in my own life, and yet I found myself suspending it irrationally when it came to my son and his growth. This way of thinking is not unique among parents, and over time I’ve seen milestones prioritized over each baby or kid’s natural learning potential. Later on in life, we hear that the journey is more important than the destination. Yet we tell our kids the opposite and expect them to skip the learning process altogether. We want the results, the bottom line, the milestones.
How does this milestone madness start? There's no shortage of external messages reminding us where exactly our kids should be developmentally. From the time babies go in for a two-week well-child exam to when they grow into teenagers and graduate from high school, human offspring are supposed to be on track toward fulfilling a societal formula. Each milestone can be broken down into even smaller milestones until the checkboxes feel infinitesimal.
For example, if a baby is taking the initiative to be interested in food and exploring it using their hands, the next thing you hear is that he or she should be wielding a spoon by now. A step forward never seems to be enough. We don’t get a chance to truly enjoy the moments when our kids do something new because there is always another milestone to follow. Who makes these rules? Adults, of course. Kids themselves are often confused about all the fuss over a straw or a spoon.
As parents, it’s hard to admit to ourselves the real bottom line: we fear what our kids’ milestones imply about our parenting skills and who we are as people. Instead of enjoying a rare dinner out with Johnny, all of a sudden we’re scanning the restaurant for other kids who may or may not be drinking from straws. If we see a toddler using a straw, we’re obsessively trying to guess his or her age and whether the kid is older or younger than our kid. Johnny has ceased to be uniquely Johnny in our eyes, and now exists only in comparison to all other kids.
It’s natural for a parent to want growth and learning for their child and to see skills build on each other toward greater independence over time. We also want to pay attention and be aware of when a kid might need help or education toward developing a new skill. This line of thinking is common sense. However, there is a point when we can take milestones too far, suspend common sense completely, and miss out on the cool times we can spend with our kids that stand outside of judgment and scrutiny.
Can milestones cause undue stress for a child and the whole family? Yes. Can they make kids feel like we’re looking over their shoulders to catch everything they’re doing or not doing ? Yes. Can milestones make kids feel fearful of learning new things? For sure.
We parents aren’t fearless, and of course we get scared about how we’re performing too. There is no school for being a mom or a dad, and therefore we don’t get grades or gold stars. We judge ourselves on a regular basis, sometimes very harshly. When we’re being hard on ourselves, these feelings can then get displaced onto our kids as judgment of how they’re doing.
At these times, it’s helpful to look at ourselves instead of our kids and ask, how am I doing? Am I setting unrealistic expectations for myself or placing unfair pressure on myself as a parent? Am I able to give myself credit when I’ve done enough?
Our kids will inevitably grow, but what is unarguably more difficult is to grow as an adult. Sometimes we confuse the two. Milestones can become symbolic of, and outlets for, the shortcomings we imagine we have as grownups and as parents.
As adults, we want to feel put together and on top of things. We are intolerant of our weaknesses, mistakes, and failures. We want only strengths, achievements, and success. Eventually, our uniqueness and talents are boiled down to purely a measure of image and status.
I can’t be perfectly pure in my intentions as a parent, and sometimes I will become insecure and transfer these fears onto my kids. I’ll spend too much time staring at a straw, spoon, or potty, wondering when my kids will become handy with these tools and paraphernalia of babyhood. Still, I want to remember that their real growth and learning shouldn’t be underscored by image and how they (or, more honestly, how I) look to others. I want to use common sense as a parent while I encourage my kids to learn new things.
One day, my baby boy and girl will not only drink from straws but they’ll also do lots of other things that their parents haven’t specifically taught them. I just need to keep my eyes open so I can see the growth happening in its unique way. In the meantime, gold stars won’t fall from the sky for my kids or for us parents. That’s okay. Instead of following the milestone parade, I know we’ll have more satisfying teaching moments using good old common sense.