My son is tall, and he happens to be more articulate than most kids his age. Neither one of these things work in his favor, however, because I keep forgetting that he’s only three, poor kid. He’s developing at the breakneck pace that toddlers do, and every day he seems to have some new skill that catches me off guard. The other day, he woke up with the ability to tell stories. The day after that, he was drawing recognizable pictures. For both of us, it’s exhilarating… and exhausting.
As he hit milestone after milestone, though, I noticed that my frustration levels were rising steeply, too. I didn’t have the words for it (besides “Arghhh”) until I came across the phenomenon of something called the “expectation gap,” and suddenly everything clicked:
The Expectation Gap, writes Psychologist Mona Delahooke, has to do with the assumptions we make about a child’s maturity:
“Many parents assume that tots are capable — or should be capable — of doing things that their brains simply aren’t ready to do yet. A major survey by the Zero to Three Foundation, the world’s largest organization dedicated to infant and toddler well-being, revealed that 56 percent of parents believe that children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age 3. And 36 percent believe that children under age 2 can do so. The truth: toddlers don’t start developing these abilities reliably until age 3-1/2 or 4 at the earliest. The same survey found that 43 percent of parents think children can reliably share and take turns with other children before age 2. In reality, this skill develops between 3 to 4 years as well.”
Parents get frustrated when our expectations are unfairly high. We try everything, and everything fails. That’s because, sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with the child — and there’s really no way the child can change to meet our expectations, besides to continue developing and maturing at a steady pace. So I can either wait till my son’s four, and five, and six, for life to get less frustrating… or I can check my expectations.
I actually love this. It means that no punishments, no strategies, no theories, and no schedules are going to be the magic formula that stops my son from following that powerful impulse to draw on the walls if he finds himself alone with a marker. What a relief! I don’t have to change him; I can just change myself.
I don’t love making changes to myself either, to be honest, but at least it’s possible. I can work with that.
Optimistically, I started trying to potty train my son when he turned two. It took a full year for him to get the hang of it. I remembered something my mother (who had seven of us to potty train) reminded me at the time: They potty train when they’re ready, she said. If you start six months before they’re ready, it’ll take six months. If you start a week before they’re ready, it’ll take a week. It was good advice. I’m going to try to remember it with the behavioral milestones, not just the physical ones.
Your child’s behavior changes: Just normal development or is something really wrong?