Age Appropriate Expectations

At a recent weekend gathering of families, I had the chance to see my seven-year-old in a new light. Either the context brought out fresh responses, or I had the leisure and awareness to observe things that usually go unnoticed. Whatever the reason, he kept slipping out of this tidy little pigeonhole that I'd made for him on the basis of his age, sex and dominant traits. He kept surprising me.

First, he made friends with a young woman in her early twenties--got to know her, found out things they both liked to do, and arranged time together--in a way that defies my conception of age-appropriate behavior (and she clearly valued this new friendship as much as he did). Then he chose to sit in on an adult discussion of parenting skills, and was clearly paying close attention. Finally, he was eager to take time out from play to be in a young people's support group. (I had calculated in advance who among those present might be interested, and discounted him automatically as too young.)

Clearly I had underestimated this playful, adventurous little seven-year old boy. On reflection, I think this is a pretty common trap for parents. Our fixed perceptions of what should be going on for our children can easily prevent us from seeing what actually is.

Although I went into parenting convinced that we often underestimate the intelligence and abilities of children, my expectations in that regard have been consistently too low. I remember babies understanding things way before I thought they would, a toddler thinking about my comfort before I could believe that capacity was developed, my eldest at four counseling his little brother (wisely) on how to deal with my anger. Even though they may not talk about it much, these small people know a lot about what's going on. I doubt if any amount of respect for their awareness can be too high.

On the other hand, our expectations of what they should be able to do at a certain age may easily be either too high or too low. All the emphasis on child development in our society carries with it a trap. We all know the months, or years, by which children are generally crawling, walking, talking, toilet trained, reading, etc.. Naturally we apply these guidelines to our children, and start expecting that demonstrated ability at that normative age.

If they're early it's usually fine--and we can bask in the knowledge that we have an "advanced" child. But, if they're late, it's another story. We can easily be disappointed or worried about their failure to perform "on schedule," and that worry can affect both them and our relationship to them. (I think of how incredibly difficult it was for me to come to terms with the fact that my eldest was still not a reader long after the age when I was reading with ease.) Yet children do have their own timetables, and it would be wonderful for them as well as us to be released from the tyranny of the norm.

So how do we keep our expectations high without falling into a trap? I think it helps if we think of our children not as slowly-evolving future adults, but as complete human beings in the present. After all, all they lack is size, information and experience. We can take them out of those age-defined pigeonholes and assume that they can do anything. Then we can notice what they actually do, invite them to more, relax, and appreciate them for the unique and wonderful people that they are right now.