Chill Out, Developmental Milestone Don’t Work Like You Think They Do

When a kid develops a skill is much less important than the fact that they develop it at all.

gold medal baby

Developmental milestones—rolling over, babbling, walking, totaling the family car—are a huge source of anxiety for parents, who grow concerned when their kid fails to keep up with what turns out to be a largely artificial calendar. Competitive parents want their kids to be first. Worried parents want their kids to walk so they know they can. Every parent wants to know that their kid is developing in a healthy way. Unfortunately, milestones are neither an effective way to diagnose cognitive growth nor a particularly helpful idea to get hung up on.

The reality, as documented by scientists and experts the world over, is that kids arrive at different milestones at different times and in different orders. That’s why the word “milestone,” which connotes linear progress, is flawed to begin with and also why it’s so sticky. People love the idea of a path. It has been that way since our ape ancestors came down from the trees. But these waypoints to health are largely a myth and when parents talk about them, they tend to get lodged on precisely five other myths along the way.

They Occur at Exact Ages
Milestones, as they are related to navigation, are fixed points along a path that give a traveler an indication of where they are and the distance they’ve gone. The term could not be any less suited to the stages of a kid’s development. That’s because how and when a kid develops an ability, be it physical or cognitive, depends on a huge number of factors that don’t fit into a linear path that everyone can be followed and be measured against.

That’s why many developmental milestones are given age ranges that can cover multiple months. These ranges represent the average age in which a typical child will develop certain abilities.

“For instance, walking is a big one,” says American Academy of Pediatrics Fellow and Developmental Pediatrician Eboni Hollier. “Probably about half of kids will start walking by the time they’re 12 months of age. But nearly all of them will by 16 months old. In my mind, anything between 9 months and 16 months is okay for walking.”

But that does not mean that children outside of the average are somehow advanced or deficient. In fact, by the time children are in grade school, most are operating on the same developmental level regardless of whether or not they’ve developed some abilities more quickly or…

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