Child development but not as I knew it OR what the books never told me
I’ve been a clinical psychologist for years now and in that time I’ve learned multiple theories of child development, read many books on children and parenting and met hundreds of children and families. In that time I also became a parent.
When these two parts of my life collided, work and parenting, I came to some realisations. No book can fully prepare you for being a mum. No knowledge of developmental theory will truly tell you the ins and outs of the important stages of growing up. And even helping parents parent cannot prepare you for the helter skelter of parenting itself, with all its ups and down and complexity of emotions it brings with it.
And there is a lot the books didn’t tell me. Piaget’s cognitive development or Bowlby’s attachment theory never enlightened me to some of the most influential stages of development in my children’s life so far. They never told me how this would impact on me, how I would respond in ways I thought I never would and how complex and filled with emotion parenting could be. Perhaps most importantly, when your metaphorical cup is full, how difficult is to implement a well thought out, evidence based, strategy in response to your child, when the best you can do some days is get through the day and survive.
I cannot possibly enlighten you to all this, and even if I tried to it would never give you the same empathy or understanding that your experience will. I can however draw your attention to some of those influential developmental stages that no book tells you to expect when your expecting, or indeed when you are a parent yourself.
You should first be aware that entering into the world of a newborn means you are entering into the ‘risk’ developmental phase. This is due to the sheer volume of risks this entails: the risk of getting pee in your face during a nappy change (predominantly a stage in boys); the risk of kicking hot tea off the coffee table as you automatically react to the pain of breast feeding; the risk of leaving the house thinking you look okay, only to discover that you have projectile sick down the back of your trousers; the risk of literally crying over spit milk and the risk of zombification due to all that sleep deprivation. I could continue.
Around age two you will read that children start to realise that they can exert influence on the world around them as they enter Piaget’s pre-operational stage. We’re all familiar with the tantrums that comes with this page. But there are many other important developmental stages that occur around this time too that you need to be aware of.
The colour stage (of cups, plates, sandwich fillings tiny pieces of string…in fact let’s just call it the colour of anything stage) is of crucial important to know about. The correct colour at the correct time is of utmost importance if you want to avoid devastation of epic magnitude. But beware the shifting colour sands. Being on your guard and flexible is of utmost importance for, just as you think you’ve got this stage sussed, you will be the enemy for presenting the much loved blue cup form this morning when obviously they needed the orange one. Similar to the colour stage is the food design stage, when cutting a sandwich at a 30 degree angle less than expected will signal the devastating end of the planned lunch pleasantries.
During the “I do it myself” stage, allow significantly longer for all eventualities. Activities which should take two minutes expand in time. Before long you realise that leaving the house is a whole morning activity, as shoes and jackets must be put on independently, along with the gathering of necessary accessories, such as an umbrella in bright sun, the stick you found last Thursday and the fishing net, an absolute must for visiting Aldi. And woe betide you rush the `”I do it myself’ phase, for it is closely correlated with plank phase .
Plank phase. Your child will have the ability to make their body as unbreakable as a plank that no karate expert could possibly break. This will render the well thought out carseat and buggy obsolete. Plank phase can quickly metamorphose into floppy phase, when your child had the ability to do a flop that Fosbury would be proud of, usually in highly populated areas with many eyes watching and often when you have only one hand available to attempt to hold the sack of potatoes upright.
The fairness stage usually starts around age 4-5, and I believe may last a lifetime when there is an associated sibling. You need to develop the skills of a judge at this stage, ensuring all parties are given all objects, activities, attention and affection in equal measure. During this stage it us highly likely that you will count out popcorn pieces into bowl, measure oven chips and know more about liquid volumes than you did at school. The measuring jug will be your friend. You will realise that some things can never be made fair, like car journeys when all the cows are on one side of the car, or in “their window”, and attempts to look out this window are also unfair as they are looking out ‘my window’.
The unanswerable question phase. Be prepared to feel like your years of education were worthless as every question thrown at you make you feel like a little bit stupid. How do the clouds hold the water before they cry? Why is the sky blue? Do daddies have babies too?. Then there are the double whammies which have the ability to make you feel exponentially stupid. How does Santa manage to fly around the world in one night and how does he get down the chimney?. How is thunder and lightning made? What happens when the last man dies, will monkeys be clever again? If you know the answers to these questions, please let me know.
Obsessive collecting phase means that multiple items of one category will sneak into your house, most often of the small coloured plastic variety, as collection completion fever takes hold. Usually associated with starting school, you will find small plastic creatures emerge daily from hidden pockets, in washing machine vents and when you remove your boots at work as they feel uncomfortable. The fever is contagious, particularly in parents whose nature is competitive, and you may even see illicit adult swaps going on at the playground gate, whole social media streams dedicated to it (thats no six year old writing that post) and bulk buying as if lives depended on it.
Already in this game of parenting, I’ve seen a lot of developmental stages that the books never told me, and that’s just in the first six years I can only anticipate there will be many more unanticipated stages of development in the years to come.
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