They're the milestones of your child's life: when he first walks and talks, the first sentence he reads solo or the first time he stays home alone or goes on a date. They're also defining moments in your life as a parent, and you may be especially focused on them for fear of missing something important while at work. But whether you're at home or in the office, the same question rules: "What's the best way to let my child learn, explore, grow up and go out into the world--safely?"
That's where we come in. We've tapped seven of the country's top child development experts on the what, when and how of kids' firsts. Certainly, most specialists agree that developmental milestones occur within a "normal" range, and whether your child hits the range early, late or in between is usually nothing to worry about. What's fascinating here is that our experts are sometimes far apart in their thinking about when these benchmark moments should happen and the best ways to parent when they do. That's where you come in. Take their advice, then adapt it to best suit your child. After all, the bottom-line expert on your kid is you.
Walking 9 to 18 months Dr. Benton: If I see a 15-month-old who's not taking steps, I'll push forward with an evaluation, although I have seen 15-month-olds who go from not walking to walking everywhere a few weeks later. To encourage walking, a couple can sit across from and very close to each other, and stand the baby up between them. Mom calls him and he makes his way over to her, then Dad says, "Come to me now," and the baby turns around and does. It's fun. But you really don't need to "help" a child who seems to be on track. Let him take things in his own time. _** Dr. Stein:**_ For first steps, the range of what's normal is from 9 to 18 months. By 12 to 13 months, probably 70 percent of children have started to walk. By 15 months, about 93 percent of children are walking, but that still means some 6 percent of healthy kids don't walk until they're 15 to 18 months. A 15-month-old who's on target with language, social and fine-motor skills but who hasn't started to walk may just need a little extra time, especially if one or both parents were also late walkers (these milestones can be hard-wired in our genes). If he's close to 18 months and still isn't walking, a pediatrician can do a routine neurological exam to check his reflexes, strength and other skills.
Talking 9 months to 3 years Dr. Camarata: The usual range for a child's first words is 9 months to 16 or 17 months. By the end of age 2, a child may speak two-word phrases such as "Mommy go." But about 10 percent of "normal" children don't talk by age 2, and of those, about half will be talking normally by 3; the rest may take even longer. Many children experience a big language burst between 2 and 3. If your child isn't talking at 2 but seems on track with other milestones, have your pediatrician examine her and decide whether to give her a few more months to start talking or refer her for a more detailed evaluation. If your child isn't talking, is behind in other milestones such as walking, is withdrawing socially or is not comprehending when you speak to her, have her evaluated before age 2. _** Dr. Benton:**_ Encourage your baby's speech development by talking to her as much as possible. If you're worried that she's not talking when she should be, speak to your pediatrician. I'd be less worried about a nontalking 1-year-old who has an older sibling who talks for her than I would be about a nontalking 1-year-old who's a first child.
Dr. Klass: Many pediatricians are having children evaluated earlier rather than later by testing their hearing and referring them for a language evaluation. If your first child was talking in sentences at a very early age but your second child is more textbook, that doesn't mean there's a reason to worry. But you want to pick up problems as early as you can. If your child is making progress and seems to have hit a language burst, even if it's a little late, we'll say, "Let's watch and wait," but you do want to keep watching. **
Using the potty 6 months to 4 years** Dr. Benton: There are three stages children need to go through before they're ready for potty training. First they realize: "There's something in my diaper and I don't like it." The second stage is: "I'm doing something in my diaper." The third is: "I need to do something." Be sure your child has gone through these three stages before you attempt potty training. The earliest that kids typically go through these stages is age 2 (though rarely it can be earlier). The latest can be 4. If your child is 31⁄2 and still not showing interest, consult your pediatrician about whether there is a developmental issue.
Dr. Klass: Look at your child's mental and physical readiness, look at your lives, and figure out what's going to work and when you can put in the nonstop attention and effort that potty training often requires. There's no magic age at which you need to worry about it. Most children don't have the physical control for potty training before age 2. If your 3- or 4-year-old is really trying but seems to have discomfort or way too many accidents, see his doctor. _** Dr. Sonna:**_ It's a myth that children aren't ready until age 2 or 3. In the days before disposable diapers, 90 percent of children were potty trained by 21⁄2. According to one study, the average age of potty training in this country is 35 to 39 months, but most toddlers around the globe finish training by 18 to 24 months. Parents can begin training when their baby is able to sit up for five to ten minutes without teetering, as early as 6 months old. Start by putting your child on a potty seat--or any bowl slightly bigger than his bottom--about 15 minutes after each feeding and letting him sit five to ten minutes while you play pattycake or sing songs. Also, get to know your child's timing, patterns and signals that elimination is near--grimaces, restlessness or wiggling, grunts, sighs or other noises--and get him to the potty quickly at those times. After a few successes, the training can progress fairly quickly.
** Reading 4 or 5 to 7 years** Dr. Klass: Again, we are tending to evaluate children sooner rather than later. Preschoolers are not expected to read, but issues can arise during these years that could be tied to reading later on, including vision problems, trouble concentrating or difficulty sitting still. If an experienced preschool teacher says she suspects such a problem in your child, take her comment seriously and discuss it with your pediatrician. That said, realize that some kids read fluently earlier and others don't until they're older. What really matters is that a child enjoys reading and has learned the skills. _** Dr. Benton:**_ Read to your child every day beginning in infancy. Turn off the computer and the TV and the video games. If your child is in second grade and still struggling, you should have her evaluated.
Computer use 3 to 11 years Dr. Benton: The adage "all things in moderation" applies here. It's okay for children as young as 3 to use a computer as long as there are limits. Don't use it as a babysitter, and don't put one (or a TV) in your child's bedroom; keep it in a public area of the house. For children under age 4, all video usage--computers, TVs, video games--should be limited to a half hour a day.
Dr. Monke: Children should not use computers until middle school. Elementary schools should prepare kids for our technical world by giving them the foundation of hands-on experience. Computers give kids a distorted sense of what learning and thinking is all about--that learning is all about information, which it's not. It's primarily about making meaning of things, of experiences. Information can help, but young kids need to figure out what things mean, and that's got to come from firsthand experience with nature, through interactions with other people, by taking things apart and putting them back together and other experiences. Young kids now are actually mistaking what happens on the screen for the real thing because they don't have the experiences from which they can say, "Oh, yeah, that's like what I did over here." What they see on the computer screen is what is to them, and I think that's really scary.
Sleepovers 4 to 13 years Dr. Klass: Parents don't say to their child, "I think it's time you had a sleepover." It's something your child wants to do, and then you decide if this is the right situation and if she's totally ready. Some children are ready at 4 or 5; others aren't ready until they're 12 or 13. Have a conversation about the way different households do things differently and that's what's interesting about spending time at somebody else's house. You want to say, "This sounds like a great place for a sleepover because it's a family we know and like, but just in case, if you decide that you only want to be there for the evening, I'm around. It's not a big deal."
Dr. Benton: This is an issue of maturity and trust. There's no "perfect age" for a first sleepover. Sleepovers are about who your child is spending the night with, what the family is like and whether you trust them. Then you need to talk with your child and make sure she's ready. Also give her an escape valve: "If you need to, call me up and I'll come get you." ** Staying home alone 8 to 11 years** Dr. Benton: Leaving your 11-year-old alone while you run to the grocery store for 20 minutes is okay if she's at the right maturity level. You shouldn't leave a child home alone for long periods until the teenage years, and even then things happen when teens are left unsupervised. Teens engage in sex most commonly during the hours after school before parents get home from work. Look into programs in your area that put them in a supervised situation--sports teams or the chess club or a service club, for example. Not only are they not getting in trouble, they're doing something good. _** Dr. Klass:_ At some point you say, "I have to go pick up your sister," and your child says, "Mom, do I have to come?" And you say, "Well, I'll be gone for forty-five minutes. Will you be okay here?" And your child says, "Of course!" You have to know your child and consider each situation. This is very different from staying alone so late that he has to put himself to bed. Is your child mature enough to handle it if the doorbell rings or the ceiling starts to drip? And there may be laws about this that vary from state to state. _ Dr. Peters:**_ If you're just running a 15-minute errand and you have your cell phone and the doors to the house are locked, it might be okay for your child to stay alone even at 8 or 9. If you're going grocery shopping for an hour, I'd wait until your child is 11 or so. If you and your husband want to go out to dinner for a few hours in the evening, 13 is a reasonable age; when your child is old enough to babysit, he's old enough to be home alone in the evening. And check your state laws.
Getting a cell phone 5 to 13 years. Dr. Klass: Whether you get your child a cell phone depends on where you live and how you live. Maybe it will make things easier or safer for her, or maybe she says, "I'm the only kid in the seventh grade without a cell phone." Both of these may be valid reasons. Don't buy a first grader a delicate, expensive cell phone that will break the first time she drops it. That wouldn't be her fault; that would be your fault.
Dr. Benton: You could reasonably think of a cell phone as a lifeline, and for safety purposes 5- or 6-year-olds could have them. Your child should be mature enough to care for one and not to use it irresponsibly for text messaging during class. Like any tool, a cell phone can be used for good or not for good. You need to express that to your child.
Dr. Monke: I would give a cell phone to a kid long after I gave her a computer. I think cell phones are actually more destructive, because they draw kids away from face-to-face encounters and direct experiences with the world. And because they're so mobile, kids can be engaged with their cell phone to a much greater degree than with computers. Of course, there are some circumstances where they can be useful, particularly for older kids. Elementary school children should not in general be in places where they need cell phones to be safe. But even older children should have limits. Have them turn off the cell phone at home in the evening and when they're studying. And don't buy them plans with limitless minutes and texting. ** Hanging with friends unsupervised 11 to 13 years or older** Dr. Benton: I'm a proponent of going slowly. Preteens can go to the movies with friends if you drive them and pick them up. You want to know who their friends are and also talk to their parents. We strive to be the house that everybody wants to come over to, because we want our children to feel comfortable bringing friends over and we want to know who their friends are. Curfews are great because you're setting limits. Certainly your 13-year-old should be home by a specific time.
Dr. Peters: You start gradually. Initially, you drive your child and bring him home and say, "I'm going to sit in the back of the theater while you sit closer up with your friends." An 11- or 12-year-old can usually handle this. Or, "I'll be in the food court at the mall reading the paper while you're with your friends, and you need to check in every half hour." I would wait until your child is 12 before I'd drop him off with his friends at the movies, and 13 before he can walk around a mall with friends without you there. If your child acts impulsively, irresponsibly or immaturely, you have the right to put off granting this privilege until he's a little older and more responsible and mature.
Dating 13 to 16 years Dr. Klass: I think one-on-one dating is inappropriate right up through middle school, but I'm thinking as a parent, not as a pediatrician. That doesn't mean I couldn't be talked into it in some situations. I'd be wary, but I'm not sure that my wariness would be relevant. Our ability to control the romantic lives of our children is limited. We can say, "I think you're too young to go out on a date." You can exercise some control over what they do and how much supervision there is, but you can't control their emotional lives. You have to talk to your child and find out what the social norm is in her school and circle. Of course, no matter how much you think you know what's going on, you won't know the half of it.
Dr. Benton: When hormones are flaring, how do you keep your child out of trouble? One way is to avoid dating situations. We encouraged our teenage daughter to go out in small groups or with another couple, rather than with one boy. We tell our kids, "Try not to put yourself in a compromising situation, where you're alone, it's dark, this other person is awfully attractive, and oh, my!" Talk with your child about proper and improper behavior and make sure she knows that if she needs a ride home, she can call you and you'll be there.
Dr. Peters: As long as you're driving and picking them up, even 13 or 14 may be okay for some dating situations. Kids should not be going out in cars with other teens without adults until they are at least 16, and then you have to make the rules very clear. You want to meet the person your child is dating and possibly talk to his parents, and there must be clear expectations about the time they must be home, where they can go and the like. You need to have conversations not only about sex but also about respect--what it means to have a boyfriend, that she is a good, normal person without one, that no one should be controlling and so on.
Drinking 21 years (sometimes before) Dr. Benton: The most abused drug in the teenage years is alcohol. Parents should not allow their children to drink until they are of legal age to do so. If your teenager is drinking when you've made it clear you don't want him to, this suggests a relationship problem. How do you mend that relationship? Instill good judgment by setting a good example and spending time with your children. If you've laid that groundwork and your teen drinks, there will be consequences. A natural consequence of driving and drinking might be "Well, you're not going to drive." Then you need to give your teen a chance to reestablish trust.
Dr. Klass: If for some cultural reason you want to allow your child to have alcohol before the legal age--a glass of champagne at midnight on New Year's Eve, wine for a religious ceremony--you need to be really clear about what the rules are and what your expectations are and why you are allowing this. The really complicated messages about alcohol have to do with driving. You say, "I do not want you at parties where people are drinking or taking drugs. I do not want you getting drunk. It's against the law. It's dangerous." However, there's a second message: "But if you are at that party and everybody is drunk, call me and I'll come get you. Don't get into a car with someone who's been drinking." It may sound like you're saying, "Don't do this/I know you're going to do this." Yet it's a life-and-death message: "Your safety is the most important thing to me. I love you so much. Here's why you shouldn't do this. But if you do, call me, and I promise I'll be proud of you."
Each of your child's firsts--whether it happens sooner or later--is a step toward independence and also an important building block in your relationship. "Many of these are in-it-for-the-long-haul issues," says Dr. Klass. "You'll talk, and then your child will come back to you and say, 'I know you said always this and always that, but how about this and how about that?' The fact that you're talking means you're doing it right."
The Experts Tom Benton, MD President of the American College of Pediatricians, which includes among its core values that "good medical science cannot exist in a moral vacuum" Stephen M. Camarata, PhD Director of the Research Program on Communication and Learning at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Perri Klass, MD Professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics Lowell Monke, PhD Assistant professor of education at Wittenberg University in Springfield, OH, and coauthor of Breaking Down the Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modern World Ruth Peters, PhD Child psychologist in Clearwater, FL, parenting author and Today show contributor Linda Sonna, PhD Author of 12 parenting books including Early-Start Potty Training Martin T. Stein, MD Director of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego, and Rady Children's Hospital
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