June 24, 2014

Other People's Timetables

By the time we become parents, we are used to counting: How many weeks along? How many pounds? How old is s/he? We start measuring: Is s/he crawling or walking on time? When does the child start to talk? Yet, we realize that there is a range of what is to be expected. Some babies walk before their first birthday; others can be closer to 18 months before the pediatrician shows any concern.

As they get older, though, we tend to expect children to fit into the norm -- unless there is a problem. We tend to veer away from the acceptance of a range of what's expected. For example, barring a birthday close to the school's cutoff date, we expect six year-olds to start first grade and to begin to sit still long enough to learn to read and write.

Now, jump ahead to high school, with its demands of long periods of study, high levels of organizational skills and a maze of social and interpersonal situations. What happened to the variability that we accepted when our children were young? Have they suddenly all migrated to the same timetable? As adolescents, are they really all developing at the same pace, hitting the ages to drive or go to college, for example, at the exact same time? What if a teen isn't developmentally ready to take these steps when his/her peers do?

Just like we understood that our children may differ greatly in when they are dry at night, or when they are ready to sleep at a friend's house, we can give our teens leeway about when they tackle the milestones of adolescence as well. Some countries add a grade 13; others require 17/18 year-olds to do community or military service before going to college. In England, a gap year between high school and university is far more common than it is here. Some students also need time to work to earn money for tuition.

No doubt, many of those "older" young people arrive at college more mature and more certain of their academic and career goals. So -- if you are at the point where the time to look into college is near, consider the timing as a decision to be made rather than a foregone conclusion. Just because other people are on a particular schedule doesn't mean it's necessarily right for your son or daughter.

June 13, 2014

The Upside of Labels

Labeling has a negative connotation. Parents often assume they would not want their child labelled. Somehow, the word "troublemaker" is often the label to be avoided. Yet, in other areas of our lives, we want labels. How else would we know the ingredients in packaged food? We look to labels for guidance -- dry clean or machine wash?

We assume labels will come to stigmatize or limit the child. But what if a label can actually provide an explanation -- both for the child and for the adults in the home or school. Many agree that it is invaluable to know if a child has a learning disability. Parents frequently lament that they didn't know sooner. Knowing one's child is dyslexic, for example, can provide much needed relief. The child is able to grasp: I'm not stupid. I'm not lazy. I just need to be taught in a different way. Parents and schools can take this label and tailor the educational materials and presentation methods appropriately. Today's technology can ease the burden.

Yet, adults are still wary of letting others, including the child, know of a diagnosis such as ADHD. Here too, though, it gives the adults a way to understand the child's behavior. S/he isn't always acting willfully and may react before having the chance to think through behavior. Trouble finishing work may be more reflective of distraction than an academic difficulty. Again, children themselves can be extremely relieved to know that there is a name for why they often lose or forget things, act impulsively, or have trouble focusing or following directions consistently. They can understand: I'm not a bad kid. I have challenges to face, but lots of people succeed with these challenges. Some even become famous! Labels can provide guidance and much needed hope.

We're even reluctant to let children know of labels that reveal strengths. Parents fear that if their child knows s/he is gifted, for example, s/he may become arrogant and get a "swelled head." But, isn't the child entitled to know why s/he feels different, while being taught to be gracious about gifts? We don't hesitate to label the gifted in sports -- in fact, the MVP on a team may get a trophy, or later in life, a car.

Labels, then, can help clarify what we already sense, promote empathy for oneself and from others, and serve as guideposts on how to proceed. They do often have an upside.