What is this thing, called “Development”?

When my oldest son was getting tested for various delays, I used to wonder, “How can he know something if I didn’t teach it to him?” They would give him all these tasks to do, like stacking blocks in different fashions, using scissors, drawing shapes, answering questions about the function of different objects, etc. Sometimes I would feel defensive if he didn’t know how to do something, other times I would feel guilty. But most of the testers informed me that it was all natural common knowledge for a kid his age to know.

Is this true? Can your child know how to use scissors if you’ve never given him some?

Yes and no. A couple years of tests later, and three children going through them, I realize that there is some truth to the idea that children pick up knowledge naturally as they develop (i.e. without you explicitly teaching them), and yet also some truth to the idea that children need to be explicitly taught to learn. Obviously, if your child has absolutely no exposure to something, like who Big Bird is, they aren’t going to be excited by Big Bird band-aids. But, for some reason, even if a child has never had a boo-boo before, when they get their first one, it is almost innate that children feel better when you put a band-aid on it. This demonstrates the paradox of environmental stimulus.

Scissors might be another good example. Children who have never used scissors before probably won’t use them well if the first time they are presented with them is at the examiner’s table. But as long as they have simply seen them somewhere (from you, or a video), they should know how to use them and try to give it a shot. They might put the wrong fingers in the holes, or not be able to cut right, but they should demonstrate that your hand goes in the top and the cutting part is for the paper. If they stick their hands in between the blades, for example, or shake them in front of their eyes to watch it move, this is a bad sign.

Physical skills like cutting and drawing shapes probably necessitate more exposure in the environment than cognitive skills. Take stacking blocks for example, or mosaics. My second oldest child, at almost 3.5 years old, was asked to copy a model pyramid out of blocks—a configuration he’d never seen before, nor been asked to do—and he did it just fine. He even copied the color scheme from top to bottom, which was something the examiner had not asked him to do. And he was able to manipulate the mosaic tiles on his desk to form the shape on a card the examiner showed him. We had never done anything like this at home either. So in some sense, these cognitive milestones were innate to his development. Other things he could readily do were name complex animals (flamingo, raccoon), answer questions about the functions of objects, and tell her what might be in her play gymnasium even though he hadn’t seen it yet. I suspect he’d picked up a lot of this kind of knowledge from television, but it was still neat to see it come out of him even though I’d never taught it. I was most impressed that he could follow her directions, considering it was his first developmental test and we’d never asked him to perform those types of things before. Clearly, he was able to make sense of her questions, at least, even if he couldn’t answer all of them correctly.

My first child, who had language problems, could not do that. He couldn’t do anything that we had never asked him to do before, nor could he take guesses very well if he didn’t understand the directions. He couldn’t deduce answers, and he couldn’t say “Hi, [x]” when [x] came in the door and said “hi” to him. But we had never done this at home—asked him to say “Hi [x]” to the appropriate person. I felt defensive a lot when he was asked these kinds of questions, as if I hadn’t taught him, it wasn’t a fair question. I didn’t realize that he could do other things, like draw a triangle, when I’d never taught him that either. I was a new mom and worried I was failing my job.

It took another year for me to get over that and realize that God’s developmental process is real, kicking in to support your efforts as long as you make them. You do have to sow into your children, tremendously. Much effort is expended in teaching your children how to walk, talk, and relate. And if your child is hyper around the house and still in diapers, don’t be surprised when his gross motor evaluation comes back low because he won’t sit still and isn’t toilet trained. You have to teach, train, read, and put things on the table for little children to do. They don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing at age 3! It takes some effort to find out and make those opportunities available so they can practice. But you are supposed to be working WITH natural development, not forcing it. So when you put those opportunities on the table, you are not usually starting from point zero. You teach a child to walk when they are standing and showing signs of readiness. If the child doesn’t have the resources they need on the inside, in order to walk, then you have to go back a step and work with what they do have. If they are fifteen months old, they are behind. But you can only be the coach on the outside, not God on the inside.

So there is definitely a balance to the process of obtaining knowledge. You can’t hang back and just “wait” for development to kick in, nor can you teach your child every possible thing they need to know. If you are worried about your child’s abilities, the first thing to do is to sow a lot into them. Teach them as much as you can, read to them, give them instruction in crafts (which teaches a lot, like how to roll, cut, follow directions). But don’t feel like you have to do everything in order for them to succeed on those developmental questionnaires. If you are sowing into your child and they still can’t follow novel directions, or answer old questions about new stories they hear, that is a problem in their abilities not a problem in your parenting. Simple exposure is usually all it takes for small children to manipulate what they’re seeing or hearing. Obviously much more care has to be taken when dealing with complex skills like washing hands or toilet training. But, for example, if your child knows his shapes but can’t draw them when asked—even though you haven’t worked on that yet—that is a valid concern. So is not holding a crayon correctly by 3 years old, even though you never worked on proper procedure; or not being able to put animals inside Noah’s ark when asked, even if he doesn’t know the story yet; or not “driving” to the post office when given a toy car, even if he’s never gone before. The paradox of environmental stimulus means that the enriching environment of a child is very real, but so is the mystery of natural development. Keep those in mind if you’re feeling guilty at those exams!

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