There is no should in development

Developmental guidelines for parents often say things like this:

“At around two years of age, a child should be able to have enough balance to jump up, with both her feet leaving the ground. She can climb a staircase holding onto the railing, using one foot at a time. She can make scribbles (straight lines) holding a pencil. She may not have a preference for either the right hand or the left hand at this age, or she may start to favor one hand over another. She can feed herself pretty well now, getting most of the food in her mouth, but she is by no means a neat or willing eater. She can stack a tower of blocks pretty high – at least eight to ten blocks.”

This kind of framing is a problem, because it sets families up to see their kids with developmental disabilities or delays as flunking toddlerhood.

You can’t flunk being a toddler. There is no should in development. Kids whose development is atypical are not wrong or broken or failing. They’re doing the best they can, and they need early education to help them to acquire certain skills. 

There’s typical, and there’s atypical. There are early signs of disability, and there are indications that a child may need education or support that most children do not need.

(In particular: Kids who aren’t speaking at the age most kids do need help learning to communicate. That shouldn’t just be aimed at getting speech. The goal is communication, not looking normal. I’m not knocking early education for kids with disabilities. I’m saying not to treat them as failing.)

But there is no should. You can’t flunk being a toddler. A kid who has a disability isn’t failing. They’re just disabled.

Children who don’t hit milestones at the typical times have not failed to do what they ought to. They’re ok. Their development is ok. They are not doing anything inappropriate. They just need help and education that typically developing kids don’t need. And the point of teaching them isn’t to cause them to catch up; some kids with atypical early development look more typical later in life, but many more don’t. That’s ok too.

And part of the education they need is learning to be ok with themselves in a world that thinks of them as broken. Talking about atypical development as though it’s a failure undermines that, even if you don’t think your kid understands, even if you don’t think you’re saying it anywhere they can hear. It affects your attitude, and it affects them.

If you think that your kid is constantly failing, they will know. And it will hurt them. They are developing and learning and growing in the way that they can, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They aren’t wrong. Their body isn’t wrong. And they shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re failing before they’re even kindergarten age.

There is no should in development. Atypical is ok. Disabled is ok. Having a disability isn’t a failure.