Taking the first steps (Or: why I dislike milestones)

red and white "2000m" milestone on a foggy mountain

I rarely mention milestones in my newsletters, which may be puzzling to some of you who have children or work with them. Milestones are checkpoints in a child’s development: taking the first step, using the toilet for the first time, saying the first word. They signpost a child’s path towards independence. They also create a roadmap that parents can use “to ward off uncertainty when faced with the great unknown, offering a sense of predictability and control – even if that is a false sense,” as my friend and colleague Lynn Berger, a member of this community, noted when she edited this story.

I understand that milestones are necessary. But I don’t like to talk about them because they involve standards against which parents end up measuring themselves and their children. Because they suggest there is one norm, or reality, that applies to all.

But there are so many realities. Think of a deaf child, for example, like Libby of the Oscar-winning film The Silent Child (see my recommendation below for more). Or think of a premature baby who will force her parents to throw any expected schedule out the window. Of course, keeping a milestone in mind can be incredibly useful for identifying potential problems early so that children (and parents) can receive adequate support. For Libby, the film’s fictional character, that support comes in the form of a person who can teach her sign language to communicate with the rest of the world.

But milestones can also create a lot of anxiety – especially if a child is born with a disability, and carers are more worried than most about their child’s prospects and their path to independence. “If your baby has a visual impairment, these milestones may sometimes seem like boulders to you, especially if your friend’s baby has accomplished something that your baby has not. Try to keep things in perspective,”

5 thoughts on “Taking the first steps (Or: why I dislike milestones)

  1. To be honest, i absoluty loved milestones when my first child was born. I used them to know what was coming next, to get to know my child (is she doing ok? Is there something wrong with her?). As she got older, about 15 months, we learned to look at her and not the books. We started to trust our parenting skills/instinct and she was more able to communicate. With my second child I have never been looking for milestones, only trusting our gut and what we see. When we don’t understand him I sometimes look for milestones or development and see he is indeed already in a new stage. As he is able to communicate more and more I find myself checking less and less. I hope to let them go totally 😉

    1. Hey Wies,
      Thanks so much for the honest comment!
      What you say about not caring so much about milestones with your second child seems to point at the fact that part of the allure of milestones is to make sense of a chaotic time and to get a sense of direction when you feel lost. With the second you may feel less lost than with the first…
      Interestingly, Lynn Berger, who edited this story and who is also the author of Second Thoughts*** also mentioned that she had observed something similar.
      My question to you: is there something that you wish you had known sooner about milestones that could have saved you some worries?


      1. Haha whilst pregnant with baby 2 I’ve read Lynn’s book, perhaps that helped me 😉
        I *think* people told me milestones are not important but at the same time they are mentioned by most nurses and doctors at check ups. It would have helped me to know about all these different ways of parenting you mentioned and that they all lead to perfectly fine children. As I am a mother for a longer time, I’ve read more and experienced more about parenting, so my tools/techniques/ ways to act have grown. I think having heard more different views and being able to see yourself as a parent for a longer time helped me to relax and put things in perspective. With my firstborn i was every bit the new mother trying to hold onto books in all the chaos. So.. long story short: more different views and time to grow helped me. Being new at your job you always check everything to make sure you are doing it right, working there for years gives you confidence and a broader perspective.

  2. Milestones, hmm It is mostly my mother who compares my son to my nephew.
    To be honest, it really irritates my. Why? Because I really don’t care. I love to see my sons devellopment and growth. But I only comparred with himself. Every child has it’s own devellopment patron.

    In my work and at my sons school I see a lot of moms and grandmoms compare the children for two reassons:
    1. Their child is better or faster or bigger or…, so they get confidents about being better then others
    2. They are insecure and wanting to know if their child is good enough (this is often also the parent who is over activating their child to learn) (mostly parent with a first child)

    And then you have the parents who just follow their childs needs and interests. Milestones don’t really matter. Seeing your child having fun, learning and develloping at it’s own pace brings them joy. Living in the moment!

    1. Hanny, I really love how you try and understand a little more deeply why people compare their children to others: insecurity surely plays a role, and there is a lot to be said about how we try to confirm what we do by checking in with others.
      But it’s as you say: seeing your child having fun, learning and developing at their own pace is really what we should be looking for – ultimately.

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