Milestone reality check

Are we developing tunnel vision when it comes to tracking children's development?

/p> Keeping track of your child’s milestones is not a new thing. But parents today can get detailed developmental checklists designed to provide clues that a child might be behind in anything from saying her first words to following objects with her eyes to imitating animal sounds. These lists, used wisely, can indeed help identify kids who need therapy or intervention.

But developmental milestone charts have a troublesome side effect. They’ve helped us create the myth of the normal child. Normal can be many, many things: A leading language researcher told me that while delayed speech can be a useful marker for problems, the variability in normal language development is enormous: “At 16 months, one child might understand 400 words and another might understand only four, and both could be normal.”

I believe that this kind of variability can occur not only between kids, but also within individual children. I’m talking about “normal” kids who learn to walk, talk, read or whatever, about when their peers do. But, according to my little theory, their neurological development is uneven. Certain key brain connections — such as those that govern their ability to write neatly with a pencil or understand when to keep their mouths shut — take an unusually long time to become fully wired.

This theory developed as I watched our son Riley, and a few other kids I know, grow up. Ry was a bright little guy — talked early, walked early and knew a lot of stuff. But he was also very active — hyper at times — and emotionally reactive. And he didn’t play with toys in the focused, purposeful way other toddlers did. His kindergarten teacher had told us that Riley not being clearly right- or left-handed was “a sign of immaturity.” In grade four we began to hear that he couldn’t focus at school and wasn’t getting work done. Eventually he was diagnosed with ADHD. This was very important to us at the time because it explained (in a sense, justified) the untogether school behaviour that he didn’t seem to be able to control. However, despite the diagnosis and various attempts to mould Ry into a better student, school continued to be a struggle. He passed grade 12 by the skin of his teeth, aided greatly by his apparent ability to sense exactly how many zeros (for undone assignments) he could sustain and still get a 50.

Funny thing. Riley is now 23. He graduated from college with honours and is a fully functioning adult. People keep telling me what an impressive young guy he is. While I’d love to take credit, I think it’s mostly because certain aspects of his neurology finally matured. Neuron Q-63552 finally hooked up with synapse ZZ-0991, or something like that.

Imagine my smugness when I read that researchers at the US National Institutes of Health determined that some kids with ADHD have delayed maturation in areas of the brain that help them suppress inappropriate actions, focus attention and remember things from moment to moment. And another study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, showed that children who were brats in kindergarten weren’t necessarily doomed to be academic wipeouts. Bet I know why! Brain wiring related to self-control kicked in a little late.

It’s good to watch for kids who need help, but it’s not good to slap the abnormal (that is, not right) label on everything that doesn’t fit the averages. There’s an important difference between recognizing and supporting a kid, who may be slow to mature in some area, and making him feel deficient and in need of fixing because he can’t do something the charts say he should be able to do.

I’m not saying that kids grow out of everything. They don’t. Let’s just be very careful not to turn normal into a kind of tyrannical average. Look at the whole kid, not just the ticks on the chart.