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"When will my child be ready to...?"

In almost every counseling session I have with a parent, one question is nearly always asked: "When will my child be ready to sleep alone / stop nursing / be potty trained / read a book / listen / cooperate / [fill in the blank]?"

This is the same thing as asking: "When will my child be taller?"

Each and every child has an inner timetable, invisible to the naked eye. We can make an educated guess about a child's readiness, but why? What is the rush? There is so much time for a child to grow! If he or she reads at three, or at six, or even at twelve, what difference does it really make in the long run? If your child is happy and secure, you can be sure that you are allowing the best schedule of growth in all areas, regardless of what other children happen to be doing at the same age.

It's understandable that today's parents worry about developmental schedules - after all, virtually all parents have attended school, where they were taught that there are deadlines every child "has to" reach or he will never catch up. Educator John Holt urged parents to forget about artificial timetables. He often reminded parents that "children are not trains". If a train is late at its first five stops, it will likely be late arriving at its final destination. But a child can be "late" at all the stops and then suddenly be ahead of everyone else.

If only all parents could have a live-in expert on their particular child, and could tell them when their child was ready for each new stage! Fortunately, all parents do have such an expert - their child is the one person on the planet who has this knowledge, and will let the parents know, through tears and tantrums if necessary, what they are ready - and not ready - to do. Yet a child's attempt to communicate this critical information often goes unheard, mistrusted, or even punished or ridiculed. If an adult becomes so upset or angry that he has a tantrum, what he most wants at that moment is to be heard with empathy. The last thing he wants is to be ignored, reprimanded or punished. We all know this to be true - even obvious - for ourselves. Why do we think that children are any different?

As Tim Urban wrote on his whimsical and illuminating Wait But Why website: "...something funny has happened for humans in the last 10,000 years - their civilization has dramatically changed. Sudden, quick change is something civilization has the ability to do, and the reason that can be awkward is that our evolutionary biology can't move nearly as fast."1

We're still having Stone Age babies who don't know about these changes. And because they're babies, they can't tell us in words2 how critical their needs are.

Technology has made life better and easier in many ways. Parenting is the exception. Babies know exactly what they need and when they need it, but we think we know better. They try hard to tell us they need to be held with skin-to-skin touch; we call that overdependence, and put them in strollers. They try to tell us they need to sleep cuddled next to us (like all other mammals); we call that inappropriate and put them in cribs. They try to tell us they need breastmilk, the planet's most perfect food; we call that inconvenient and give them formula. They try to tell us they want our reassuring presence day and night; we call that impossible, and put them in daycare.3 They try to tell us they need our full attention; we call that clinging and give them a toy.

We know they need our love and understanding, but when they express anger or frustration, we call that misbehavior and punish them. When will we learn that all babies do the best they can at every moment, given their current level of information and their limited physical abilities? If babies could talk, their most frequent request might well be "Please listen to me - I'm overwhelmed and need your help and understanding."

We are so fortunate that we have live-in baby experts, straight from the Stone Age, who have a clear knowledge of what babies need, and have always needed. No wonder they are puzzled when their needs are not met as easily and lovingly as they were for most of human history, and as they are still met in hunter-gatherer tribes today. The baby is the expert - not just about human babies in general, but about what this specific baby needs. All we need to do is listen and trust that knowledge.

1 Urban, Tim. "Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think", July 26, 2014.

2 There is one exception: babies and toddlers can learn to communicate via sign language as early as eight to ten months, following two months of signing by the parent. If a toddler signs "ear ouch", that can save significant time and frustration for both parent and child. Life with a toddler is much easier when they can let us know what their needs are! For more information, see "Teaching Your Baby American Sign Language" by Jennifer Van Laanen.

3 The fact that many parents have few alternatives to daycare for economic reasons is the most critical problem. Daycare studies routinely find that many, if not most parents would prefer to be at home with their children, but would struggle financially. Daycare is a very recent development in human history; for millions of years, families lived in tribal communities where daycare by strangers would never have been necessary. See my article "The Daycare Dilemma" for more on this topic.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.