“It goes so fast.”
We hear it each time we’re attempting to distract a tantruming toddler in the checkout line in Target or comfort a crying baby in the middle of a restaurant. A nostalgic middle-aged person will watch us and whisper wistfully, “Cherish these moments. They go so fast.”
We’re becoming more honest about how hard it is to have small children. We can’t cherish every moment, that’s not realistic. Sometimes this phase of life feels unbearable, and there are moments we won’t want to remember.
But the part about it going so fast? That part is true. At the risk of sounding cliche, our children are only small once. Before long they’ll be more focused on the wide world outside than the safe nest we’ve created for them, and that’s normal and good.
Yet we seem to be in a hurry to move them along. At each stage of development, there are gimmicks and “how-tos” for rushing our children to the next milestone. Certainly some children naturally meet some milestones early. Yet this doesn’t make a child any more likely to have a fulfilling life than his or her counterparts.
We’ve made childhood a race to adulthood under the guise of “enrichment.” Almost from birth, we’re urging our babies to sit, eat solid foods, crawl, and walk early. We want them sleeping through the night at six weeks and weaned by twelve months. We want them potty trained by two, and we put them in time outs at three with the assumption that they can process their emotions and solve their own problems like tiny adults. The older they get, the swifter the pace becomes as we enroll our children in academic and extracurriculars earlier and earlier.
When Ego Gets in the Way
Yet who do all of these “opportunities” serve? How much of this relates to our desire for our children to succeed for their benefit, and how much is wrapped up with our own egos? And how do we begin to define success?
Have you thought consciously about your values? Do you value success and achievement over emotional health and personal fulfillment? Either way your beliefs will inform your parenting. As author Rob Bell reminds us, “you’re always teaching your kids, and sometimes you use words.” When we spend our time worrying about seizing every opportunity for growth for our children, we’re making a statement about what we believe brings happiness.
By always looking to the next milestone, what are we communicating to our children? Are we communicating unconditional acceptance or are we ever so subtly suggesting they aren’t quite good enough just the way they are? That they might be a little better if only they learned to write. Or to play basketball. Or if they got an A in science.
Giving in to Anxiety
Often this rush through development isn’t about ego but rather anxiety. We fear that somehow we’ll be letting our children down by not giving them every possible opportunity to grow.
I often meet with mothers who fear that by not interacting with their babies all day, they are stunting their development. When a parent expresses a fear that her four-month-old baby isn’t being engaged enough, we follow this fear through to the end:
What will happen if she’s not enriched at four-months old?
Her development will be delayed.
Then she’ll struggle in school.
Then she won’t get into a good college.
Then she won’t have a good career.
Then she won’t have a good life.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take the long view of parenting. Will it matter when your son is ten that it took him two extra months to learn to walk? When your daughter is fifteen will you care that she didn’t read until she was seven? What may feel like a crisis now will likely be forgotten in another year.
Joy & Fear
It’s difficult for us to feel both anxious and joyful simultaneously. When we focus on the wonder of our children in the present, we’re less likely to worry about their futures. Maybe that’s the real reason we’re always encouraged to enjoy every moment.
In Simplicity Parenting, the authors urge parents to slow down and let childhood unfold. When we do, they state, “You’ll recognize the societal pressures of ‘More! Faster! Earlier!’ as a centrifugal force that may threaten, but will no longer pull your family apart.”
In parenting the stakes are high, but they aren’t as high as we’ve been led to believe, and certainly not in the ways many of us fear. Most children learn to walk and talk without significant interventions. It’s a remarkable truth about human development that it marches on with or without our assistance.
So each time you feel eager for your child to move on to the next stage, I encourage you to ask yourself, “what’s the rush?”
Don’t hurry your babies through childhood. Let them be young. Resist the urge to give in to the hysteria around you shouting for more, faster, and earlier. Instead, listen to the deep, still voice within that whispers, “enough.”
Previously published on the Empathetic Parenting Blog.