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Your Child’s Development: Knowing How They Grow

November, 2011
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It can be heartwarming and rewarding to watch a child take his first steps or manage his first words, but what about the milestone moment when a child is first able to solve his own problems?

While many parents may practice caution when letting their babies independently discover the world, American parenting expert Dr. Norma Leben says preparing children early on with the tools they need to become independent thinkers and problem solvers is integral to their future success. This is accomplished through an understanding of how parents can capitalize on their kids’ abilities at each stage of their development.

Leben, who gave a presentation as part of the Ivy Schools Distinguished Speaker Series in Beijing, is a certified play therapist practicing in the US and has raised 40 foster children with various behavioral and developmental difficulties. Experience has confirmed to her that most children, if given the opportunity, will perform new activities on their own, even if they face impairment. Yet, even some parents tend to lean toward being overprotective out of fear that if “you let them run around too much, they will fall in the ditches and fall off the cliff,” says Leben.

Instead of being overly cautious, Leben urges parents to begin saying the word “independent” around their children when they are as young as 3-years-old. Allowing them to make their own choices and freeing them to provide solutions to their own dilemmas can make way for the healthy growth of brain cells.

From the time they are born, a child’s neurons inside the brain grow and form connections with each other, and these synaptic connections allow the baby to understand more of what they’re experiencing in daily life. Research shows that the tips of the neurons are layered with an enzyme called myelin, which expands every time a child solves a problem. The thicker the myelin, the faster one can solve problems.

Myelin protects brain cells and aids in speeding up the communication between synapses. Unused neurons that lack myelin will die, while the ones being utilized will grow stronger. Thus, it’s critical for parents to learn how to take full advantage of their child’s expanding neural network at an early age. One particular stage in development that most experts agree is linked to a significant advancement in brain growth is called the “tripod grasp.”

Parents can easily see and encourage this stage. Before this stage, children shove raisins, gummy bears, cereal and other tiny foods into their mouths with clenched fists, often resulting in a mess. But once a child realizes their ability to use their thumbs and two fingers at around 36 months old, they can pick up snacks more gracefully.

This new performance doesn’t have to stop at foods. The fully-developed “tripod grasp” can signal the moment when a child is ready to do small chores on their own.

“If their thumb is working, do you want your child to be working, or do you want to serve them?” Leben says. She suggests that one way parents can foster their child’s work ethic and the parent-child bond is to encourage them to help fold the laundry. A parent can instruct them how to fold smaller towels, while they sit by their side folding the big ones.

Kids can also use their grip to pick up toys in their room, but parents might have to get creative with how they instruct their young one in order to avoid a tantrum. Children benefit from hearing positive language and reinforcement, but adults should avoid bribing. Instead, a mom or dad can simply share emotions with their child. If they’re tired, they can ask their child to recall a time when they, too, were exhausted so that they better understand why their help is needed. If the child is sad about the death of a pet, the parent can show they’re upset as well.

Aside from helping mom and dad, young children should be urged to fix their own mistakes. After all, many children begin to develop a basic sense of right and wrong by the time they are between 3 and 4years old. Leben illustrates the following example: If a young child accidentally knocks their glass of milk off the dining room table, family members should refrain from rushing to wipe it up. Leben says the preferred reaction is asking the child, “What are you going to do about it?” Chances are, the floor will fend off a stain for those few extra minutes the child is taking action, and the child will develop a better understanding of what to do next time.

Taking measures like these extend the social instruction that children receive at school to the home, where parents must provide nearly 66 percent of the guidance kids receive each day. This can be especially important in Beijing, where East meets West in terms of education.

“We have a triple responsibility as parents,” Leben says. “You not only provide for and protect them, but you also have to prepare them for the world. You want them to have the opportunity to go abroad.”

She says she has seen some parents take this too literally and not stop to consider how their teaching coordinates with the child’s particular stage of development.

“I know of little Chinese kids whose parents will have them memorize 300 poems from the Tang Dynasty,” Leben says. “You talk to them when they’re 6-years-old and say, ‘Ok, recite one of those poems for me.’ Nothing.”

Kids under 4 years old may have difficulty retaining information they’ve memorized the traditional way – through excessive reciting and repeating – because of the make-up of their brain. Ever wonder why children can so easily recall their ABC’s or why nursery rhymes never leave us? It’s because, at an early age, the left brain, which is associated with logical thinking, reading and speech, is actually smaller than the right brain, which is associated with art, music and imagination. The left side of the brain doesn’t catch up until kids are about 4 to 7 years old, so young children are said to better learn about their world through playing, painting, drawing and singing.

Forcing very young children to process information that is beyond basic vocabulary can be taxing on them and may make them fear learning in the future. Similarly, having a child write characters or letters before they have fully attained a pincer grasp can be extremely painful as it uses large muscles in the forearm. This can lead to frustration, which is made even worse by the young child’s inability to express it.

“By three, when you see that they’re thumb is working and they have fine motor skills, they’re more willing to write for you,” Leben says. “So match their ability.”

Parents can find thorough guides to a child’s developmental stages online, such as through the University of Michigan Health System’s page on Development and Behavior Resources. Caregivers should remember, however, that the time it takes for a child to reach a milestone can be unique to the child and some children take longer to reach certain stages than others. If parents are still concerned that their child is showing signs of being behind in development, they should contact their health care provider.

Bolstering a child’s path to discovery can be a difficult process, so it may be helpful and necessary to recruit the help of ayis, grandparents, friends and other family members and ask for their assistance in supporting your baby’s independence.


By Jessica Rapp


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