Ready or Not?
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 3, May-June 2002, p. 99-101
"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.
I have always believed that children will reach their developmental milestones when they are ready. I would like to wait for my son to exhibit signs of readiness for toilet learning, weaning, and reading rather than push him to adhere to an arbitrary timetable. However, my husband feels a great deal of pressure from his family and friends, who believe that children who potty train and read earlier will be more successful in the future and that parents who allow their children to nurse beyond infancy are creating self-indulgent offspring. My husband has been supportive of my parenting thus far, but he worries his family and friends are right. What information can I share with my husband about following a young child's cues and future success?
It sounds as though you and your husband need concrete reassurance that following your hearts as parents is the right thing to do. From my own experience, I know that it was easier to make these kinds of parenting decisions the second time around, when we could already see our well-adjusted older child growing at his own pace-growing out of diapers, growing out of the family bed, growing out of nursing. It was both a relief and a surprise when he did these things because it was so easy and effortless for us as parents!
Perhaps it would be helpful for you to meet older children and their parents who are parenting in a similar way as yourselves. Your husband might be relieved to see happy, healthy children who nursed until they were ready to wean or left diapers behind when they were ready. Attending a La Leche League picnic or a similar event would be a good opportunity for you to discreetly point out to him the small children who still nurse, or who still sleep with their parents.
For many people, seeing older children who have been raised this way is the strongest "selling point" of all. They are often described as healthy, polite, and well-adjusted children.
Like you, I believe in raising children without pushing. However, I sometimes feel as though I am up against the opinions of my husband's family. Even after we have discussed how we want to handle certain situations, I find my husband making suggestions that sound old-fashioned or outdated. My husband will sometimes say, "In my family, children do this or that." Then I realize that he has just spoken with his parents or his brother, who has two children of his own.
Before our son was born, my husband openly deferred to my "knowledge" and "experience." He readily admitted that he had little experience with children and that he was afraid that he wouldn't know what to do. In a way, that attitude could have made my life easier, but on the other hand, I found it difficult to have all of the responsibility of making all the decisions; I wanted us to work out our parenting style together.
So, even from the beginning, I would read to my husband from books and magazines, and share information that I had picked up at La Leche League meetings and other sources. I made a point of leaving reading materials where I knew that he might read them. Just a month ago, my husband picked up one of these magazines and said, "I was just reading this article, and I think we are doing everything they recommend."
Maybe it's not enough for you to state your point of view, but also to bring home books and magazines that support your views, and to leave them where your husband can read them for himself. Look for materials that support your ideas; you might consider magazines, and books from La Leche League. Many of the books in the Library of the local LLL Group will support the ideas you have mentioned. Also, check your local public library or borrow books from friends. When I find a book at the library that really seems to help in our family, I buy the book from the bookstore.
Also, try to make sure that you and your husband are making decisions together. Talk about why you do things a certain way and involve your husband in the process. In your letter, you said that he had been supportive of "my parenting," but remember, your husband also has to parent your children, so make sure he is included.
If at all possible, take your husband with you to a La Leche League Area Conference. My husband was pleasantly surprised by his experience at last year's Conference. Our son is now two-and-a-half, and we are trying to follow his cues for weaning, toilet training, and learning various skills. I find that my son truly proves the theory that pushing can actually have the reverse effect. I try to point out to my husband when something we try isn't working. To make my point, I often use examples from our own families, in addition to the books and magazines on hand. Every other month, as soon as it arrives, my copy of New Beginnings goes right where my husband will see it.
Frances B. G.
Our son is just turning three and even though I work part time as a reading teacher, we still enjoy a great breastfeeding relationship. I would strongly encourage baby-led weaning based on the benefits we have experienced. My husband and I feel strongly that meeting our child's needs will not spoil him, but not meeting his needs will. We firmly believe that when we meet our son's needs and entertain his healthy wants, we are giving him a loving example of how to treat others as individuals with love and respect. Babies' wants are babies' needs. As babies grow into toddlers their wants and needs separate. Parents must be insightful and cooperative in order to discern the difference between wants and needs as a child grows, and which wants should be appropriately indulged and which ones shouldn't.
Our son is not toilet-trained yet because he has adamantly resisted our attempts and we feel trying to force him would be counterproductive. We try to provide an encouraging environment for him, and he occasionally responds positively. I don't know of any scientific basis for saying that children who potty train or read earlier will be more "successful," but children who can read well are more successful in school and that generally carries over into many other aspects of life.
Readiness for reading, and everything else, begins as the brain develops in the womb. How you interact with your child, including breastfeeding, from birth on influences brain development and your child's ability to process language both spoken and written. You can promote reading readiness early in a child's life without being pushy. Always remember to follow the baby's cues. If they're interested, great, if not, that's fine too. Try the same thing or something different tomorrow, next week, or next month.
These are ideas we have used:
- Read to your child.
- Have baby books available that your child can "read" and play with.
- Occasionally sing the ABCs and their associated sounds as you nurse.
- Have ABC blocks and bathtub foam letters/numbers.
- Label items in the house.
I look for opportunities to play games that involve sounds and letters. Our son has learned that those things are just a normal part of life. He also sees my husband and I read magazines, newspapers, or books, so he knows that reading is important to us, even when we aren't reading with him specifically.
Giving parental guidance rather than control is a fine line all parents deal with. La Leche League is a wonderful resource for support and has helped me find a balance.
I have three-year-old twins and a 21-month-old little girl (still breastfeeding). My twins were nursed to 18 and 27 months. I was the first person on either side of my family ever to breastfeed, so no one was very supportive before 12 months and definitely not after. To educate my husband without "arguing" about the subject I would find information about the benefits of nursing a toddler and then read it to him later as if I had just discovered it. It has really worked.
There is certainly a lot of pressure these days on parents to push independence in their children, which often translates into earlier potty training, reading, and other activities. It is important to keep in mind that these are cultural beliefs, not basic human needs. Different cultures have different beliefs about what is best for children, and they are not always right! It is not a universally held human belief that children who potty train earlier are better.
One book that I found especially helpful when my oldest son was a toddler is Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk by David Elkind. Dr. Elkind gives lot of reasons why pushing children to do things before they are ready is not better, including describing the differences in the way toddlers think versus how older children think.
I also know firsthand that allowing a child to develop at his or her own pace can yield amazing results. We homeschool, and when I first started helping my older child to read at age six, it was a confusing, difficult task for him. It was clear to me he did not understand how reading "works" and was becoming upset by our lessons (this in spite of the fact that he had expressed a desire to learn to read). So, I backed off and we did other things. We tried again when he was seven, with similar results. He was making some progress, but was not moving steadily toward becoming a fluent reader. In school, he likely would have been put in remedial reading classes. Instead, we just let it go, again focusing on other areas such as math, which he loves. Shortly after his eighth birthday, he was starting to read "first reader" books, the kinds with four short sentences per page, along with a large illustration. When he was eight-and-a-half, I enrolled him in a reading program that requires the child to set reading goals. My son and I decided he would read one of these early readers per week. A month later, I read him the first Harry Potter book. He loved it and asked for more. He got the remaining books as Christmas presents-and read all three of them to himself in a month! In two months he went from reading early readers to reading on about a fifth grade level. He would be in the third grade in school. He now reads voraciously, anything he can get his hands on. It is difficult for me to keep him in reading material, in spite of weekly library trips. There is absolutely no way anyone could see a difference between him and a child who learned to read at three. And this delay has not hurt him at all. He learned to read in his own time, and now he loves it.
I should also add that he was a "velcro" baby, attached to me for years, and he nursed well into toddlerhood. No one can tell any of that, either. He is an outgoing, social person who has a wonderful attitude toward pretty much anything he is presented with. Actually, it is not true that no one can tell he nursed for a long time, or was attached to me for so long. I can tell. It is why I believe he is the person he is now. I think if he had been pushed, he would have retreated from the world. Instead, he was given the time to learn to reach for it. And all of this before he has even turned nine years old. I know it can be hard to go against what our culture believes, but the rewards can be well worth it.
My son is seven years old. He reads well, is toilet trained, and doesn't nurse anymore, so I can say that children can reach these milestones without pushing. I can understand your concerns about not teaching reading at an early age. In England there is a lot of pressure to teach very young children how to read. I resisted with my son but was concerned that when he started school he would be classed as "slow" because he hadn't yet accomplished any "reading skills."
However, he had a wide vocabulary, good general knowledge, an excellent imagination, good concentration skills, and a great desire to learn. He has caught up with most and passed many of his early reading peers. Little children can spend the time they would have spent learning to read instead learning to appreciate good stories, nursery rhymes, songs; listening to adults reading; playing; making up stories; and asking questions.
When other parents tell me their child is reading a book which I consider to be quite advanced, I remind myself that Aidan will read books aimed at 10-year-olds when he is 10, but if he misses the opportunity to have stories for seven-year-olds read to him when he is seven he will never hear them. Or, at least, not until he reads them to his own children!
My daughter was in diapers until she was three-and-a-half years old. She really had no interest in the toilet until then. It was summer and she was running around in a tee shirt and diaper and I thought, "Let's see what happens if we leave off the diaper." It seemed that without the diaper she was much more attuned to her body's signals and within a couple of days, she was happily using the potty. We left for a long road trip a few weeks later and had a fun and "accident-free" trip.
Although many of my daughter's friends were enrolled in preschool, I knew she was not ready because she never wanted to be very far away from me. We had a wonderful year at home with many outings together.
Today at age seven, she is excelling in school, reads and writes fluently in English and in French, enjoys dancing, skating, Girl Scout activities, and has a wonderful circle of friends.
Linda Ruth C.