Getty | images by Tang Ming Tung
All experiences and interactions shape the human brain throughout life. During childhood, however, the rate of brain change is particularly rapid. This is reflected in children’s evolving motor skills, language, social interactions, emotional responses, and depth of thought and understanding.
With my background as a neurologist, classroom teacher, and parent of two grown children, I expected that I'd be a sure thing at grandparenting. I knew that my time with them during their early childhood would be full of occasions to enjoy fun as well as enriching experiences together. It turns out that I was missing some opportunities and mucking up others.
How understanding developmental milestones has helped me in grandparenting
Children’s actions, interactions, and responses go on whether we notice or not – and that’s why it’s so important to not only understand the progression of developmental milestones – but also each child’s unique journey in reaching them. Through both my work as a neurologist, as well as becoming a Parent Toolkit expert, I have been better able to understand the developmental progression of skills, comprehension, and emotional development in my own grandchildren, which has helped me notice and gain insights into their interests, strengths, challenges, and motivations. I now recognize new experiences and environments to enhance my time with my grandchildren (ages four and one) far beyond what I had thought of on my own. Like all children, my grandchildren each had things that they loved and that challenged them -- all which can be defined to grade-level benchmarks in both above and below their actual age. I use benchmark progressions (like these) to see their development of a skill, and based on their mastery level, I introduced the games, activities, and adventures best suited to them.
Neuroscience research reveals that the best and most satisfying learning takes place when the brain recognizes the level of "achievable challenge". Like Goldilocks appreciated the comfy chair that was "just right", there should be just enough challenge to stimulate and interest, but not so much to overwhelm.
For example, there are new opportunities and activities I can do with my grandchildren based on their gross motor skill-progression, activities that were “achievable challenges” for my older grandchild, based on what I’ve learned to look for at his current motor skill level. For example, he still loves to play games where we walked forward and backward on chalk lines - first straight, then circles, then wherever he or I drew that chalk line. He loves for us to walk in circle together, holding bells. First, he suggested we both stop and freeze when he rang his bell. Then he enjoyed being challenged to walk in our circle, keeping our bells as quiet as we could.
Connecting to my grandchildren through their eagerness and curiosity
As a neurologist and educator, I knew that during their early years, children learn very quickly through experience. Natural curiosity promotes their interest, investigations and focused observations of what they see, hear, feel or experience. I’ve since learned to remember observations I'd made in my daughters, but had not kept in mind such as, the eagerness of preschoolers, for exploring objects through multiple senses, exemplified by their tendency to jump into every puddle they pass.
Now, as a grandmother, I’ve realized that I could find more ways to hold back and let my grandchildren’s interests and curiosity drive some of our activities. Following children’s curiosity and interests offers prime opportunities to tap into their delight in discovery and exploration. The intense pleasure they experience in this exploration promotes stronger memories in the brain that become foundations of future learning.
From these reminders, I stepped back from over-direction and over-teaching, such as spouting out names of trees on a walk, when they were more interested in the insects below. I observed them as they explored their choices of things to see, touch, and sometimes taste (if I didn't notice their quick grabs at the grass). These choices became my guide to connect my grandchildren to fun learning opportunities, such as reading them an insect book (instead of a tree identification book).
Today’s kids need flexible thinking – and it starts with their interests
Today’s kids are growing up in a faster and more connected world. They will need the ability to think flexibly and work collaboratively and cooperatively as they partner globally on problems and innovations, from working on solving climate change internationally to physicians discussing a brain scan in real time on screens with colleagues on the other side of the world.
I sought ways to help my grandchildren build those skills through their interests and abilities. I found what I needed: namely, more opportunities for "teachable moments" where I could look to build their flexible thinking (cognitive flexibility) and emotional empathy.
An example of building open ways of thinking, problem solving, and creative exploration is based on research about children and new toys. Instead of showing them the “right” way to use a toy, I stepped back and encouraged them to first explore it independently. They do indeed stay interested longer and find more innovative ways to play with these toys while building their flexible, creative thinking.
How I learned to embrace my grandchildren’s struggles and mistakes
All new learning means going from something not known to something known. So naturally, there are going to be times of uncertainty, confusion, frustration, and mistakes. As the pre-k physical development benchmarks on Parent Toolkit reminded me, "One of the most important things you can do to help them develop these skills is to let them struggle from time to time to accomplish tasks, such as fastening buttons or cutting food. Only by repeated effort will your child learn how to do these things, and learn to handle frustration, so crucial for their emotional development."
When it came interacting with my grandchildren's frustration, the words I'd written in my parent and teacher books remained on those pages, not in my brain. I was definitely guilty of my grandmotherly response of jumping in at the slightest hint of their frustration. Things like difficulty hitting a ball or painting a circle or struggles trying to think of a word to say or read sparked my "Immediate Rescue Needed" response. I couldn't let them be frustrated - only smiles for my grandchildren. What was, or rather, what wasn't I thinking?
I now recognize that I was being selfish by jumping in and they were missing opportunities to build their frustration tolerance, awareness of choices and consequences, and thoughtful decisions-making skills. Opportunities for kids to take on challenges, overcome obstacles, and persevere after mistakes are essential. The rapidly developing brains of young children corresponds to the greatest and most fertile growth in their brain control systems for frustration management, tolerance, delay of gratification, other impulse controls, and empathy. My work over the years as a neurologist has helped me to understand how to establish the critical neural networks that support children’s skills, self-regulation, and support them through and beyond childhood. But what I’ve also learned along the way is that you don’t have to be a neurologist to unlock this power. Early childhood is a fruitful time to focus on these qualities – and all parents, grandparents and caring adults can make this a priority.
I continue to work to resist my intrusions and try to serve instead as a coach or guide on the sidelines. I use more supportive language, rather than immediately jumping in to make everything "right." I love hearing my four-year-old grandson repeat phrases we'd used together, when he was frustrated or making mistakes, like, "I can't do it...YET" or "Practice makes progress." Hearing this come from his little mouth is well worth any discomfort I feel when he works through frustration or setbacks. I'm still a work in progress, just as my grandkids are, but I'm having more fun knowing how we can continue to grow together.