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Debunking the Belief That All Children Are the Same

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Do you ever look at children who are the same age as your child and wonder why your little one hasn’t learned to talk/walk/read/dance/tumble/hit a ball as well or as soon as they have? Or maybe you’ve wondered why your second child isn’t progressing at the same rate as your first one did.

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario among parents, particularly these days, when life can feel like one big competition. It seems there’s always someone boasting about how “advanced” their child is, or asking at what age your child accomplished a significant milestone. The pressure can be overwhelming. And since there’s no one easier to scare than a parent, you don’t just wonder, you worry – because the idea that your child might fall behind is terrifying.

The worry is especially persistent when it comes to your child’s schooling. It takes only one report card or parent/teacher conference to make you feel unsettled. Why aren’t your daughter’s grades better than her best friend’s? Why is your son less adept at sitting still than his brother was? Why doesn’t your child seem to be as popular as the kid next door?

What you need to know is that, despite the fact that we in this country boast about our individuality and creativity, our schools seem determined to place greater emphasis on conformity. For the most part, that’s always been the case in our education system -- expecting all children in the same grade to master the same work at the same level and pace. But since the inception of No Child Left Behind – and now with Race to the Top and the implementation of the Common Core Standards – I believe it’s only gotten worse. The notion of education as a competition has become increasingly predominant and that creative “box” everyone is always talking about has become increasingly smaller.

There’s nothing wrong with standards, or goals, per se. It makes sense to establish a certain level of mastery for children to achieve and to determine what students should be able to do and know over the course of a particular period of time – a school year, for example. But the standards should be realistic. It should be possible for the majority of students to achieve them, each at her or his own pace. That means the standards need to be developmentally appropriate and based on the principles of child development – designed with actual children, who differ greatly from one another, in mind.

But I agree with some educators who say they're not. The K-3 standards, for example, were written by people with little to no knowledge of child development or developmentally appropriate practice. They were written with too little input from people who do have that knowledge, such as teachers and child development experts. In fact, of the 135 people on the committees that wrote and reviewed the K-3 Common Core Standards, not one was a K-3 teacher or an early childhood professional. Despite that, teachers, who are more and more often being asked to teach in ways they know to be developmentally inappropriate, are required to adhere to these standards. But if your child isn’t meeting all of them, I don’t believe you should be worried.

Educator Justin Tarte has been quoted as saying, “Asking all 6th-grade kids to master the same concept at the same time is like asking all 35-year-olds to wear the same size shirt.” That sentiment applies for children of every age.

Similarly, in an interview on BAM Radio Network, noted early childhood expert Jane Healy said, “We have a tendency in this country to put everybody into a formula – to throw them all into the same box and have these expectations that they’re all going to do the same thing at the same time.” But that’s as unrealistic an expectation as you can get. We only have to consider the myriad possibilities for genetic combinations, along with various environmental factors, to realize that we can’t begin to envision the diversity in temperament, intellect, skills, and learning styles among a group of 30 children in the same classroom.

The study of child development informs us that:

- It’s simply not possible for all children to do and know the exact same things at the exact same age.
- All children go through the same stages in the same order but they do it at varying rates.
- Each domain – cognitive, physical, emotional, social – has its own rate of development.

The latter means that your child may be better at sharing (social development) than another but may have less advanced motor skills (physical). Your first child may have spoken at an earlier age than your second (cognitive), but your second child may be less prone to temper tantrums (emotional).

If we accept that no two snowflakes are alike, why wouldn’t we accept that no two individuals – even of the same age and gender – are alike? It’s just plain common sense.

One of my favorite lines from an interview with noted educator David Elkind was, “Wrong ideas always seem to catch on more easily than right ones.” The idea that all children are the same is definitely a wrong idea.

What’s a Parent to Do? My advice:

- Avoid comparisons, whether it’s with children outside or within your family (especially aloud, within earshot of your kids). No two children – not siblings, nor even twins – are going to be exactly alike.

- Refrain from engaging in conversations with other parents when the topic involves making comparisons. No good can come from such conversations – for you or your child.

- Remember that we all have strengths and weaknesses and that applies to children as well. Help your child to understand this important life lesson.

- Keep in mind that the idea of all children as “above average” (what’s known as the “Lake Wobegon Effect”) is not only mathematically impossible; also, it puts a great deal of pressure on children. They want nothing more than to please the important adults in their lives and if those adults are fond of such labels as “advanced,” “gifted,” or “above average,” they will strive to be those things – even in areas where it’s simply not possible for them to do so. Childhood should be a time of trial and error, not a time to reach for impossible standards.

- If your child’s “weaknesses” dominate a report card or parent/teacher conference, make a point of asking what your child does well. Don’t let negativity rule the day.

- Understand that our schools give lip service to individuality and creativity but tend to reward conformity. Take pride in your child’s differences and help him or her to take pride in them as well. Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey didn’t achieve such heights by being conformists.

Rae Pica has brought her messages about the development and education of the whole child to parents and educators throughout North America. Her latest book is What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives. You can learn more about her at and follow her at @raepica1.

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