How often have you heard, “oh, just wait, he’ll grow out if it”? Though partially true, this lame excuse for not correcting certain behaviors shows an incomplete understanding of childhood development. Growth and development used to be pictured like clothing sizes. The child outgrows an outfit, discards it, and puts on a bigger one that fits better. In reality, it’s not that simple. Children don’t always discard behaviors from one stage of development when they grow into another. Misbehavior that is not corrected at one stage may linger into the next. on the other hand, don’t get too excited or too worried when you see “good” or “bad” behavior in your children. It may be a one-time “outfit” that children try on for size and quickly discard when it doesn’t fit.
A child’s behavioral development is like a trip through a department store by elevator. The doors open and two children get off to find what they need on each floor. one child gets no sales help. He explores freely, puts on a bunch of new clothes, and gets back on the elevator to go to the next floor. When he gets there he realizes that he still has his old clothes on underneath, and that the new ones don’t fit that well. But he keeps going up on his own, putting new clothes over the old ones, carrying more and more excess baggage to each new floor. Soon he is weighed down with layers of clothing that he should have discarded earlier. Eventually, there is less and less room for new stuff.
The other little shopper gets the help of a wise and experienced disciplinarian. She has seen many children get off that elevator and knows just what he needs. “Let me help you try on some new clothes,” she offers, adding, “but we’ll have to figure out what to do with your old clothes. Some seem to fit you just fine, so we’ll keep them. They’ll be useful to you later. Let’s get rid of the ones that don’t fit to make room for ones that fit you better.” The disciplined child goes to each new floor not only with better clothes that fit but without excess baggage slowing his progress.
Which behaviors will children outgrow on their own and which need your attention? Behavior that is linked to specific needs, tasks, or limitations of a certain developmental stage are probably best left alone—for example, thumb- sucking in a toddler, negativism in a two-year-old, shyness with strangers in a four- or five-year-old. Behavior that may be understandable at a certain age but is nevertheless obnoxious should be worked on—for example, throwing food from the high chair, teasing the family dog, aggression toward parents. Children need limits that help them grow up to be polite, thoughtful, and caring. Your job as parents is to arm your children with the self-control tools that will help them make the transition from one developmental stage to the next.