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The Milestones That Matter Most

“M-a-t” “M-at.” “Mat.” My 6-year-old pored over her Bob book, painstakingly sounding out each word. I listened and worried; her older brother was able to read those same words at a much younger age.

It’s natural to compare our children and fret over their development. We are encouraged in the United States to look at a child’s expected milestones and make sure they are meeting them on time. It wasn’t until I started researching global parenting that I discovered how many of a baby’s and child’s stages and milestones actually aren’t universal. What we expect of a child at any given age is influenced and shaped by culture. Viewed through the prism of culture, some notions of “normal” look totally different:

Babies from parts of Africa, the Caribbean or India whose bodies are constantly jostled and vigorously handled by their mothers reach motor milestones earlier than babies in Western cultures, who spend a lot of time on their backs.

Babies in some indigenous cultures who are rarely put down skip the crawling stage entirely.

Vietnamese toddlers don’t go through potty training as we know it, because they’ve been more or less diaperfree all their lives.

In other cultures, babies are never expected to learn to sleep through the night on their own, the terrible twos don’t exist and teenagers are not expected to be in conflict with their parents (and they aren’t). And as for us? American parents are encouraged to talk, talk, talk to our kids, even when they’re babies and can’t respond back. Our children become fantastic negotiators. Even as we roll our eyes with exasperation, we are proud of our little budding lawyers. We know that talking to our kids is good for them. We associate verbal prowess with intelligence and some of us may harbor the secret hope that their ability to nag us into capitulating means they will get high scores on the SATs and attend a good college.

Not all parents in the world agree. There are cultures where parents define intelligence as simply being able to know something needs to be done, and doing it. There are places where learning is not taught, but caught— where being a quiet and astute observer is how a child learns the skills he needs to thrive.

Research shows that American parents focus on cognitive stimulation, enrichment and development more than parents in many other cultures, such as the Dutch or the Italians, who prioritize different things like routines or even-temperedness. We even justify free play and recess for their cognitive benefits, and talk about how play lays the foundation for academic skills.

Every society values its own skill sets for its own reasons. The problem in America is that, while we excel at raising spectacularly verbal kids, we have lost sight of other values that we need to foster in our children.

Thinking about others: Learning to get along with others is top priority in other cultures. Spanish parents I spoke with told me they stimulate their babies with people, not educational toys. They take them out into public early, welcoming the in-your-face interaction with strangers that most Americans find intrusive. Japanese moms call their babies’ attention to relationships more than objects the way we tend to (“Look at that big, grey elephant!”). In one study, when Japanese and American fourth and fifth grade children were asked why they shouldn’t hit, gossip or fight with other kids, 92 percent of the American kids answered “because they’d get caught or get in trouble.” Ninety percent of the Japanese kids asked the same question responded, “because it would be hurtful to someone else.” Research indicates that in cultures which promote collective values—where children watch people help each other farm, build homes and so forth—sharing comes more easily to kids than in more individualistic, competitive cultures like our own.

Hanging up their own jackets: Around the world, kids run errands, take buses and trains by themselves, keep track of their own belongings, use knives and cook at an age when we American parents are still putting on our kids’ socks, picking their jackets up off the floor, and monitoring what they can watch on TV.

Caring for their siblings: One Swedish boy I interviewed has been bringing his little sister home from school on the bus since he was in elementary school, making her a snack and supervising her homework. When we were raising our kids in Japan, helping out was so valued that our son’s school homework included doing chores like watching or feeding his baby sister. One Japanese mom I knew regularly left her kids at home while she went grocery shopping; in our country, this would get her accused of negligence. In our country, we worry that asking siblings to care for each other puts an undue burden on their individual potential. The opposite is true: When we ask our kids to care for one another, it unleashes their potential as nurturing, socially responsible human beings.

It’s not surprising that well-intentioned parents cultivate cognitive intelligence and individual achievements as assiduously as we do. These are, after all, such important markers of success in modern-day America. But our focus on outcomes is leading us to look at milestones all wrong—as a series of boxes and achievements to check off a list on our way to a goal. We focus on our kids’ ability to read when they are at an age when we should be focusing on their kindness and character. We worry about overburdening them with chores because they have to do their homework, when we should be cultivating skills that will make them self-reliant, and sending them a clear, unambiguous message: Yes, academic achievement is important, but becoming kind and responsible is, too. These are all milestones we don’t want to miss.

My daughter’s reading still hasn’t taken off. But when she closes her book for the night, she reaches for her little sister’s hand and takes her to the bathroom, helps her change into her pajamas, and fetches her toothbrush. I’ve finally realized that she is not doomed to failure, but that she is just developing differently and that her different pace will allow us the luxury of reading aloud for much, much longer. After all, she’s only 6 years old. It’s time to give ourselves permission to focus less on Mandarin lessons and math enrichment and trust we haven’t doomed our kids to failure if we don’t sign them up for club soccer at age 8. We can give ourselves permission to concentrate more on fostering kindness in our children, teaching them perseverance and making sure they know how to hang up their own towels.