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How Child Development Works – Competence Builds Competence

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have talked about their children’s most rewarding and most challenging developmental periods. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants. ***

Raising a child is like building a sturdy staircase. At the top of the staircase is a door marked ‘adulthood.’ Each stair is like a platform of competence, a set of skills gained in each stage.  Done reasonably well, each step positions us for the next, more advanced step. Competence today prepares our kids for competence tomorrow. As we build the staircase, important parenting steps include:

  • letting our kids know they are loved and are worthy of love from day one
  • teaching our kids kind-but-firm limits
  • giving our kids consistent support academically, emotionally, and socially
  • stepping back as kids learn skills so they can internalize them and become independent
  • keeping a low-stress home environment so we don’t derail kids’ healthy development

Instead of borrowing worries from the future, research shows that if we focus on navigating the current stage well, competence will follow. Success breeds success. Competence builds competence.

Infancy: Secure attachment is key


The first and most important step starts in infancy. Babies need, above all, love and nurturing. When a parent is sensitive and responsive to baby’s needs, they form a bond, also known as ‘secure attachment.’ This bond is like giving a baby success serum for years to come. Secure attachment is like the foundation of a tall building, or a staircase; the strong base on which the rest of the levels are built. With a nurturing parent, the messages baby gets is, “I matter.  People care about me.  I’m lovable. People can be trusted.” This happens before a baby can even talk. In a stroke of child development magic, the baby then generalizes this expectation to other people, as in, “People are generally trustworthy.” This mindset is the bedrock for successful future social interactions with peers and even adult partners. Secure attachment is one of the most important ingredients for future success academically, with family and peer relationships, behavior, and emotional regulation.

Key takeaway: Nurturing your baby with love and attention is like a shot of success serum for life. The more responsive you are to your baby, the stronger your bond will be, and the more confident and competent your child will be for years to come.

Toddlers: Kind-but-firm limits

When babies grow into toddlers, they still need the love and nurturing of a parent, and now also need guidance as they explore the world and try to manage their emotions. Toddlers need a caregiver to provide ‘scaffolding’ or coaching to know how to manage themselves. Part of this is providing clear rules and kind-but-firm limits on how to behave. The tricky part for parents is to strike a balance and not be too controlling or too permissive. There’s a learning curve for both parent and child. With a supportive parent, toddlers can learn how to manage themselves, also known as self-regulation. They can’t yet do this alone. Families who struggle in this stage often have unclear or inconsistent rules. Toddlers need a calm, steady, reassuring parent who is clearly the person in charge.

Key takeaway: Parents are toddler’s teachers on how the world works. Allow toddlers to explore the world under a supportive, watchful eye. Teach them kind-but-firm limits while providing emotional support. Toddlers need your help with self-regulation.

Preschoolers: I can do it myself!

Preschoolers are spreading their wings and starting to do things for themselves. They’re internalizing our rules and values, being able to follow them without constant enforcement. They’re also actively entering the world of peers, making friends and participating in groups. The most competent preschoolers are typically kids who had secure attachment as babies and toddlers. Kids first practice emotional regulation and interpersonal skills with their caregivers and then internalizing how this works, become capable in relationships by themselves. It’s like the parent is a mentor and the child is an apprentice. The child first learns the skills in relationship to parents and later incorporates the skills as their own. Then they’re ready for more advanced learning. Each stage of competence builds cumulatively on the next. It’s no exaggeration to say the person, with their own individual personality, emerges in this stage. There’s an amazing amount of development at this time in terms of social competence, self-direction and self-regulation. In the preschool stage, a child with a history of secure attachment tends to be self-reliant. A child’s history of being able to rely on a trusted caregiver translates into being confident in relying on himself. The unconscious thinking goes like this: “If I can count on you, I can probably also count on me.”

Key takeaway: Your child is becoming his own person. He’s learning how to be in the world and all that comes with it, such as managing emotions, behavior, friendships, working in a group, and relying on himself.

Middle childhood: Work ethic and feeling capable

Middle childhood is the time when children develop work habits, effectiveness, and a sense of themselves as competent and hardworking. Focusing on developing good work habits in elementary school has long-lasting affects into adulthood. Whereas the preschooler takes pride in doing things on his or her own, the elementary school child wants to be competent in doing real life tasks well. Real life tasks include school, friendship, behavior, being part of a social group, and developing skills and talents. Kids are becoming even more competent in the world of peers. They’re making deep and important friendships. Organized social groups are emerging in school. A parent’s positive attitude and support help the child build confidence. Kids who do well in this stage have a broad history of care and support. Parenting is now more a matter of supervising and monitoring. Holding high expectations and believing in the child are very important. Kids are becoming an increasingly active force in their own development.

A word on family stress: Family stress can derail healthy development. Stress is toxic and can seriously affect a child’s developmental journey. If you are in a high conflict marriage or divorce, get professional help right away. Stress at home can have a seriously negative impact on kids academically, socially, and emotionally. If you are severely depressed, anxious or otherwise psychologically unavailable to your kids, please get help immediately. Do not wait.

Key takeaway: Your child is working on real life competence and your job is to monitor, guide, and provide ongoing support with academics, friendships, and emerging skills and talents. Do not wait until later to start instilling good work habits.

Adolescence: Competence builds competence

Adolescents are taking more and more responsibility of their own lives. They have the complex job of coordinating school, work, extracurricular activities and social life. They have a greater responsibility for decisions, self-monitoring and self-development. The parents’ job now is to monitor the teen’s own monitoring. Parental monitoring, especially with a stable male presence at home, is associated with lower behavior problems. A sense of competence, mastery of peer group issues, and close friendships help teens navigate the many challenges of this stage. Kids who were socially competent in preschool tend to be competent socially as teens. Teaching social competence early has lasting effects. Choosing good friends is also important in this stage. Research shows that the old adage “hanging out with the wrong crowd” holds some truth. Associating with deviant peers is related to serious problem behaviors such as drug and alcohol use and risky sexual behavior. Teens who have a history of doing well previously, with regular school attendance, parent involvement with school and schoolwork, and positive child-teacher relationships tend to do well in this stage. Academic achievement in each grade typically predicts future academic achievement. Success breeds success.

Key takeaway: Monitor your teen’s own monitoring. Focusing on social, emotional, and cognitive competence in the years prior to adolescence stacks the odds of success in your teen’s favor.

Adulthood: Self-sufficiency

Young adults are transitioning toward self-sufficiency and life outside the family in areas such as further education, training, and work. They have climbed the staircase of child development and are opening the door to adulthood. They’re pulling together past achievements and setting a life course for the future. A sense of personal responsibility is evolving.  They’re now the ones in charge of directing their own lives. They’re setting goals and keeping track of progress toward their goals. Their self-awareness helps them identify obstacles and overcome them with a clear plan of action. No one else can do this for them. Young adults are developing adult relationships and social support networks. In order to be successful in romantic relationships, adults draw upon their entire history of social experience: early emotional closeness with caregivers, ongoing parental support, and a history of competence with peers.

Key takeaway: Planning and goal setting are key skills as young adults take responsibility for setting the course of their own lives. All the tools they’ve gained along the way equip them for future success.

Make each day your masterpiece

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” This is excellent advice from a child development perspective. If we focus today on making the stage we’re in as solid as possible, this will naturally predict the next, more advanced stage of competence as also being solid. Success breeds success. Competence builds competence.

Source: Based on data from a 30 year longitudinal study detailed in the book, The Development of the Person: The Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood.

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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • When Three-Year-Olds Stand Up For Themselves — Parenting Expert Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. at her blog, Parental Intelligence, enjoys the stage when three-year-olds dramatically wow their parents with their strong sense of self.
  • This too shall pass — In the beginning, everything seems so overwhelming. Amanda at My Life in a Nutshell looks at the stages of the first 1.5 years of her daughter’s life and explains how nothing is ever static and everything changes – the good and the bad.
  • Age 5 – Is It Really A Golden Period? — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama looks at the developmental norms for the five-year-old set and muses over if this age really is the ‘golden period.’
  • How much do you explain to your preschooler when crime touches close to home? — When tragedy strikes someone your preschooler knows, Nathalie at Kampuchea Crossings wonders how parents can best help young children cope.
  • Thoughts on ToddlerwearingThat Mama Gretchen‘s babywearing days are over, we’re living it up in the toddlerwearing days now!
  • Parenting Challenges—Almost a man — Survivor at Surviving Mexico talks about leaving childhood behind as her son turns 12.
  • How Child Development Works — Competence Builds Competences — Debbie at Equipped Family shares how each stage of childhood builds on the next. Focus on doing the current stage reasonably well and success will breed success!
  • Making Space — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is adjusting her thinking and making room for her babies to stay near her.
  • The Best Parenting Resources for Parents of Toddlers — Toddlers can be so challenging. Not only are they learning how to exert their independence, but they simply do not have the developmental ability to be calm and logical when they are frustrated. It’s the nature of the beast. I mean … the toddler. Here are Dionna at Code Name: Mama‘s favorite books and articles about parenting a toddler.
  • The Fab Five Stages so Far — Laura from Pug in the Kitchen couldn’t choose just one stage for this carnival and is sharing her top five favorite stages in the young lives of her son and daughter at Natural Parents Network.
  • The best parts of ages 0-6 — Lauren at Hobo Mama gives a breakdown of what to expect and what to cherish in each year.
  • Lessons from Parenting a Three-Year-Old — Ana and Niko at Panda & Ananaso are quickly approaching the end of an era — toddlerhood. She shares some of her thoughts on the last two years and some tips on parenting through a time rife with change.
  • Feeling Needed — Jorje of Momma Jorje ponders which developmental stage is her favorite and why. She bares it for us, seemingly without fear of judgment. You might be surprised by her answer!