To everything there is a season.
For children, we might amend that maxim: To everything there is an appropriate age and grade level. When children can read at the end of kindergarten, take off their training wheels by age six, and master their times tables around third grade, we breathe a sigh of relief that all is as it should be. It’s as if our children are little boxes who have been filled with age-appropriate skills on the assembly line of life. They can now move on to the next skill, the next milestone. And so it goes.
It is almost always socially acceptable and even lauded for children to master life skills early. We praise the kids who play the violin at three and polish off their first novel at four. We bestow upon them the coveted label of “gifted.”
Our society holds many beliefs about the benefits of mastering skills early rather than late:
“Teach them early, or they’ll never learn.”
“It’s so much harder to learn a new skill when you’re older.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
But then we have the late bloomers: The kid who isn’t reading at age eight. The ten-year-old who still insists on using training wheels. The eighth grader who cannot seem to remember the answer to 6 times 7 try as she might.
In a world that worships the hare, these kids are tortoises. They take their time, and sometimes that time seems very, very long to the adults in their lives. We watch and fret, waiting for them to master things we think they should have learned months or even years ago.
These kids make us nervous, especially when we homeschool. Will they ever progress? Did we not push hard enough in the beginning? What if something is wrong?
When my younger daughter did not read by the end of kindergarten, I began to fret, even though I knew that many, many kids are simply not ready to read until much later. My older daughter had been a precocious reader, and I’d expected her sister to follow suit. Our life was filled with books and reading, and we were using a good phonics program. What was I doing wrong?
What I was doing wrong was not honoring my daughter’s unique developmental path. After a talk with my husband and some introspection, I resolved to try and relax and take the pressure off both of us. I continued with gentle reading instruction, but we stopped whenever she or I began to get frustrated. By age seven, she was reading with confidence. Around this time, after a couple of years of concerns over possible dyslexia, a friend’s child was beginning to read short chapter books at age nine.
Parents should always trust their instincts as to whether a child might have a legitimate learning issue, and I do not mean to imply that delays never constitute cause for concern. However, late blooming learners are often perfectly capable kids who just need a bit more time.
In the case of my own family, I could trace my youngest daughter’s hesitation to jump into reading to my own late reading as a child and her perfectionist, mastery-oriented personality. She wanted to do something all the way or none of the way. Reading a beginner book was not appealing to her, since she knew the vocabulary and ideas were limited, and she longed for complex stories like what we read out loud every day. At ages five and six, however, she simply wasn’t ready to decode the words that would lead her through those beautiful stories. At seven, she was ready.
While my oldest daughter flew through long novels at a young age, she took longer to master basic math facts and skills like riding a bike. At ten, she dedicated two afternoons in the backyard to figuring out her bike minus the training wheels. And then, she had it! About a week later, her younger sister took off her own training wheels with a wrench and quickly learned the skill, too. Both girls happily spent the summer riding their bikes around our neighborhood.
When discussing bike riding with the girls’ pediatrician, the doctor said with a smile that she had learned to ride a bike at age twenty-eight at the insistence of her new husband. This reminded me of my own determination to learn to knit in my mid-twenties, and my resolve to get better at gardening in my thirties.
Rather than feeling rushed and pressured, I want my kids to honor their own readiness and sense of motivation for learning and trying new things. Rather than buying into notions of old dogs and new tricks, I’d love for my kids to be inspired by folks who decide to get a college degree at fifty, paint their first picture at sixty, and finally take a trip around the world at seventy.
Late bloomers may test our faith and patience, but they can also remind us of God’s unique plan for each person. Just as children talk and walk at varying ages, they also read, write, and master various concepts at differing times. Comparing, shaming, and pushing our children to rush ahead will only discourage their love of learning and potentially damage their self-esteem.
In the process of honoring each child’s unique learning journey, we can perhaps learn to trust a little more and worry a little less.