I do research on age-related child brain development. I call them simply “milestones,” but you might know them as “stages” or “phases.” These are times when children fall apart at an age-related time, typically by becoming more demanding, more aggressive, whinier, etc. However, following this, they have an astonishing burst of new ability. See the main page of this website for the milestones.
I do my work primarily with my 3 children. I homeschool, and so I am with them 24/7. This allows me to recognize everything about them: both when they want to stay up really late at night and when they can handle something new intellectually. I am unique to all other researchers because I have a persistent 24/7 presence with my children, which is why I think my work has been so successful so far. I have tens of thousands of visitors to this site every month.
That said, certainly I recognize more research can be done on the immense, yet really mostly untapped field of child brain development (and of the entire inner world really). I see this like exploring space: it is both vast and nuanced. And it will never be fully explored–because it is that wondrous.
Here are some ideas I have for future research to better pin down and understand child development. I think virtually anyone can play a role, from veteran caregivers to artists to neuroscientists. Here are but a few of my ideas. I hope to inspire people to do these very things or to come up with new ideas of research.
1. Sketch or Photograph a Child’s Head Shape for Every Day of Their Youth
These age-related stages are due to brain growth. I find their head size and shape noticeably changes during the irritable period, indeed several times over the irritable period. Sometimes a child wakes up with a head that all of a sudden starts protruding forward and by night time has elongated. Days in which brain growth happens in just one day are usually pretty brutal. If you could even just help parents start noticing the head shape of their child, it would help to garner more sympathy for what the child is going through.
Here was what my third child looked like one morning. The night before he was up about every two hours and throughout the day he was very demanding. Can you see how his head looks scrunched up and almost like it’s going to burst?
I couldn’t get a picture of him this very day, as he was that temperamental about me taking his picture. But this is him just 2 days later. Do you see how his head greatly elongated? In just two days! And really, it changed in 1/2 of a day. This protrusion followed by elongation is very typical of brain growth:
When doing this or any other research, I recommend calculating age by number of days since the due date. Trying to get the same exact angle for the head is ideal–but we are talking about very young, very wiggly children. This is why I think a sketch artist would be better. But can you imagine being able to flip the drawings like a flip book over a period of time? And imagine if you had more than one child for this as to compare? I would think a computer software could pinpoint the differences in head shape and even pinpoint the milestones.
I am starting to add to the milestones a picture of a child before and then after the irritable period of the milestone, which is when the brain growth is mostly happening. I hope to inspire people to see this aspect of their child and possibly to inspire people to do more work in this area.
2. Plotting the Milestones Across a Large Sample of Children
One of the biggest criticisms of my work at first was that I only had a sample size of 3 children. Well, I’ll fully admit that my work got better and better as I documented each child and as I folded in feedback from other mothers. But here’s the thing: you have to start somewhere. I have taken an enormous number of observations. How would a researcher using a large sample size of children know what to look for without the original descriptions?
Most researchers focus on large blocks of time, such as 6 month time periods. My work drills in to the very week of development. And past researchers, due to our biases, typically see “misbehavior” as a problem to be corrected or as a failure from parents. Mine does not. My biggest criticism of all previous research is it takes into consideration both children in punitive and nonpunitive homes. I believe that children in punitive homes have a reaction to punitive means, which are not indicative of normal childhood behavior. I am pretty insistent that future work done on child development that involves me or my work uses children in nonpunitive homes. You wouldn’t study elephants in a circus; you would study them in the wild. Similarly, children must be left fundamentally free so you know what is authentic natural human development.
Of course children go through the milestones on different schedules. Of course there is some variability. Even if that variability amounted to one day difference, it is a variability. What is that variability? Is it a matter of some children hit the milestones consistently a week earlier or later than “average”? Do some children skip some milestones altogether? We can study it to try to pin it down.
In my experience, people say the irritable periods line up really well for their children but the new abilities vary more. Also in my experience, girls tend to hit the milestones earlier than boys starting just shy of 5 years old. It really is as if there is some prewired schedule in children’s DNA to act out at highly predictable age-related times. My hypothesis, based on my experience doing this work, which would need tested, is that there is some unique brain architecture that each child has but some kind of hormone (or other) induced brain growth that washes over them at rather predictable times, but affects them differently, given the different brain structures.
My best advice to find what model can predict this variability (and to follow the milestones) is to pick some highly distinguishing characteristic of a milestone and spin off of that. For instance, a milestone in the late 4s is marked noticeably by an extreme fear of death. One milestone in the late twos is marked noticeably by extreme confusion. One in the early threes is marked noticeably by nightmares at night, and of a specific sort (the type of nightmare changes over time). These are just some examples. I hope on this site that I have provided enough detail to really describe each milestone as to what you might see. This is really hard to do on paper; it is much easier to do if you see children live. It is very subtle and nuanced. I have to get very specific in my descriptions to impress upon people what I am trying to say. But if you take the distinguishing characteristics of any one or more milestone and plot them over age, you might start to see a pattern. Have you ever seen that commercial where people pin on a chart at what age they want to retire? I imagine it like that, except plotting at what age you saw X, Y, or Z behavior. I think veteran caregivers would be best at this. I’ve had several older woman, now grandmas, say they would love to try their hand at such a thing.
This is just an example of a chart. I wish I could have made the day on this chart be the horizontal axis instead of the vertical axis, but I couldn’t figure out how to do this, and my time here to write this up is limited. Sorry! But if you flip this chart on its side, you can see where the average is and where it starts to deviate. This is what I mean by we can start mapping the variability. I agree the schedule will not be the same for every child but pinpointing what drives that variability is possible and can be (somewhat) mathematically modeled. Of course there will be questions, biases, etc., but the point is to try, learn, and tweak. And science is never “settled.” Know that and constantly question everything that comes out.
I do not think we need to wait for a formal research institution to do this. You reading this could do this. You might invite a group of mothers to mark one particular distinguishing characteristic of a milestone in a database, wiki, or web form. Let people watch the results live–that would be fun. I have an enormous amount on my plate, and I have made the active decision that I cannot take something like this over. I can however write about it and hopefully inspire others.
3. High Tech Research
This is certainly beyond my current means, but if we could somehow scan a child’s brain right at the beginning of a milestone, it would give great insight. There is much research that understands how our subconscious, dreams, etc. work. For instance, in The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. van der Kolk writes:
Stickgold, Hobson, and their colleagues thus discovered that dreams help to forge new relationships between apparently unrelated memories.17 Seeing novel connections is the cardinal feature of creativity; as we’ve seen, it’s also essential to healing.
During the Preschool Milestones in the early 3s, children start to have very, very vivid nightmares. What is the relationship between this and “forging new relationship between apparently unrelated memories.”?
I have many thoughts on how understanding child development can help future trauma therapists. Most personality disorders, for instance, were set well before the age of 6. If you could identify when the trauma happened and what the likely brain development of the child was at that time, you might know what parts of their core mental-emotional personality was damaged and could use work. For instance, in the early 5s, they realize they “really exist” and they can “really die”–powerful stuff–all the while they evoke behavior that is irritating to adults. This is an explosive mix. What happens if they are shamed, punished, or abused in this time? My children projected out at this time: they reveled in pretending to be magicians, comedians, princes and princesses, etc. Would a person feel socially likable if they were abused during a time when this skill was blossoming? Perhaps the very activities I recommend in my Misbehavior is Growth series for that milestone would help an adult? For instance, I recommend letting the child tell knock knock jokes for an audience, while everyone laughs heartily, so they grow in their social confidence. A version of this for traumatized adults may very well help. See How Understanding Child Development Can Help Heal and Prevent Developmental Trauma.
There is nothing more important we can do than understand child development. Honestly, I am all but exasperated at the behavior that humans give to each other. When I try to challenge adults views on child development, ethics, or caregiving, I can’t get them to budge. I wrote a book, Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics, in which I challenge the idea that we need to “mold” children or humans into anything other than this tremendous human ideal that nature already gave us, which I document: these incredible age-related stages driving brain growth. I usually can’t get people to budge from their entrenched beliefs. They believe mothers already are supported enough and we already do enough for children and people who were abused need to “get over it.” I’m already nearly giving up on the ability to sway adults from their longheld beliefs. We must invest in child development. We must show people how happy and successful of children we can raise by understanding this amazing apparatus that drives their growth. We respect it and surf on it; we don’t try to change children. We realize what overwhelmingly negative effects there are if children are hurt or abused during these highly sensitive age-related milestones. The only path forward I see is doing more research on it and convincing people of its importance–including spouses, grandparents, teachers, everyone. I hope someday there is a document maintained by an international organization of the milestones, which is routinely updated with the latest.
I do what I can. I hope others can do more. Please share this link with anyone who might be interested.
I have a Feedback Form which you can use to contact me if you want (just fill in whatever for the age of child) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org