Hills of Child Development—Toddlers

As I continued to do this work, I started to notice a pattern across the milestones—a pattern that several milestones clustered together, perhaps one to five at a time, kept falling into. Children seemed to go “up” into fantasy play when a core skill was developed, and then come back “down” to apply it to reality. I noticed it happening over and over.

I am excited for this. I think it can help you, as a parent, identify child development more intuitively. While this idea of “hills” may seem like a hard concept to understand at first, I promise it really isn’t. I also think, possibly, as you go on your parenting journey, it will help you identify developmentally critical behavior easier. Most hills are kicked off by highly noticeable behavior. When you see, for instance, your child treating fake things as real things, you know something is up. And I think it’s easier to think of 5-6 hills in one year’s time than 10-20 milestones.  

Here is how a hill works. What kicks it off is that Mother Nature gifts the child with wildly imaginative thinking that is overly optimistic in nature. The child all of a sudden believes they can do things that they cannot, nor can ever, actually do. My favorite example is one that occurs at age three, in which they think they can shrink into tiny objects. This is not something they’ll ever be able to do. But it is quite optimistic about their own capabilities.

They indeed cannot shrink, but this fantastical thinking, I argue, serves a developmental purpose. In thinking this, they are encouraged to try. In trying, they learn they can go only so far and then reality—some physical object—pushes back. And, in this example, as they try to get into a tiny toy train, they are getting really good at judging distance. Before this, they weren’t terribly good at judging distance. They thought they could reach up and grab airplanes. (I am indeed arguing that thinking they can shrink is what finalizes their depth perception.) Mother Nature gives them overly optimistic thinking, spurring them to go try to do something. Reality then says, “Nope! You can’t.” But in doing it, they develop tremendous skill sets.

The perfect metaphor for it is the little train from The Little Engine That Could coaching herself, “I think I can, I think I can,” as she tries get up over the hill. Children become highly optimistic—and, as such, go out and do things. They are gifted with some wildly optimistic, confidence-giving thinking, over and over.

In going up the hill, they are learning. It is, overall, a more happy and calm time—though, as they are learning, they can get quite possessive and rigid.

What kicks off the child going up the hill is overly optimistic thinking. What kicks off them going down the hill is that something frightens them. This original overly optimistic thinking goes too far. And what frightens them is related to their overly optimistic thinking. If they thought they can shrink, they become intensely scared that they might go down the bathtub drain (as they believe they can fit in the drain). Nightmares seem to coincide both with the Overly Optimistic Stage and the Frightened stage, but the Frightened Stage tends to see more daytime fears, as well as clumsiness and physical accidents.

And then in doing down, they apply their skill. I think being frightened by something makes them want more control over their reality. I know I want more control over things when I am scared, anyway. They become bold, aggressive, and wild.

Eventually they calm down. They are then back on the bottom of the hill. It’s a brief, extremely sunny period.

This is the general pattern of each hill, with all the sub-stages.

In general, each milestone is one point or points on a hill. Typically a few stages are in one milestone, such as the Frightened and Wild and Free stage going together. If I strung them out enough, I could probably break them down. However, this would be on a week-by-week or day-by-day basis. Here are the stages broken down.

Overly Optimistic Thinking: They think they can do something they cannot actually do. I always look for words like “thinks they can” when looking for this stage. This stage doesn’t always coincide with a milestone. It often slightly precedes a milestone, although it sometimes coincides with nightmares and a noticeable head shape change. It is otherwise typically a jovial time as they play around with their new thinking.

Gathering and Sorting Stage: They go and get what they need to learn what they now want to learn. They may sort what they get, physically or intellectually. This is this; that is that. New ideas thus become crystal clear in their mind. A milestone that is at the Gathering Stage may, as such, be marked by possessive behavior.

Playful Stage: They flex their new skill in a playful way. In the toddler years, this stage is delightfully obvious. They might playfully lie, pull pranks on you, or dress up in funky ways.

Frightened Stage: Their overly optimistic thinking goes too far. They are intensely scared of something. If they perceived a sense of time, they now fear leaving a fun thing—they know they’ll never get it back. If they realized they can predict a next event, which they do in an overly imaginative way at first, they are frightened their hair will fly off their head as you brush it. There is usually one particular incident on one particular day that is especially intense. Leading up to this one especially intense day is intense, fussy behavior. In other words, the frightening incident on one particular day was bound to happen.

Wild and Free: After being frightened, they now apply their skill to the reality around them. I wonder if a sense of “do or die” from the Frightened Stage spurs it. Either way, they are intense and energetic. Stuff in your house is likely to be rearranged and you are likely to be bossed around.

Evaluative: After being wild and free, they calm down a bit. They want to get things right. They can be cautious, deliberate, and sensitive to criticism at this stage.

Overconfident: Now they are back down on solid ground. They went up into fantasy play, tried out a new skill, and came back down. They are on solid, smooth ground, sashaying around. This is typically an especially sunny period. There are many sunny periods on each hill, but this one is just especially delightful. However, they can get overconfident. They have one skill but might be missing others. Hence, they can get sometimes get rigid, bossy, or even hypocritical in how they apply it.

Complex: Each new hill strengthens the previous hill. As they develop new skills at the next hill that they started, it adds complexity to the previous hill. It also makes up for whatever overconfidence they had previously.

Baking Stage: Each of the stages seems to set the scene for the next hill. Each “Overly Optimistic Thinking” needs some prerequisite skills.

The stages happen in this general order, but they do sometimes overlap. The Playful Stage all the way down to the Evaluative Stage often overlap especially.

So, with these stages in mind, here are the hills I have identified during the toddler years. Again, going up they are learning a skill. Going down they are applying it. As they go up the hill, they are gathering and sorting. As they go down, they are wild and free as they apply the skill. The uptick at the end of some hills is the Complex Stage. The new skills of the next hill get directly added to skills of the last hill.

You can see on the chart numbers on each hill. These are the milestones. Each milestone still shows both typically irritable (or irritating) behavior followed by distinct new skills. But the irritating behaviors are of a certain sort. When going up the hill, the irritable behaviors tend to be more of a possessive nature, of toys and of you. When going down the hill, the behaviors are wilder and more aggressive. I grouped milestones into A/B based on the hills. A/B is always either going or down. I usually only group milestones when they all but overlap with each other.

I do think parents will find the times at the top of the hill and just going down to be the most frustrating times. Think of sitting on top of a roller coaster and the moments right before you go down. It’s a wild time. And one day (and likely one incident) on each hill tends to be especially intense. I made a chart just to emphasize it.

Hills can overlap. In fact, the next hill is always starting before the last hill ends. One hill can start, creating intense behavior, and then sunny behavior is noticed for a few days, which is sunny behavior of the last hill. This made it a bit difficult for me to model child development in purely “Milestone” format. What I just described, the places where the hills overlap, can happen in less than one week’s time. I did my best in the milestones to capture this. Toddler Milestone 11 and 12 especially overlap a bit. Noticing the child’s head shape is, I found, the most certain way to know where you are at when this happens.

I did notice that some children seem to be entirely shifted in when they start a hill, compared to others. The “Applies a Correct X Action to Y Event” hill was especially hard to pin down. Some children enter this at 2 years 4 months and others closer to 2 years 6 months. This timeframe was the hardest to pin down, and I think simply because human nature develops more variably for this particular skill set. My research shows that children can start to vary in timing for some stages/milestones, then abruptly snap back to align with a more “average” timeline. Certain times in development are wonkier than others. I suspect an entire interesting field of science can be developed around that.  

However, even with the variability, by identifying it as a hill, I am quite excited. It allows you to look at behavior rather than the timeline. Once X event happens, a cascade of fairly predictable behavior will kick off. 

And to know where you are at in the hill, keep the behaviors related to the hill together. For instance, behavior related to making a deliberate decision pertains to the “Intelligent Decision Making” hill. Behavior related to timing, sequence of events, and applying a correct solution at a correct time pertain to the “Applies a Correction X Action to Y Event” hill.

One final thing about the general pattern of the hills. I find children tend to develop in a way that is both inwards and outwards. By inwards, I mean something about their character or personality develops. And by outwards, I mean they are able to maneuver outwards reality just a bit better. So, while the skills are a bit different, both sets, the inward and outward skills, seem to relate back to the same original Overly Optimistic Stage.

I will describe this, as best I can, as well as each sub-stage, in my descriptions of the Seven Hills of Child Development that I found for the toddler years. Here they are.

Hill 1: Self-Awareness

The first hill on the chart is a half of a hill. The rest of the hill occurs before 18 months, which is outside the scope of this book and analysis.

The first milestone, Toddler Milestone 1, at 18 months, is a wild and exuberant time, which is noticeably different than how they were previously, as a more docile infant. This suggests we are going down a hill. There is a language comprehension explosion at the first Toddler Milestone. They start to understand many, many more words. This understanding of words is, at its most basic, what I consider to be a “symbol.” The word “bottle” represents an actual bottle. The interplay between this—the symbol and the real thing—is what will grow in the next few milestones. It the very foundation on which we humans communicate—through symbols.

I didn’t do an intensive study of behavior before age 18 months, but I did flip through pictures and notes. Child behavior before age 18 months is a lot of mimicry, patterning, and getting their hands on things as they learn. I did notice a Patterning Stage (Gathering and Sorting) and a Wild and Free Stage before 18 months. Well before 18 months (around 9 months), children might match two spoons together, simply putting them together. This is an example of a Sorting Stage. Between then and 18 months, they might be a bit wild and free, hiding in cabinets, putting on your sunglasses, etc. They seem to be developing an understanding of objects themselves. This sets the stage to then understand that these objects can be represented by symbols.

And at this hill they can follow a request, based on using a word, so much better. If someone says “jacket,” the child may run and get theirs. So, we have application of a skill here. There is also an extremely noticeable sunny period, where they might, say, enthusiastically wave at strangers or drape silk pants around themselves enjoying it. This especially sunny period is the bottom of the hill.

As noted, skills tend to go outwards and inwards. Going outwards in this case is the ability to get a jacket after jacket is said. There is also a growth in inward development: they have a heightened self-awareness at this one. They, as noted, might drape silk fabric around them, walking around enjoying it as such. They seem to recognize themselves as such now. One study (referenced later) found children who look in a mirror with lipstick on their nose will rub it off of themselves rather than try to rub it off of the mirror (while looking in the mirror) starting around 18 months. There is an increase in self-awareness at this one. If we think of their consciousness and physical body as two separate things, it is easier to explain how their own consciousness is like a “symbol.” They become aware of their own physical being and that their consciousness belongs to that body at this one (and not the mirror). I see this increased recognition of self as a sort of symbol and related to self-awareness. Hence, I called this hill itself “Self-Awareness.”

Hill 2: Symbolic Thought

Starts: Around 19 months 2 weeks

Overly Optimistic Thinking: A belief they can manipulate symbols in any way

Each hill builds on the last. They started to use symbols in the last hill. Like a novice farmer who uses a shovel then looks down and starts to understand the shovel itself, now they are going to get good at symbols.

It is hard to ascertain quite what a child at 19 months 2 weeks is thinking, which is Toddler Mini-Milestone 2A. If my theory holds up, there would be some kind of overly optimistic thinking. And I propose at this age, their thinking must be something along the lines of, “I can play around with symbols!” To their liking—whatever it is. This is the essence of the very next milestone, Toddler Milestone 2B, anyway. They manipulate objects—string them together—in a way to represent something. They might be able to put together Mr. Potato Head’s face, for example. They string these several objects—which are otherwise just pieces of plastic—to mean something.

They also start to notice patterns in their everyday life. They might want to help you make coffee in the morning, and they remember all steps. Or they recognize that every morning you set the table for breakfast, and they initiate doing it. They are noticing things and putting them into patterns (sorting). This is a Gathering and Sorting stage.

They then start to play around with objects in ways other than for their original intended use. They might take their plate and use it as an airplane. This thing doesn’t have to be what it’s meant for. Isn’t that neat? It’s not a plate. It’s an airplane. Or they might put your dress on. This is Milestone 3A, “Mischief with Objects and Symbols.” It is a classic Playful Stage. Nearly coinciding with it is a Frightened Stage. It’s hard to ascertain what they are thinking at this young age, but they can become very out of sorts, confused, and cranky.

There is also then a distinct Wild and Free stage at Milestone 3B. They love to go around turning on and off all the light switches, finding and using stools, etc. They kick a bin over to act as a stool. Their mischief with objects has come in handy. They also get clumsy in through here, which is highly correlated with the Frightened and Wild and Free Stages.

They then get good at handling symbols. At Milestone 3B, Confident Manipulation of Symbols, they firmly know that symbols are symbols. They show they know that pretend play is just that and is silly. They also get picky about things; they want the shirt with sparkles on it or the one with an airplane on it. They are recognizing and understanding symbols and thus choosy. They also need to retain the idea that symbols matter to develop their data-driven decision making capability, the next hill.

They eventually go on to get much better about regulating their own behavior, such as placing their spoon down at a right spot when they are done eating. Again, there is always inwards and outwards development. There is another extremely delightful sunny period at the end of 3B around 22 months 2 weeks. They might hide behind a door and fully expect you to come find them. The ecstatic joy that comes from them, when say excited to cuddle after a bath, is of note. This is again the bottom of a hill.

So now they are aware not just of symbols but that symbols are symbols. A symbol can relate to its actual object—or not. But it might be better that it in fact does. Next up is using these symbols to make data-based (intelligent) decisions.

Hill 3: Intelligent Decision Making

Starts: Around 23 months

Overly Optimistic Thinking: A belief that things should always go the way they imagine

There is a growth in memory that kicks off this hill (Milestone 4: Memory Expansion). They remember a greater amount of information and they remember more about the past. They might sing an entire song now. They can answer what color something is, without seeing that something. They might remember the way something was done yesterday and want it done that way again. If you weren’t the one to do that thing with them yesterday (and thus don’t know how it was done), it can cause problems.

I notice in child development that an increase in memory and an increase in imagination coincide. Memory relates to the past: you remember something about what happened previously. Imagination relates to the future: you envision something that might happen. And in child development, they grow hand in hand. An increase in memory always means an increase in imagination. Or maybe it’s vice versa, I’m not sure.

 So, it’s clear they have an increase in memory at this milestone. You can easily observe it as they remember more and more. And they also have an increase in imagination. At this one, they can envision one simple end goal. So, say you have a toy with disparate parts that only goes together a certain way. Some plastic train sets are this way. They can envision the end product and keep persisting until they finish it (at Milestone 5: Persistent and Insistence). They can similarly put their own face into a cute expression, suggesting they know the end goal and work towards it (think of a purposely cute pouty face).

I propose this increase in imagination might be the Overly Optimistic stage that kicks off the hill. It seems like they can imagine something going one way. And they think it should go the way they imagine. As such, they are overly optimistic about their ability. For instance, a hula hoop rolling down the stairs should always go the exact same way each time you roll it. They have the image in their head of what it “should” do—and reality stubbornly keeps defying them. Or when any other adult pushes a stroller, they have to do it like their mother does it. They think they can imagine how things go and thus try to engineer how everything should go.

There is then a delightfully Playful Stage. In general, I imagine the Gathering Stage as like them going and getting a plate to play around with. During the Playful Stage, it is as if they raise that plate up on a pole and spin it around, just to see what happens. At this hill, they can make deliberate decisions. And in the Playful Stage, they play around with that. They might deliberately hide on purpose. They are making a decision and fully expect you to visualize the end goal—finding them—as you figure out where they are.

The Frightened Stage for this hill depends on circumstances. They seem to have a sense when things should be somewhere but are not. For instance, say you took a drawing of theirs off of the refrigerator. This might upset them. Or perhaps more frightening for them, a friend of theirs moves away or an older relative dies. They know what “isn’t there” much better now. They may also have fears at night or when they wake up at night, which coincide with a Frightened Stage.  

Then they apply their new skills. Towards the end of this one, they can make deliberate, data-driven decisions. They can understand that if there is a picture of a strawberry on the cup of yogurt, it means there is strawberry yogurt in it.

Hill 4: Deliberate Creativity

Starts: Around 2 years 3 months

Overly Optimistic Thinking: A belief that fake things can be manipulated as real things

Now they deal with symbols fairly well and even make data-driven decisions with them. Mother Nature now comes in and turbo charges their imagination.

This hill starts off with them thinking that fake things are real things (7A). They’ve been spending almost their whole life up to now holding small objects and manipulating them—then matching these things to symbols of these things. Now it’s as if objects themselves come to life for them. They think a Styrofoam pumpkin is a real pumpkin—and, yes, they might take a bite. They see a picture of a fork in a book and pretend to use it as a real fork. They also might do something odd, such as “scrape” your face and “sprinkle” it around, as if your face is pixie dust. They treat fake things as real things. Or, perhaps, perceptually it seems as if those fake things have “raised up” for them, as if it’s a hologram. It’s as if they start to “juggle” with these fake things, often symbols, such as a picture in a book, in their mind. Either way, it spurs enormous creativity.

The next milestone, 7B, is Deliberate Rearranging and Creation. This is a Playful, Frightened, and Wild and Free Stage all in one. In this one, they can build a creative thing from a “script.” They can, for instance, put on a play from a book, using the pictures in the book to guide them. In the Playful Stage, they can twist the play around. They can declare that the Prince doesn’t love Cinderella. He now loves your daughter. Cinderella is as real to your daughter as she is herself. There is no reason, in her mind, that she can’t be substituted. In their imaginative play, they seem to think they are Snow White or Thomas the Train. They may also playfully lie, such as purposely giving a wrong answer to a question asked. Isn’t it so funny that you CAN think that?

There is a very noticeable Wild and Free Stage at this milestone. They rearrange everything in your house: opening mini-blinds, opening your eyelids, rolling themselves in rugs, etc. Fake things are real things to them and real things may as well be fake. Your eyelids are here mostly to help in their mental development; they aren’t terribly “real” to the child yet.

And there is also a very noticeable Frightened Stage. Thinking fake things are real things easily lends itself to a Frightened Stage. Fake things can act in any way at all. If some things, such as a scary fake shark, were real, it would be quite frightening. They also drool more and become clumsy. Clumsiness and physical accidents, I find, tend to go with the Frightened and/or Wild and Free Stage.

Towards the end of Milestone 7, closer to 2 years 5 months, there may be a few especially sunny days. This is the classic sign of the bottom of a hill.

They are soon going to go through another hill, but I’d like to pause here. A child is now around 2 years 5 months. Less than a year ago, they were just beginning to get a jacket after “jacket” was said. Now they are making up their own plays with creative twists. Lots of stuff happened in this time. Mother Nature is a lot of things, but lazy is not one of them.

Hill 5: Applies Correct X Action at Y Time

Starts: Around 2 years 6 months (varies more widely)

Overly Optimistic Thinking: An ability to connect one event to another or to a time

This one starts at Milestone 8A: Inference. This hill and these milestones were the hardest to pin down and seem to vary more in timing. But understanding to look for behavior might help make sense of what is going on.

At this one, they can make an educated guess about what is happening. If the garage door just opened, it probably means Daddy is home. If their brother’s door is closed in the morning, it probably means he is still sleeping. Note they cannot predict a next event—that’s the very late twos or early threes. They can guess about what just happened, not what happens next. There is a logical sequencing now, “This happens so it probably means____.”

They also just got done having a wild imagination in which they could think anything they wanted, where the fake and the real were fused together in their mind. That thinking starts to dissipate now, suggesting its work is done. Their fantastical thinking tends to dissipate because they need for those previously fantastical things to become real. Before, fake things were real things. But now they are going to apply solutions to problems. So, they need those outwards real-life problems to be real again.

They now put things in a sequence of events. Milestone 8B is Sequence of Events. Note some children seem to go through 8A and 8B at the same time—and some go through it before the timing I list. But things happen in a particular order for them now. And they are rigid at first. You will put both of their socks on first, then their shoes. The Gathering and Sorting Stage, in which they sort out what is what in reality and in their mind, is often rigid in nature.

This one also easily lends itself to a Frightened Stage. They have a sense of time now. If they leave the playground, they know they are never getting that moment back. You can pretty well expect at least one meltdown pertaining to leaving something fun during this hill.

They can apply solutions to problems in a 1:1 way, at a correct time or place. They have logical inference now. If a baby is cold, maybe they can get him or her a blanket. When they get to a road, they recognize they have to look before crossing.

At Milestone 8B, they get intellectual about the process. They don’t just intuitively see a problem and move to fix it. They might talk about the event itself. They might even start to use the word, “because.” “I am not going to ____, because ____.”

At the very next milestone, Creative, On-the-Spot Problem Solving (Milestone 9), this grows in complexity. They can pick from many solutions to solve a problem, not just one. They might even openly talk about the problem solving process. As they sit in your lap, they come up with problems and solutions, “What if the baby is crying? What should we do?” As their eyes scan around, actively thinking, “I know! A bottle!” As they build train tracks, they might backtrack, changing what they previously did because they didn’t like it. They are flexible and creative in solving problems.

The transition from inference to creative problem solving eloquently shows how each hill works. Before it was “I am holding an umbrella.” Now it’s, “It is raining so I should get an umbrella.” They go up the hill—learning. Then down the hill—applying.

There is always an inwards and outwards development. Solving problems with more creativity is the outwards development. Inwardly, they apply some of these ways of being to themselves. They might pretend they are a crane for days on end. They also might purposely pose now, throwing their whole body into it. They might shoot you a purposeful devilish look after successfully building a tower or pretend to be a detective solving a murder mystery. This is a very cool, confident stage, the especially sunny period that ends a hill.

Hill 6: Short-Term Planning

Starts: Around 2 years 9 months

Overly Optimistic Thinking: Can connect a pattern between two things that are not in sight

So, we now have a child who knows “what’s up.” They can evaluate the (basic) scene around them (fairly) well. They use data to make decisions and now they have a semblance of understanding past, present, and future. Now they are going to start planning. They have figured out things go a certain way—and they want to make sure that way goes pretty well for them.

This one starts with an ability to compare two things not in sight. Or, at least, to compare one thing in sight to another not in sight. They could think of things not in sight before, such as they want their sparkly shirt, which is in the laundry. But now they make connections between what they are thinking about. They might see a tomato and remark that it looks like an apple. They can also remember something that happened in the morning and talk about it in the afternoon. They also reliably execute instructions better, with more persistence, such as “Stay on this safe spot over there.” I call this “Persistent Imagination and Execution,” which is what I named Milestone 10. It is a definite Sorting Stage.

They also play around with how things can be executed. They argue with you that the bacon in the oven can take one minute to cook, not seven. This is a definite Playful Stage. They play around with what can be done; this time as it relates how short-term events can go.

As they get better at short-term plans, they are wildly off about it at first. At Milestone 11, Short-Term Planning, they get better at the timing of what is going on in the immediate moment and near future. But at first, it goes terribly. They have a very thwarted sense of time or if things were completed. They ask you to do something and if it’s not done in microseconds, they are upset. Their head gets stuck in a shirt and they start wailing about it—20 seconds later. They boss you around down to inches: you have to sit exactly here, not there. If you imagine a broken clock with two hands wildly spinning around, this is how I imagine their brain at this stage. Perhaps they can notice patterns in two things and across time, but they get the timing wrong in their mind.

And it’s quite the “Frightened” Stage. They look scared of many things that happen. They think hair will fly off their head as you brush it. They are totally out of sorts.

It is both a frightening time and a wild and free time. Milestone 11, around 2 years 10 months, is very difficult. There is a very delightful, but extremely brief sunny period at the end of this, which lasts for only a few days. They are very good at planning and sticking with events. They might help their brother who just fell off of a bike, sticking with it until he is back up and well again. Or they constantly help you while on a walk as things go wrong (the stroller gets stuck, etc.). It is very endearing.

Hill 7: Predictions

Starts: Around 2 years 11 months

Overly Optimistic Thinking: A belief that they can always predict what happens next

We are again at a half of a hill. The second half of the hill occurs after age three and is included in the three year old book. The child can now predict what’s about to happen. As a teaser, I describe the first half of the early threes as if they are a rat in a maze trying to get the cheese. They are an intelligent rat, but the skills relate mostly to strategically moving around in a 2-D space.

It starts with Milestone 12, Imaginative Predictions. They take a guess as to what is about to happen. Someone is jiggling their doorknob; when we open it, “will it be a monster!?” This is overly optimistic thinking. They think they can guess what is about to happen next, and they don’t quite care how right or wrong they are.

They like to make predictive solutions at this one. They love to be a backseat driver and give you turn-by-turn directions to get to the grocery store. They make up problems and think of solutions, “Which should I use tonight? A fork or spoon?”

There is a strong Gathering and Sorting at this milestone. They notice more and sort more. They notice that a toy train left tracks on the carpet. This will again transform. For now, it’s, “A train left tracks on the carpet.” Soon it will be, “Tracks were left on the carpet. A train must have been here.” They sort their toys at one abstraction higher, as well, such as race cars versus “spectators.”

This sorting and gathering continues at the first Three Year Old Milestone. Three Year Old Milestone 1 is “Speculation and Mental Sorting.” They make decent guesses about what you are going to do next or what happened. We’re going to see ducks—maybe we could feed them. They continue to have a sense that things float—and they, thus, want more control over their reality. This speculation capability eventually leads to an ability to pivot in how they make plans, and much more. I leave the rest of this hill and the hills thereafter for the book on three year olds. 

A New Model for Thinking of Child Development and Human Success

And so those are the hills of child development for the toddler years, ages 18 months to 3 years (ending at 3 years).

I am, again, quite excited for them. It is easier to intuitively understand 5-6 hills over the course of a year than 10-20 milestones. I think it will give parents a more intuitive feel for their child’s development.

It also explains why behavior is sometimes hard to pin down—why skills mix and match in the milestones. First, the hills do overlap a bit. But, also, the sub-stages in each hill also overlap or sometimes happen in a different order than I list—again, especially the Playful into the Wild and Free Stages. And yet in defining it as a hill with its sub-stages, even if the behaviors pop up in different orders, it becomes more intuitive to identify.

If my theory holds up, I think we should quite marvel at human development. A certain irrational optimism is built right into human nature. We humans get good at things not because we planned out a course of action and are certain of the results. Rather, we completely overestimate our abilities. And, yet, in it, we make magical things happen—refining and updating as life offers us feedback.

Finally, I think this can truly change how we parent and educate. Modern humans (in the west especially) focus far too much on the application of skills. We don’t value–or perhaps don’t understand–the importance of that wildly fantastical thinking that precedes the application of those skills. The fantastical thinking is seen as “lying” or whimsicalness and is often even punished.

If we can capture this fantastical thinking—by understanding it and upholding it as a valuable part of ourselves—we can get on that wave and ride it. We can meet children where they are developmentally and help develop the astonishing potential in them. Both the fantastical thinking and the wild application of it go towards what is valued anyway: a capable adult human.

To misbehaving—and growth!

This new research will appear in the SECOND EDITION of Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years. At that page, I’ll note when this is available, but I expect it to be available by the end of February 2021.

A growing series: I got your back!

I am excited for this research on the hills of child development. I think it can get people talking and change parenting and education for the better. This blog post will be a chapter in the 2nd edition of Misbehavior is Growth: Toddlers. I offer it for free as I hope people will share it and talk about it.

Amber studies age-related child development. Send your friends to www.theobservantmom.com

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