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Parenting Through Your Child’s Developmental Changes: A Three-Part Series

by Hannah Ruth Wilde

photo: sabrina helas

As the school year rounds its curve towards summer, many children take a much needed breath of fresh air – otherwise known as spring break. It never fails to surprise me, when my elementary students return after two weeks, that quite a few noticeable changes have occurred.  The first is height.  Do the spring rain and longer days grow them faster?  Second, I see a higher level of self-possession. Perhaps they have finally gown into their grade level, only to sprout and ready themselves for the next.  Cognitive abilities noticeably advance as well.  Like bamboo that grows four inches a day – a growth that can actually be watched in real time - children change before our very eyes.  As parents, how do we keep up?


Part I: Cognition and Communication

photo: www.cgindy.comIn the twentieth century, for the first time, children were recognized not as simply small adults, but as human beings who grow through developmental stages into adulthood.  The cognition – mental processes such as thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem solving – of a child was recognized as different from that of an adult.  Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, widely respected for his work in this area, named four distinct developmental stages that influence the way children view and experience their world.

The early childhood parenting tome, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock, updated and revised by Robert Needleman, M.D. refers to these stages stating, “ Paying attention to your child’s level of thinking … Sensorimotor, Preoperational Stage, Concrete Operations, and Formal Operations … can help you communicate more effectively.”

Of course, each child develops at his own pace, and children are often in more than one developmental stage at a time. The following offers an overview of these stages with tips for successful communication with your child.


Sensorimotor Stage, Birth - 2 years

photo: sabrina helasPiaget expounded that children up to the age of two exist in the Sensorimotor Stage. Babies and toddlers explore the physical world around them and develop an understanding of concrete objects and experiences. Though preverbal, infants, of course, communicate. Crying is a baby’s way to signal the need for food and comfort.  Babies are listening to language and watching facial expressions carefully – until they emulate. There’s nothing like that first smile! Communicate back to your child with lots of physical touch, talking in soothing and happy tones, and natural expression. Take delight in those first words and sentences!


Pre-Operational, 2-6 years

Piaget named the Pre-Operational Stage for children ages 2-6 years.   Your toddler strings words together to create sentences. To help further language development, provide words that describe people, places, things, and actions.  (“I am putting on my socks now.”  “This is the zoo and we can see many animals.”) Now, expression of needs becomes possible through language.  (“I want a banana.”) Children will also want to share how they feel, but may not know how to say it.  Try to intuit feelings and apply language.  (“I can see you were hungry because you ate of all your banana so quickly.” “Are you sad because you lost your toy?”)

photo: sabrina helasIn this stage, children begin to form mental concepts.  A child may hold magical beliefs.  Imagination forms.  Pretending is paramount.  Children act out mental concepts and practice language through play.  Provide plenty of opportunities.

Children will begin to connect ideas - but connections may not make sense to an adult mind. (“It’s raining because the sky is sad.”)  Allowing your child to think and share freely is critical to his development.  You can gently correct misunderstandings when needed. Even though children begin to find reasons, lengthy logical explanations will not be helpful at this stage.  Try very simple statements that demonstrate cause and effect. (“Daddy is not sick because you were crying.  Daddy just caught a cold.”) Or take your child by the hand and show him.  (“See the dirt on your hands from playing outside?  We need to wash that so we can have a snack.”)

photo: tricia krefetzAlso during these growing years, a child may not be able to take the view of another person. He may refuse to share or appear insensitive when another child is crying. Parents sometimes worry that their child is selfish. Recognizing that egocentrism is a natural part of development can ease parental concerns and help alleviate frustrations a child may experience when trying to live up to unrealistic expectations.  Continue to teach your child about sharing; point out facial expressions and offer vocabulary for other’s feelings; and demonstrate your own feelings in simple ways to your child.  (“Daddy feels sad because I lost my favorite T-shirt.” “It hurts when daddy stubs his toe.”) In time, your child will assimilate these ideas and follow your modeling, demonstrating acknowledgement of others.


Concrete Operations, 7-11 years old

photo: tricia krefetzIn Concrete Operations children now have an ability to see the point of view of others.  They can fully understand that reasons exist for things they see, experience, or feel.  They may be occupied with right and wrong, spending large amounts of playtime configuring and debating rules for a game, rather than actually playing it!

Though children understand that reasons exist, they may tend to see things in black and white, and therefore may not always make accurate judgments. (“My friend didn’t ask me if he could take my baseball home.  He likes it and he’s stealing it.”) Support your child by recognizing and acknowledging feelings.  Then, offer logical reasoning and possible resolutions.  (“You seem very upset by this.  Maybe you forgot your baseball at school and your friend is saving it for you.  Shall we call and ask?”)




Formal Operations, 12 – adulthood

A child in this stage has accomplished logical reasoning and can apply thought beyond concrete experiences to the realm of ideas.  Abstract thoughts such as predictions and hypothetical ideas are possible.  Also, children can think along a continuum of time, incorporating past experiences into thought and making projections into the future.  Children understand multiple viewpoints and practice applying principles to everyday situations.  All of these developments offer new ways in which to communicate with your child. 

photo: sara pine

As your child reaches junior high school and beyond, he will have realizations and revelations about the world.  Rejoice in these!  Engage in and enjoy increasingly sophisticated thinking and conversations. Challenge each other in intellectual pursuits. (However, hold your boundary.  Don’t let your child use intellectual debates to change your parenting decisions.)  Engage with your teen as he explores worldly concepts such as social justice.  More and more, your teen will self-reflect and search for personal meaning.  In the past, he may have responded positively to being labeled a good student or basketball star:  now he may reject your praise in favor of his own self-definition.  Adjust your statements to reflect an understanding of the things he values about himself. (“I am so glad you feel happy about your performance in the musical concert.”) Remember, your child is headed towards adulthood now, but needs your involvement as much as during those precious baby years.

Future topics in Parenting Through Your Child’s Developmental Changes include faith, media, and money.

Hannah Ruth Wilde is an experienced educator and parenting consultant, having worked with children for over twenty years. Hannah specializes in supporting children who experience academic difficulties and social challenges; and who confront family transitions such as divorce.  Contact Hannah at

If there is another topic you would like addressed in this column, or if you have a specific question, please feel free to email Hannah.  Indicate Bamboo Family Magazine/Question in the subject line.  Hannah will be happy to offer parenting suggestions or refer you to other resources, as needed.  


References (3)

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    Parenting Through Your Child’s Developmental Changes: A Three-Part Series - Spring 2012 - bamboo magazine :: whole family living
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    Parenting Through Your Child’s Developmental Changes: A Three-Part Series - Spring 2012 - bamboo magazine :: whole family living
  • Response
    Parenting Through Your Child’s Developmental Changes: A Three-Part Series - Spring 2012 - bamboo magazine :: whole family living

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