I had a mother ask me a couple of weeks ago about her pre-school child’s education. She was worried that he would not be ready for pre-K because they had not been specifically working on what are commonly thought of as “pre-K” skills. I reassured the mother that he will likely be fine, and that the best thing she can do for him is to read to him often.
Afterward, I considered the emphasis that we place as a society on meeting specific milestones in education. Can my child tie their shoe, or count to 20 or read sight words? As a mother, these were things that I questioned over and over. They are usually good things, but I have learned as I have aged as a parent and general observer of children, that checkboxes will not tell the full story of the child. As a parent, I have to look at my child as far more than a series of checkboxes to proceed through as they age. My child is a person, with all of the same faculties that I have, but without the knowledge of the world that I have gained over my years.
“But Dr. Jackson,” you might protest, “you use checkboxes when I see you in clinic. You ask questions and use checkboxes when I bring my child for a well child check.” And herein is the great dilemma – for a pediatrician, for a therapist, for a teacher, etc., we see many different children many times in a day, and in order to process all of that information for all of those children, we use heuristics. We take information about an “average” child and make some checkboxes that help us to shortcut so that we can help identify outliers. For example, if a child cannot read sight words at the age of 5, he is probably fine. If he still can’t read easy sight words at the age of 9, there may be some interventions that I could suggest to help, such as testing for dyslexia. But it may also be that he is just learning on his timeline, and that he will get it eventually. I will not be able to figure that out in one meeting, but my checkbox may help me to identify an area where I can offer a suggestion.
However (and this is a big however), every child is a person. My child is going to be different from your child, even if they check all the boxes all the same. As a physician, I will use checkboxes, but I don’t expect parents to use checkboxes. In fact, I would encourage them not to use checkboxes. Your child can’t be quantified because he/she has a soul and a mind that is unique and amazing. As a pediatrician, I will only know a fraction of how amazing your child is. I may ask you a series of questions that seem to be completely unrelated to all of the cool things your child does. I don’t mean to point out deficiencies, I am just trying to process information as efficiently as I can. But if my questions aren’t getting to the heart of your child, feel free to point it out. “These are the ways my child is amazing, doctor” is a phrase I would love to hear. Maybe he has compassion and love for God’s animal creatures. Maybe she gives the best hugs ever. Maybe he plays a mean air guitar. There are so many ways that children can be amazing that I don’t have a checkbox for. Sometimes in medicine, we need to focus on areas for improvement, and help maximize our resources for growth. And sometimes, we need to celebrate where children don’t fit in checkboxes.
Be flexible, be smart and be patient. You can do this.
Katie Jackson, M.D., is a pediatrician at Utica Park Clinic Claremore.