Forced vs. Natural Milestones

As parents, we hear what “experts” claim to be average ages that children meet milestones in our culture. We then tend to compare our children to these averages and push them to reach them out of fear that they aren’t living up to the cultural norm or standard. When many people first discover Radical Unschooling, in which a family lives in a partnership paradigm, they may become fearful when their children aren’t reaching milestones that children raised in an authoritarian paradigm are. This sometimes causes parents to drop the option of Radical Unschooling all together out of fear that their children will be left behind, or never reach their potential.

The truth is, there is a very different curve to look at as parents who respect children in their natural learning and growth. Children raised in partnership have a completely different range of normal, or average than the cultural norm, and it is so important to realize this so you stop comparing your children to those raised in a paradigm that has unrealistic expectations of what is thought of as normal.

I have compiled research, from over two-hundred Radical Unschooling families who I have worked with, to share what the averages for natural readiness for learning and growth looks like in a home where the child’s autonomy, choice and freedom is respected. The answers may surprise you!

Child Carried or Worn by Parent:
A baby’s desire to be held close by a parent is innate and strong. In our culture it isn’t generally promoted or respected. It is thought to damage a child and make them too dependent. However, this is untrue. In fact, a child who is worn until they are crawling or walking has their dependent needs met, and therefor become more innately independent once their dependent needs are respected and met . This is an average of how long a child is worn/held/carried in a parents arms, rather than spending their time in a baby seat/contraption.
Controlled/Authoritarian approach: – 3 days old – 3 months old
Natural/Partnership approach: Birth – 3 years old

Controlled/Authoritarian approach: 6 months – 12 months
Natural/Partnership approach: 3 years – 5 years old

Solid Food as a Regular Source of Nutrition:
Controlled/Authoritarian approach: 6 weeks – 6 months
Natural/Partnership approach: 12 months – 2 1/2 years old

Sleeping Through the Night:
Controlled/Authoritarian Approach (crying-it-out or other “gentler” parent-led methods) – 6 weeks – 4 months old
Natural/Partnership Approach – 2 1/2 years – 4 years old

Using the Toilet / Potty Training:
Controlled/Authoritarian Approach – 18 months – 2 1/2 years old
Natural/Partnership Approach – 3 years to 5 years old

Needing Help Getting Clean in the Bathroom:
Controlled/Authoritarian Approach – 2 years old -4 years old
Natural/Partnership Approach – 5 years to 7 years old
*This is not to say that the children raised in the authoritarian group were actually clean. In my studies the parents refused to help them after these ages and the kids were left to do it for themselves.

Sleeping Alone in Separate Room From Parent:
In my research I found the biggest contrast in this particular comparison. Children left to cry-it-out, or with parents who used other methods of gentler sleep training were not respecting their child’s desire to be close to them at night. They in fact, ignored this need, often times out of fear of what others would think of them.

Controlled/Authoritarian Approach – 2 weeks old – 6 months old
Natural/Partnership Approach – 8 years to 13 years old

Reading & Writing:
Controlled/Authoritarian Approach – 5 years old -7 years old
Natural/Partnership Approach – 9 years to 14 years old

As you can see, there are vast differences in ages that children reach milestones when they are respected in their needs/desires, compared to the cultural norms, or the authoritarian paradigm. It is important to understand that when children are respected in the natural process, they DO reach milestones and grow – but it is when they are truly ready to do so. When forced or coerced into milestones and growth before they are naturally ready, it is not without consequence for the child, as well as the parent/child connection. In my work, I have noticed many short and long-term negative side-effects of parent-forced “milestones.”

Observed Psychological Effects Of Children Raised in an Authoritarian Paradigm:

Low self-esteem
Hesitant or apprehensive about anything new
Unsure of themselves
Aggression and hostility
Bouts of excessive anger
Poor relationships with others
Engaging in drugs and/or alcohol
Eating disorders
Failure to thrive
Panic attacks
Repeated self-injury
Sense of dissociation
Bad dreams/Night Terrors
Intense and Irrational Fears
Headaches and stomach aches
Self neglect
Sexual dysfunction

When children are respected and supported in their natural learning curve, they grow up, whole, healthy human beings.
There is a large range of what is normal for milestones through a child’s various stages in life. If parents can support these stages with love, compassion and partnership, children will not suffer negative side-effects of forced milestones later in life. When we respect a child’s natural growth, it is truly an investment in their emotional and physical well-being. Yes, it takes more time and effort to work in partnership with our children to honor their natural readiness for each of these milestones, but it is an investment in who they become for the rest of their lives. When we follow the authoritarian paradigm and focus on the parents needs for ease, convenience and control, it does damage that the child will forever carry with them. Most of us are living examples of this! Let us take the time now, to honor the wide-range of readiness for each stage in a child’s life and in doing so, we give them the greatest gift we can give another human being – the gift of feeling whole and happy in adulthood.

When my children are grown, they will not need to spend their adult years healing from the first two decades of their lives.
~Dayna Martin

Photo: Shutterstock/Alena Ozerova

  1. Julinda says

    I like this! I’m not an unschooler (my kids are in public school) but I let them do things at their own pace (my tagline on a parenting site is “They’ll do it when they’re ready”) and they did them a lot later than the mainstream “norm.” They were breastfed until they stopped on their own (well the older one had a little bit of gentle nudging at just past 6 yrs, the younger one stopped at 3 yrs 7 months). They also took a bottle (I work outside the home) and the younger one did that until he was 5 – he was “Daddy’s boy” so liked Daddy giving him a bottle better than Mommy nursing him. Neither used the toilet until about age 5, and we still helped wipe the younger one until he turned 7 recently. (I mean really, is their some sort of law that all kids must be potty-trained by 2 or 3? Was that in the 10 Commandments or the U.S. Constitution? Parents often act like it.) They are both ahead of peers in reading/writing but that sort of runs in my family. I know going to school takes away the “at their own pace” – in our case it’s holding them back rather than pushing them but I know for many kids it’s the opposite and I hate that even more. I wish school was very different! Anyway, sorry for the long post but it’s just so nice to see a list of milestones that validates what I’ve done with my kids!

  2. Anna says

    I loved this article. I’m (somewhat painfully) still nursing my just-turned-three daughter through my second pregnancy. Just wanted to mention about potty training: with the practice of Elimination Communication (which I think is totally compatible with unschooling and attachment parenting, as it’s a practice of paying attention to a baby’s needs and cues, like you do with breastfeeding) there’s never really a need for potty training. The baby never learns to disregard her own sense of her bodily elimination needs, never becomes “diaper-trained,” and so there’s a continuum from infancy to total toilet independence. It’s pretty cool, and we’re planning to do it again with our second. In case anyone’s interested in learning more, there are a ton of good sites out there and good books.

  3. Julie Yates says

    I have been homeschooling mine for over a year. My son has some apparent features of ASD, although he didn’t develop obvious differences before state school and all the stress it caused. Now homeschooling, I find myself troubled by parents who claim to be unschooling or allowing their children to be autonomous, when in fact, their children, at times behave violently and abusively towards other often vulnerable children. Fine for some unless your child is on the wrong end of it. Is this radical unschooling or blatant parental failure? Some clarity would be appreciated as I feel some are openly disregarding the welfare of others in the name of radical unschooling…..or allowing their children to be autonomous. Does the research not suggest little thugs turn into big thugs and prevention is better than cure?

  4. Lisa says

    Well it seems it would all have to do with the way people act around their children. You find the same kind of actions from children that attend public school, so why the attack on unschooling, and not both? In this case I’d have to say its the interaction the kids receive from their parents and people around them, and nothing to do with the fact that they are unschooled.

  5. Steve says

    Hi Julie,
    I understand your frustration at seeing one child get rough with another, however it must be clear to you that the cause of violence and abusiveness is not the permissiveness, but the example of violence and abuse the child has been given (whether at home or otherwise). Unschooling does not preclude a loving family environment. I suggest to you that the issue at hand is the example the violent child has been given, rather than the “permissiveness” that followed. Let’s also remember that we (almost all of us) come from the paradigm of spanking and “do what i say or else” control parenting. Most of us are trying to shed this conditioning and create a better world, but compassion, not condemnation is what is required in the meanwhile so we don’t slide backwards into resentment.



  6. Amy says

    What about children who just naturally do things earlier than others without any coaxing / forcing / prompting? My girls are gently parented, and all three slept through the night very early on (before 3 months, differing ages for each girl but all before 3 months), they now sleep in their own room, two of them from very early on (one month) and one of them from 7 months, they happily go to bed at 4yrs, 3yrs, and 9.5 months and sleep the night there, occasionally waking for one thing or the other and us meeting their needs rapidly, gently and attentively… The big two toilet trained before 18 months (again different times for each girl, but both before 18 months) of their own accord – they hated nappies and nappy changes and wanted undies and toilet s we went with it, i was neither ready nor prepared but we went with it and what do you know, in a week they were dry day and night and taking themselves to potty without help. I think this sort of list can be helpful as a guide to people who are “worried” about their kids “not doing thing fast enough” and good to encourage them to slow down and let their child set the pace… but so strictly labeling some times frames “authoritarian” and others ”peaceful / gentle” makes it hard to read for some of us who have very peacefully parented children who met milestones extremely early without any forcing at all…

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