Toronto Zoo

The Right Time Question

There’s a kind of question that comes up constantly when you’re talking about parenting. I call it the “right time” question, and it starts way before there are even kids around to worry about. You know the kind of question I mean –

What’s the right time to get married? What’s the right time to have kids? The right time to start sleep training? The right time to wean? To start solid foods? To start toilet training? Sleepovers? Babysitting? Dating? Sex? The list is endless.

And the answer is always, in every case, of course, that it depends. Every person, every parent, every child, every situation is so different, that it’s impossible to lay down some exact rule that will apply to all cases. Even in the very limited sample of my family of origin, some were married quite young, some were married quite late, and some have decided never to be officially married at all, but we all have relatively happy relationships, many of which are now longer than 20 years. In the even more limited sample size of my own children, one was ready to go without diapers through the night at two-years old, and another struggles to do so at 11. There aren’t any hard and fast rules here.

In some cases we can offer an average – most children toilet train between 18 and 36 months. In some cases we can offer recommended practices – children show benefits of breast feeding at last until the age of two years. And in some cases we have some informative research – the longer a relationship takes to become sexually active the longer it is likely to last. But none of this is definitive. We can all think of exceptions and provisos. That’s the nature of growing, and maturing, and living a life.

Unfortunately, that answer doesn’t sit very well with some people. I’ve had experiences, even with veteran parents, who’ve lived through these kinds of questions often enough that they should know better, where people get frustrated and angry at being told that there isn’t always an absolutely right approach a situation. Sometimes they’re just not sure of how to deal with a difficult problem that they’re facing, and they’re desperate for someone to give them an answer. Sometimes they’ve seen an approach work once and now think it should be applied in every situation. Sometimes they’ve had an approach handed down to them by family, culture, or religion, and they can’t imagine that any other way is possible.

The number of times I’ve had parents put their hands up in a workshop and say things like, “Just tell me when to start toilet training,” as if I was trying to hide some magic cure-all technique. Or “I knew someone who breast fed her kid until he was six, and now he’s sick all the time,” as if one example could possibly imply a correlation between the two. Or, “People should never get married until after they finish university,” simply because that was the position their own parents took.

The truth is that there is no magic solution to these questions. People develop differently. They’re ready for things at different times. The question to ask isn’t, when are all kids ready to read, but when is my kid ready? It isn’t, when are all kids ready to go on a date, but when is my kid ready?

And sometimes, even when they are ready, there are other factors involved beyond anyone’s control. My kid might be coordinated enough to skate, but if he broke his leg playing soccer, skating will need to wait until next year. My kid might be mature enough to get married, but if she hasn’t yet found someone worth marrying, there’s no point in pushing her.

We need to stop trying to determine the rules for when these things should happen, and start helping our kids negotiate these kinds of questions according to who they are and the situations they find themselves in. They may end up doing some things sooner and some things later than they other kids. In fact, they may end up not doing some of those things at all. But at least they’ll do things at the time and in the ways best suited to the individual persons they are.