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Child Development

Water the Garden, Don't Mold the Clay: Childhood Is Not a Race

Childhood it is not a competition to achieve the most at the earliest age.

Key points

  • Allow your child agency and follow their lead when planning their free time.
  • It's OK if your child would rather not participate in an activity.
  • Each child develops at their own speed.
Source: L Feddes / iStock
Source: L Feddes / iStock

Parenting has the potential to feel like a competitive sport. When parents of young children meet up, there is often an individual who grabs the opportunity to list their child’s activities or accomplishments. It may feel less like a conversation, and more like a review of a child’s resume.

At elementary school pick up:

What is Taylor doing after school these days? We have been rushing from activity to activity with Ella—we want her to have every opportunity. She is playing soccer so she is exposed to organized sports, she continues her piano lessons, and we just started math enrichment so she’ll have a leg up as she gets older.

At back-to-school night:

We are so excited that Ella is going to sleep-away camp this summer for eight weeks! Teaching independence early is so important, don’t you think?

These comments, though they may be said innocently, have the potential to be anxiety-provoking if one thinks this approach is the recipe for successful child-rearing. There is a common misconception that an intensive schedule and introducing the child to myriad experiences as early as possible is a childhood ideal. Many believe this tactic is required for a child to grow up capable, independent, and successful.

As a child psychiatrist with more than 25 years of experience, I’m here to push back against this notion. Childhood is not a race of who can achieve the most at the youngest age. (I’m reminded of the 10-year-old boy who told me he “won the test” by handing it in first.)

Children who may shy away from certain activities when they are younger (certain afterschool activities and sleep-away camp, to name two) may have no issues with engagement, separation, and independence as young adults.

It is normal for children to grow and learn at different speeds. For voluntary extracurricular activities, imagine the child as the engine and the parents as the caboose. The parents can follow their children’s lead when they express readiness and interest. While there is nothing wrong with encouragement, it takes away a child’s agency if an adult schedules all their free time without their input.

The child who loves to draw may love an art class, or they may prefer to create freely at home. These are equally good options. There is no reason to push them to join the local soccer team if they hate to run. An active fourth-grader may love organized sports but may balk at spending an afternoon in accelerated math enrichment. When a child’s input is considered, they will feel understood and respected. In response, confidence will build.

This parenting style can be applied to burgeoning independence as well. I’m reminded of a 9-year-old girl who preferred to have playdates at her home or to have her mother or babysitter accompany her to drop-off playdates. Most of her peers had become skilled at this separation, but she needed more time to feel comfortable with this developmental milestone. Importantly, she had mastered the “must dos” at this age—going to school and to summer day camp (which was critical for her two working parents).

At a certain point, her parents became anxious as they compared her hesitancy to her peers’ increasing independence. “When do you think you will be ready to go to a friend’s house on your own?” they asked. A thoughtful child who had been encouraged to speak freely, she responded, “I’ll be ready when I’m ready.” Her parents continued to encourage her, but they didn’t push. By the end of elementary school, drop-off playdates were no longer an issue. Fast forward several years, and she enthusiastically launched to college and spent a junior semester abroad.

By going at her own speed with her parents' support, the child didn’t feel ashamed that her separation pace was slower than that of her peers. There can be a worry that all childhood struggles need to be “fixed” quickly or the individual will have this issue for a lifetime. Fortunately, a child at 8 years of age is not a mini version of their future 18-year-old self. Innumerable changes occur in 10 years of childhood. The brain myelinates while confidence is boosted by increased abilities, positive experiences, and supportive peers and adults.

D.W. Winnicott, a 20th-century British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who is often considered the father of child psychiatry, provides some wise words on this topic. His advice to mothers of babies applies to older children as well:

Some of you have created works of art… When you did these things, what turned up was made by you. Babies are different. The baby grows, and you are the mother providing a suitable environment. Some people seem to think of a child as clay in the hands of a potter. They start moulding the infant, and feeling responsible for the result. This is quite wrong. If this is what you feel, then you will be weighed down with responsibility which you need not take at all. If you can accept this idea of a baby as an ongoing concern you are then free to get a lot of interest out of looking to see what happens in the development of the baby while you are enjoying responding to his or her needs.

I view the role of the parent as a gardener, not as a potter creating a product out of clay. Our job is to tune in to our child and tune out unhelpful community expectations. Childhood is a unique time of wonder, exploration, and free play; it is not a competition to achieve the most at the earliest age. The child who is first to master independence or any specific skill does not “win the test.” Focus instead on providing a fertile environment where your child is safe and secure to grow at their own speed.


Winnicott, DW. (1964). The Baby as a Going Concern. In The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. Cambridge, UK: Perseus Publishing p 25–29.

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