photo by Staff Sgt. Courtney Richardson
Growing and Learning Beyond “Normal”
Is there such thing as a normal two, three, or six year old? Actually, the science is pretty shaky.

We are a culture obsessed with age-related norms.

This was brought home to me when my wife and I went for a doctor’s check-up for our two-year-old son, Lachlan. While waiting for our name to be called, we were given a survey to fill out, called the ASQ3, with all sorts of questions about Lachlan’s motor abilities, sleep patterns, and even a question about — I’ll paraphrase — how we believe his oral communication compares to his same-aged peers.

Like I imagine is every child’s profile, Lachlan “scored well” on some things and “less well” on others. When reviewing our scores with us, our well-meaning physician’s assistant drew our attention to a particular item Lachlan scored “less well” on, and gently proposed that we think about bringing in a specialist to make sure he does not fall behind his same-aged peers.

If Lachlan goes to school, he will continue to feel the intensifying brunt of our age norms. K-12 curriculum, especially in the age of standardization, tends to be built around curriculum designed with age norms in mind. Six year olds should be learning (and be ready to learn) this. Seven year olds should be learning that. Should Lachlan be ahead of these expected time schedules, he might be labeled “gifted and talented” or “precocious.” If he falls behind, there is a good chance he could be diagnosed with a learning disability (the diagnoses for which tend to be explicitly tied to a comparison of a learner’s ability to the norm for that age).

My intent is not to write a piece about how I never want my child to be considered “below average” or about the audacity of a physician’s assistant to suggest that my son should see a specialist. But, as chances have it, I happen to be a professor in a College of Education who, as further chances have it, is familiar with the literature on how age norms developed in the United States. For those reasons, I had to hold my tongue during the meeting with our physician’s assistant.

According to historian Howard Chudacoff, it wasn’t really until the 1840s and the development of age-graded schools (first grade, second grade...) that we culturally started grouping kids together by age to learn the same things at the same time. Says Chudacoff, “It was in that [common school] movement that age-grading first became extensively formalized in the United States.”1 In other words, in historical terms, age-grading is a relatively new phenomenon (in the US and elsewhere) that has everything to do with the establishment of schools.

Before that, most schools were one-room schoolhouses (or private academies) that tended to have kids of many different ages in the same room. Teachers would have students learn a particular lesson from a book (usually by memorizing the chapter), and once they could “recite” the lesson to the teacher’s satisfaction, they moved to the next one. It wasn’t a great education, but it was one where a five and a ten year old could work on the same lesson at different speeds and no one would think it odd.

Early childhood specialist Ada Anbar describes a similar situation when discussing the age at which children historically learned to read. “Before the days of compulsory schooling,” she notes, “the answer was relatively simple. Since parents had the responsibility for their children’s education, they made the decision at what age to start teaching them.”2 That means that some kids learned at three, others at ten, and still others everywhere in between. It was only after compulsory schooling came about that Anbar says we settled, somewhat arbitrarily, on six as the age children were developmentally ready to read.

In the 1840’s, school reformers wanted to create larger and more orderly schools, and one way to do that was to create an age-graded system. If you want many students to be able to learn effectively from one teacher, the best way to do it is to replicate the newly-created Prussian school system reformers admired: design a system where a bunch of kids in the same room, presumed to have similar abilities, can receive the same instruction at the same time and move through school together. Age-grading came to America.

This decision, though, had nothing to do with any existing science of human development. It was about organizational efficiency. The science that backed up these age norm assumptions only came about in the 1920s, which as historian Paula Fass writes, “witnessed an earthquake of advice that spoke to and elevated parental anxieties about how best to raise children in newly ‘modern’ and scientific ways.”3

The scientist who did the most to solidify the idea of age norms was physician Arnold Gesell. As Fass puts it, Gesell’s laboratory tasked itself with observing children to detect the laws of development at work, “link them to a finely graduated hierarchy of age (especially during the first few years), and to define what could be expected of normal children and how these could be monitored.”3 Gesell’s research on these alleged norms was a huge success; in the 1940’s he wrote numerous parenting books (with titles like The Child from Five to Ten) and authored a newspaper column on child rearing.

Several researchers challenged Gesell’s research both at the time and after his death in 1961. A common criticism was that the group of children he observed to get these norms was less than diverse. That is, he based his observations on a small group (“50 or more”) children from a “small Connecticut town.”4 In his books on school-age children, another crucial thing to note is that all the children surveyed were currently in school, where they were already treated according to age norms. That means that any intellectual trends Gesell observed in, say, seven year olds could at least partly be the result of the curriculum given to all first or second graders at the particular schools.

A more interesting criticism comes from a developmental psychologist named Todd Rose, whose recent book The End of Average discusses the limits of thinking in averages altogether. Rose reminds us that an averages tell us more about the group than about any individual in the group.

Think of it this way. I could go into a room and get the average height of the people there by adding everyone’s height together and dividing by the number of people. The resulting average doesn’t tell us anything about anyone’s actual height in the room; there is even a good chance that no one’s height in that room matches the average height of the room. Averages are great for some things, but not necessarily for talking about individuals within a group. Researcher Todd Rose illustrates the point like this:

If you’re comparing two different groups of people, like comparing the performance f Chilean pilots with French Pilots, – as opposed to comparing two individuals from each of these groups – then the average can be useful. But the moment you need a pilot or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide to hire that employee – the moment you need to make a decision about any individual, the average is useless.5

To his credit, Gesell cautioned readers about something like this: “The maturity traits [in this book] are not to be regarded as rigid norms, nor as models... Every child has an individual pattern of growth unique to him.”4 Yet, after doing this, he goes on to describe the characteristics of each age group in sweeping generality, as if everyone of a particular age is supposed to be where he describes. Here are some examples from his description of the average six year old.

  • “Certainly, he is inexpert in handling complex human relationships, as he once was inept in putting a spoon into his mouth. He frequently misses the mark.”
  • “At no age are children more insistently interested in parties; at no age, perhaps, are they less competent to produce a party agreeable to adult ideals of decorum.”
  • “Learning to utilize symbols in reading, writing, and arithmetic is his new challenge. Six especially likes group oral work since he is such an incessant talker...”4

Each chapter is a bevy of such generalizations about what children of each age are like. Despite Gesell’s warnings not to take these as rigid norms, it is understandable why physicians, parents, and psychologists would treat these norms as a yardstick against which to measure all children.

This brings us to another criticism Rose makes about averages, what he calls the jaggedness principle. Take any one trait — maybe the number of words a person can say at a specific age — and you will surely find much variation between people. But if we find variation among just that one trait, imagine if we measure someone on a whole host of traits: number of words one can say, walking speed, fine motor skills, ability to solve spatial problems, etc. The more traits we measure and get averages for, the more likely that any given person will be all over the map: “above average” on some traits, “average” on others, and “below average” on still others.

That’s surely what we do in conventional schools. We not only design, say, math curricula around where the average learner should be at a given age, but we then say that all learners of a particular age should be here in math, here in science, here in reading and writing, and there in social studies. It is unlikely that any learner will be average in any one subject, let alone all of them! Says Rose, “Despite the fact that ‘personalized learning’ is the biggest buzzword in education today, and despite efforts of many organizations seeking change in the system, almost everything in traditional educational systems remains designed to ensure students receive the same exact standardized experience.”5

By contrast, Self-Directed Education grants children the freedom to pursue their own interests, through which they naturally acquire the knowledge and skills they are most ready and motivated to learn, at their own pace. It is okay if a child is great at one thing, learning it quickly and eagerly, but slower or uninterested in another. And it is fine if learning does not proceed in the neatly linear way that tidy school curricula assume it should. As educator John Holt observes: “Timetables! We act as if children were railroad trains running on a schedule....If a child doesn’t arrive at one of these intermediate stations when we think he should, we instantly assume that he is going to be late at the finish. But children are not railroad trains. They don’t learn at an even rate. They learn in spurts...”6 Self-Directed Education takes these differences, these spurts, seriously.

This brings us back to the ASQ3 we filled out in the doctor’s office. It asked questions about Lachlan’s sleeping and eating patterns, his behavior, his motor skills, his verbal abilities, all with an eye toward whether Lachlan is “normal.”

What I wanted to say to the well-meaning physician’s assistant was that the “science of normal” may well be built on shaky foundations, and may appear true only because we act as if it’s true. We’ve structured a culture and school system where we treat a person’s age as telling us something significant about them and their abilities. As Howard Chudacoff writes, even though age-consciousness is a relatively new historical phenomenon, American society is “exceedingly conscious of age and its meaning in daily life.”1

In truth, as Todd Rose argues, there may be no such thing as the “average two year old,” or “‘average learner.” Lachlan will grow and learn at his own pace. in his own ways. We will surely wait for a specialist until there is an obvious sign that something is wrong or growth isn’t happening, not because he doesn’t fit a particular age norm.

No thank you, well-meaning physician’s assistant. Like every other child, our son is not average. He’s jagged. And that’s okay.

[1] Chudacoff, Howard P. How Old Are You? : Age Consciousness in American Culture, Princeton Univ Press, 1992.
[2] Anbar, Ada. The Secret of Natural Readers : How Preschool Children Learn to Read, Praeger, 2004.
[3] Fass, Paula S. End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child, Princeton Univ Press, 2017.
[4] Gesell, Arnold. The Child from Five to Ten, Harper & Bros., 1946.
[5] Rose, Todd. The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, Penguin Books, 2017.
[6] Holt, John Caldwell. How Children Learn, New York, Pitman Pub. Corp., 1967.