Today, we’re going to look into the 5 most important factors that influence child development.
From the moment our babies are born, we marvel at every sight of them. We document (in our memories, and on camera, if we’re lucky) every milestone, from their first smile to their first step to their first little wave. And as we watch them grow with our sleep-deprived eyes from tiny defenseless babies into toddlers and beyond, we’re reminded almost daily of what fascinating creatures they are and how amazing it is that these tiny humans have learned so much, so quickly.
We can all take for granted just how huge each tiny new development really is. Those little “firsts” aren’t just adorable memories for us to cherish, they’re also huge developmental milestones that our babies have just achieved. But are all children created equally or are there underlying factors that impact their developmental timetable?
Firstly, what do we mean when we talk about "child development"? Child development is the period of physical, cognitive, and social growth that begins at birth and continues through early adulthood (for more on this read our blog post on Child Development).
These types of developmental milestones cover both the physical and psychological changes children undergo. But these goals can be heavily influenced by internal and external factors. While every child is different, and development and learning proceed at varying rates, we should also take into account some of the other important factors that also play a large role in early childhood development.
Important Factors That Influence Child Development: Genetics
Our babies inherit much from us genetically aside from physical appearance, like eye and hair color, skin tone, nose shape, as well as height and body build. They also inherit things like aptitude. Have you ever said something like: “My child loves math, she gets that from her mother/father?” Our children (for better or for worse) can also, to an extent, inherit traits like intelligence, abilities, and attitudes.
These innate propensities can include everything from shyness and stubbornness to kindness and perseverance or even a specific talent (or lack of!) for certain things. Some kids may have more outgoing or tenacious personalities than their same-age peers, which can also affect how quickly or slowly they hit their developmental milestones.
While all kids are special and have amazing potential, some children are also more naturally gifted or excel more than others at certain things. Whether it be at sports or academics, some kids pick things up much faster or more easily than others. Not everyone is destined to be a pro tennis player (in fact, few are). Not every child learns at the same pace or has the same capability to acquire or retain or understand information. You can give 100 randomly-picked children the same academic opportunities - same teacher, same school, same resources, etc and yet they won't all attain the same grades. According to the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University; "Our genes contain instructions that tell our bodies how to work, but the chemical “signature” of our environment can authorize or prevent those instructions from being carried out."
So, it’s not all about biology, let's look at the other factors at play...
Important Factors That Influence Child Development: Health & Nutrition
While some health attributes are passed through the genes, some viruses, diseases, and disabilities can be developed as a result of external factors including (but not limited to) our environment. Good health can include access to quality healthcare, vaccinations, medicines, a toxin-free environment, clean water and air, and of course, diet.
According to Zero To Three, “brain growth depends critically on the quality of a child’s nutrition.” Nutrition plays a significant part in our baby’s growth and development as it affects not just their health but also things like strength, growth, and energy levels, which can adversely affect learning. Providing our children with a balanced diet from birth is essential for their growth and development.
But it's not just the physical health that has a role to play in our child's development. We need to also be mindful of their mental health too. Things like anxiety and depression, ADHD, and autism, can also significantly impact a child's ability to thrive or the pace at which they develop.
Important Factors That Influence Child Development: Gender
While no two kids are alike, the nature vs nurture debate is interesting when considering gender differences. Obviously, girls and boys develop differently from one another – both physically and emotionally, but by how much and why are up for debate. While it is certainly noticeable once puberty hits, different developmental timetables can be seen, although possibly more subtlety, from a young age.
Naturally, all kids are different, and their individual development may not necessarily tow the gender line. Nonetheless, sex can be an important component when thinking about factors that influence child development. Physically there tends to be little difference in height and weight until late elementary school but it is thought that some cognitive and social skills develop earlier in girls, who are also known to mature earlier than their male counterparts.
Most parents will attest to the fact that their sons are very different from their daughters, not just developmentally but also in the way they play, act, react, behave, and think. But why is that? Do we treat them alike or do we parent them differently? Do we have different expectations of them based purely on their sex? Do they receive the same discipline? What are natural inherent differences versus those that are influenced by external factors (i.e. us!)?
Aside from the biological differences between boys and girls, gendered expectations and social norms can also influence a child’s development. More often, without realizing it, our own perceived gender roles can influence the way in which we parent our children which in itself can have profound effects on their thoughts, behavior, and actions. We may unwittingly expose our children to different environments or opportunities. For example, we may roughhouse with our sons, but be gentler with our daughters, and therefore potentially exposing our boys more to the use of gross motor skills at an earlier age. We may play with cars and trains with our boys and dolls and art with our girls. But does that really make a difference? Yes! A child who regularly picks up a crayon to draw or threads beads through a lace to make necklace will be using/practicing different cognitive and fine motor skills than perhaps a child who is playing with his chunky cars.
It stands to reason that no two children (even multiples) will do the exact same thing for the same amount of time, so naturally, some might advance faster or in different ways than others. We even see these differences in same-sex siblings whose personalities or natural abilities and interests may also lead us to play with them or treat them differently and thereby affecting their individual developmental timetable.
Important Factors That Influence Child Development: Environment
A child’s physical and social environment also plays a big role in factors that influence child development.
Access to suitable housing, healthcare, education and recreation facilities, clean air and water can influence a child directly through their own health well-being and opportunities afforded to them, as well as indirectly by affecting their caregivers' emotional and physical well-being.
Does your child have access to a stress-free environment to live, and play, and explore? Does he have toys to play with and people to interact with who can help stimulate him both mentally and physically?
No two children, including multiples, have the exact same preferences or experiences. One baby may love tummy time and strive to lift his head up, while another may hate it and just lay there with his head on the floor crying. These two experiences can make a significant difference to some of their physical milestones including rolling over, crawling, walking, etc. Some kids, for example, are given lots of attention and affection, others may not be – that’ll have an impact on their language development as well as certain socioemotional milestones. From birth to at least 5, children learn mostly through play and through their experiences – so if they don’t get enough playtime and physical and mental stimulation, they won’t necessarily develop in the same way.
The social relationships your child has can be hugely impactful. Let’s think about who our children have regular access to and how they influence them. Obviously being surrounded by loving, nurturing, safe individuals is key. Children are like sponges. They pick up on everything, and as parents, we are mindful of who and what they’re surrounded by. The quality of their interactions with others determines their intellectual, social, and emotional development.
Important Factors That Influence Child Development: Family
We’ve saved the best for last. Family is almost certainly the most important factor in child development. In early childhood especially, parents are the ones who spend the most time with their children and we (sometimes unwittingly) influence the way they act and think and behave. A child’s social, emotional, and even physical development are very dependent on the opportunities he or she has, and a strong familial bond can make all the difference.
The role of responsive parenting plays a large role in building a strong foundation in our children and in maximizing their developmental outcomes. Do we provide comfort when they cry? Do we show them love and affection? Do we invest in their progress by giving them “tummy time” to strengthen their muscles, or holding them as they learn to walk? Do we spend enough time engaging them and stimulating them through play, and introducing them to things like colors and numbers, and showing them how to share? Do we lead by example and demonstrate positive behaviors? Are we exposing them to healthy relationships, and what values are we teaching them?
How we interact with our children (and how often) can be hugely significant. We are the most important people in their little lives, and they depend on us for everything – nourishment, security, warmth, comfort, attention, stimulation, and, most importantly, love and affection. In the words of the author, Alfie Kohn;
“If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow.”
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