With my firstborn, I thought earlier was better. I wanted him to hit the milestone timeline ahead of the mark. Honestly, it was so that I felt like I was doing an adequate job. For example, I desperately wanted him ahead of the curve when it came to the dreaded potty training. 

I started potty training my oldest when his younger sister was just six weeks old and shortly after my mother had been diagnosed with advanced and aggressive cancer. In hindsight, I wanted to push aside my grief, and I did that by potty training my just-turned two-year-old.  Because that made sense. 

Related: The potty training hack Kristen Bell used to help her 5-year-old out of diapers 

My son got the peeing in the potty under control right away, but the pooping took much longer. Once he finally got the hang of that, I was ecstatic. Jumping up and down, I squealed, “Anderson! You pooped in the potty! You did it!” I frantically wiped him and washed both of our hands. I loaded him in his high chair with kisses, a popsicle, and a monstrous chocolate chip cookie. I bent down, looked at him square in the eye and said, “Anderson, this is the happiest day of my life.” And in that moment, it was true. Energy shot out of me and bounced off of all of the kitchen appliances. I thought, I am the greatest mother of all time. Someone give me my medal.

Yes, when my first child was just a toddler, I used to think earlier was better. Aside from being potty trained early, he slept through the night and in his own crib before six months old. He walked before his first birthday. He could recognize all of his letters and numbers before he started preschool. And I limited his screen time, per the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

I wanted that Mother of the Year trophy. And I thought I’d earned it. 

As an instructor at an early college, I taught with similar ideals. I wanted my students to be ready for their first college composition class. Their grades in those classes would make me look good, after all. I worked hard to provide them with helpful comments on their papers, maintain high standards for them, and encourage them along the way. 

Related: Baby Milestones Guides

Good grades and excellence mattered. In my classroom. And in my home. 

Then I had Kid Number Two. She showed me that those things mean nothing.

The day after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, my 80-year-old father fell and smashed his hand. I resigned from my big teaching job to become a stay-at-home-mom and caregiver for my mother. 

My daughter was attached to me—even in the middle of the night. She didn’t want to sleep. But because I still yearned for that Mother of the Year trophy, I tried to sleep train her as she got older. But she showed me that not all individuals will succumb to a timeline. In those nights awake feeding her, I learned to give in. 

I began to change.

My daughter didn’t walk until 15 months, which the CDC says is on time. But she was an early talker, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers begin to say one to two word phrases around 15 months. We snuggled on the couch and read books, but she barely knew any letters entering preschool. Unlike our firstborn, she woke in the middle of the night and came into our bed. Night wakings are totally normal, too. But as our second child taught us, reaching developmental milestones early means nothing in the long run. 

Slowly, I began to watch my kids more closely and follow their lead. Their curious minds naturally wanted to learn what they wanted to learn—when they wanted to learn it. Instead of drilling my daughter with learning letters, she showed an interest in communication. So, we sang songs, put on plays, and I organized more playdates. She wasn’t interested in learning her letters, and that was OK. 

And I learned, too.

After earning another graduate degree, I began teaching college composition. As a college instructor, I never wondered when my students started to write their name or count to 100. Because it doesn’t matter. 

Instead, I met my students where they were—and then tried to help get them to the next level. Regardless of where they started each semester. 

I’m no longer teaching in a traditional classroom, but if I were, grades and standards would mean nothing to me now. Instead, I care about the whole child—no, the whole person. I hope my own kids grow at their own natural pace—not what some strangers decided they needed to learn by a certain age. 

Sure, my kids take standardized tests and I look at the results, but where they compare with others doesn’t matter. They’re seven and nine years old. If they decide to go to college, their professors won’t ask about these test scores. And they won’t matter. 

Our lifestyle at home looks different than it did when my kids were small. There are books everywhere, but the goal is enjoyment and bonding—not getting to that next reading level. There are art projects strewn about, some finished, some not. I let my son play Fortnite—sometimes for too long. 

And we’ve let the pressure go. My son no longer plays on his elite soccer team because I knew the stress was too much and far too young. My daughter is enrolled in zero activities because, for now, she just wants to be home after school. She learns plenty from playing freely with neighborhood kids and conquering her boredom. 

As a family, we go on big planned adventures like trips to national parks and spontaneous ones to a local trail. We collect rocks and fallen feathers. We take life slowly because that’s where our connection is woven tighter. Enjoying our time together, that’s the glue to our family now. Not trophies, grades, or other accolades. Togetherness. 

Related: My babies taught me to stop worrying about milestones and just enjoy the moment 

I’ve learned what will matter are my kids’ lived experiences. And no, that doesn’t mean when our children finally poop in the potty. 

Earlier is not better. Personal growth is better.

At any age.