Everyone new mother at the sandbox wants to know: when is little Junior going to join MENSA and win the Nobel Peace Prize? During the first year each step, burble, burp, and grin is proof—at least to dear old Mom and Dad—of little junior’s pint sized prowess. And often, perhaps too often, this natural exuberance of new parents turns into a frustrating game of one-up-man-ship. Unfortunately, it can lead to further isolation for new moms or simply some hurt feelings for those whose children’s development is taking a slightly different path. Milestones are certainly important, relevant to understanding children’s needs. However, it is important to keep a clear perspective.

Milestones are a means of evaluating the needs of a child and their developmental progress. Many factors are involved in determining when children will experience certain milestones including each child’s unique heredity and environment. According to the authors of Human Development, 9th Edition, milestones are, “landmarks of development: average ages for the occurrence of certain events, such as the first word, the first step…But these are merely averages.”

Individual children vary within the averages given by milestones. Some children reach certain milestones quickly and others more slowly. One child can reach certain milestones more quickly—such as early walking—then lag behind in some other area—such as late talking. Professionals, such as doctors and child psychologists use milestones as a means of gaining a general sense of understanding about development.

For example, most studies indicate that the majority of children will be able to run by two years of age. If a child is not able to run by the age of two and a half, this may indicate a need for a closer look at the child’s health by a trained professional. In this way, having a general understanding of when a child should develop certain abilities helps the medical profession successfully treat children so that each child can look forward to a healthy future.

This useful tool can also help parents plan ahead. Lists of milestones and when to expect them also give parents, especially new ones, a preview of what lies ahead. This can help parents meet the needs of their children as they progress. For instance, parents with stairs may want to install a baby gate in advance of their child crawling or walking. Looking at the milestone chart can help such parents make sure the necessary gates are installed well in advance of their baby making a beeline for the stairs.

As a guideline, milestone charts also suggest appropriate activities for infants and children. If a child is able to sit or crawl, they will enjoy a trip to a soft play center, conversely, if a child is able to run and jump, they may be able to appreciate a child-centered amusement park. Children able to hold their head up, and sit might also be ready for a foray into the world of solid foods. In this way, parents can plan for the future, to make healthy and fun choices for their children.

Milestones have limitations, however. They are not a crystal ball. Every parent, no doubt, wishes they could see far into the future and predict the future success of their offspring. It is fun to envision Junior climbing every mountain and becoming a Nobel Laureate, but childhood milestones do not necessarily mean that Junior will be a captain of industry.

In fact, perhaps one of the surest ways to hinder a child’s rise to success is to expect too much, too soon. Attempting to force children to develop skills before it is developmentally appropriate for the individual child sets up a situation in which both parent and child may experience frustration and feelings of inadequacy. The attitude of keeping in step with the Jones’ next door is not healthy for the parent-child relationship. It is better to let the child progress at the pace he or she needs to progress—as long as the progression falls within the normal range, there is little reason to be alarmed. It is more important to enjoy each child for who they are, rather than who the parent hopes they will become at a later date.

Gifted is the term often used to describe intelligent children. However, identifying children who are truly gifted is a unique challenge. Skills are not always evenly mastered throughout childhood. Children can go in spurts, focusing on the mastery of one skill while leaving others on the backburner until later.

It is important to remember that children are not automatons; they have varied interests and abilities. Each child is as distinctive as a snowflake in winter. So, while little Suzie down the street may be the champion of the school chess team today, tomorrow she may make an excellent cheerleader as her motor skills and interests change and develop.

Generally speaking, giftedness is a matter of viewing the bigger picture. Gifted children tend to be multitalented and master a variety of skills ahead of their peers. It is important to note, though, that gifted children, while very lucky in many respects, do not always become champions of the world and may often wind up no more successful than other moderately gifted peers. According to a 1985 study of talented artists, musicians, and brain surgeons by Benjamin Bloom, many of the aforesaid geniuses initially appeared no more exceptional than siblings or peers. The main difference was their drive, interest, and perseverance. Another important factor , according to the study, was encouragement by a parent, teacher, or other important adult in the individual’s life.

Slower development is not necessarily an example of inability, and many children afflicted with autism spectrum disorders are actually quite gifted in certain areas. Having a developmental delay is a matter of being differently-abled, or needing specialized attention, rather than being disabled. Love, encouragement, and good professional or home care can help children who are slow to develop or experiencing difficulty overcome obstacles with flying colors.

One famous example of a child who failed to meet certain milestones on time was Einstein. This interesting anomaly is examined more closely in the book The Einstein Syndrome by Thomas Sowell. The book mentions Einstein as well as many other famous individuals, known for their brilliance and talent, who were late in the area of speech.

In any case, whether a child is delayed, average, or ahead of schedule, milestones provide a glimpse of human development. They are not intended to pigeon-hole the child or the parent and can actually assist the child’s caregivers when used appropriately. While not all points related to giftedness, delays, or the definition of normal are certain one point stands out amongst all of the research: Children need love, attention, and encouragement. Any caregiver interested in seeing their child succeed should focus on the wonderfully unique individual (or individuals) in their care and support their individual development through love and support. And with regard to keeping up with the Jones’, be happy for them, but feel secure in the knowledge that every child has vast potential in life—even if he or she is not a card carrying member of MENSA by the age of two.