When parents talk to pediatricians and educational professionals about an undesirable behavior, it is not uncommon to be told that many children will “grow out” of that behavior. This is often reassuring for parents because it means, 1) other children also engage in this undesirable behavior, and 2) the undesirable behavior might go away on its own. As a parent it is easy to think “If other typical children are also engaging in this behavior it must not be a huge problem,” and “Other children have ‘grown out’ of this behavior, so I don’t have to do anything except wait for it to go away.” After all, behaviors such as crying, hand flapping, mouthing objects, throwing toys, biting, thumb sucking, and toileting accidents are a completely normal part of infancy and early childhood.
It is true that for many children these behaviors seem to go away on their own (i.e., the child “grows out” of the behavior). From this perspective, the term “grow out” implies that the behavior goes away as a result of the passage of time. That is, as the child gets older, behaviors often observed during infancy and early childhood decrease. However, it is also true some children never “grow out” of some behaviors, indicating that the passage of time must not be solely responsible. It is more likely that as the child grows older, his or her environment also changes; supporting new and more complex skills. They learn new ways of expressing themselves and their play skills, self-help skills, and social skills become more sophisticated. Children are encouraged to act like a “big boy” or “big girl” and are redirected away from early childhood behaviors. For example, an infant may engage in hand flapping when presented with a favorite toy. Then, as language and play skills develop, parents encourage the use of these new skills instead of relying on early repetitive behaviors.
Some children may “grow out” of an early childhood behavior, but what if they don’t? When early childhood behaviors persist through later childhood they begin to be classified as problematic because they begin to create trouble for the child and his or her family. Interventions are implemented to eliminate these undesirable behaviors, but now the child has had many months, and in some cases years, of experience engaging in these behaviors. A safer practice may be to implement an intervention for a potential undesirable behavior as soon as concern arises. It is more difficult to break a long standing habit, so doing something about it early will be easier on you and the child. There is really nothing to lose by implementing an intervention early. At first, implementing the intervention itself may be arduous for parents; in the long run however, it will make eliminating the undesirable behavior easier.
The alternative is to allow undesirable behaviors to continue, with the hope that the child will one day “grow out” of the behavior. This practice may also allow the undesirable behavior to come into contact with other consequences that may inadvertently help to maintain the behavior over time. A relatively benign behavior, such as crying or whining, may begin as a regular infant reaction to something he or she wants to have or wants to avoid. But as that child begins to get what they want when they do it, they learn that the behavior works, and it becomes more and more likely to persist and become more problematic over time.
So, the next time you hear someone say that a child will “grow out” of a behavior, consider whether it is worth waiting to see if the behavior will go away on its own or if it may be better to do something about it now and nip the potential undesirable behavior in the bud. This doesn’t mean you have to do an “intervention,” as one normally thinks of it. It can be as simple as the time-honored parenting practice of giving the child what he wants when he is being good, and not giving it to him when he isn’t. Although they can be frustrating in the short-term, simple steps like this will pay off in the long-term.