Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

Show And Tell:
 How to Write Realistic 
Young Child Characters

By S.L. Viehl

© 2002, S.L. Viehl

The way some authors write about very young children in their novels reminds me of something Emerson said:  “Children are aliens, and we treat them as such.”  Many of these child characters we’re shown seem more like products of wishful thinking, like a one year old who never cries.  Others, like a two-year-old who eats with a fork and knife -- and even potty trains herself in a few days -- are just plain ludicrous.  These kids might as well be aliens, because from the way they’re written, you can’t tell me they came from this planet.

You Mean, Kids Can’t Potty Train Themselves?

In reality, human beings learn their physical, mental and social skills in well-recognized stages during early childhood, from birth to five years of age.  These stages are called developmental milestones, and acquiring these skills does not happen spontaneously or overnight.  All children acquire these skills in the same, logic order – for example, a child cannot stand before he or she learns how to sit up.  They also can’t reach these milestones alone, and need both practice and stimulation from both their immediate environment and family members in order to acquire and hone these skills.

Maturation of the central nervous system directly governs progress in the four main categories of child development: locomotion, hearing and speech, vision and fine movement, and social behavior.  Developmental rates are largely determined genetically for each individual at the moment of conception, and later modified and influenced by environmental factors in the womb and after birth.  Doctors have discovered that gender also plays a role. Several studies show that girls often talk and/or walk at an earlier age than boys. 

Yet while there are always variations in the rate of progress and attainment, most children follow a fairly predictable timetable.  And whether you are a veteran parent of five, or only see kids once a year during the family reunion, it’s a good idea to consider the developmental challenges your young child character faces before you begin writing, so you can show a realistic portrait to your reader. 

Following is a breakdown of the four developmental categories, as well as the milestones within that category that most children reach on average by the age listed.  Please remember that exceptionally gifted children, as well as those with any physical and/or mental handicaps, will display very different rates of developmental progress.  

Do the Locomotion with Me

Locomotion is the predominant childhood development stage, probably because it’s the most startling, the most encouraged, and the most visible.  From the moment we’re born, our genetic programming makes us strive to walk erect on two limbs.  There’s no developmental stage that gets us more praise as young children, either.  Getting up on our own two feet, however, takes some doing.

Locomotion Milestones

1)      Newborns have no control over their heads, bodies and limbs.  It takes up to six months for infants to learn the most basic muscle control. 

2)      By six months of age, babies can hold their heads up and sit upright with support, and they can roll their bodies from back to front, and front to back. 

3)      At nine months, children begin trying to crawl, can sit without support, and use their hands to pull themselves up into a standing position. 

4)      Kids usually walk by their first birthday, but spend most of their time crawling on their hands and knees. 

5)      By eighteen months, they make the transition from crawling to walking, and start to run.  These toddlers can also stoop to pick up objects, walk upstairs with support, and can crawl backwards downstairs. 

6)      By age two, children can walk up and downstairs without support, and begin honing their climbing skills. 

7)      Three-year-old children climb with confidence and agility, can throw and kick objects, and will ride small bikes (like tricycles.) 

8)      Four-year-olds can walk and run on tiptoe, and take the stairs with one foot on each step. 

9)      By age five, children can stand and jump on one leg, and are competent at playground skills such as sliding, climbing, and swinging.      


See What You Can Do?

Like locomotion, vision and fine movement skills begin developing immediately, but progress in attaining the predictable landmarks is much more subtle.  Until this century, doctors were not even sure newborn infants could see.  We now know children begin developing hand-eye coordination from birth.

Vision and Fine Movement Milestones

1)      Newborns connect seeing with doing by watching their own hand movements, which may also be the first milestone in becoming aware of their own consciousness.

2)      At six months of age, babies have learned to look intently at everything.  They can follow movements and reach out for objects with one or both hands. 

3)      Nine-month-olds begin grasping with index and middle fingers, and can manipulate objects with a limited amount of success. 

4)      By their first birthday, children can grasp and release objects and use both hands equally. 

5)      At eighteen months, children are stacking blocks and begin gripping crayons with help, and begin showing a use preference for the right or left hand.

6)      Child safety caps are always vital, especially when two-year-olds display their ability to unscrew caps and open containers. 

7)      By three years of age, they will be able to unbutton clothes and hold crayons, and settle on right- or left-handedness. 

8)      Four-year-olds can copy simple letters and build high towers of blocks.

9)      At five years old, children can differentiate colors and begin drawing recognizable images.

Talk to Me, Baby

The main contender for most-encouraged developmental skill is, of course, talking, which falls under the category of hearing and speech.   Unfortunately, until vision and hearing develop sufficiently, a newborn can only communicate by crying.  Parents are often amused by how intently their babies stare at them, but what most don’t realize is the child is watching their mouths and listening to the sound of their voices – and learning.

Hearing and Speech Milestones

1)     Newborns learn to recognize their mother’s voice in the womb.

2)     At six months old, infants turn to locate the source of a sound, begin to understand voice tones.  They enjoy making noises and laugh out loud. 

3)     By nine months, basic words like “no” are understood and children begin babbling in strings of vowel sounds. 

4)     At one year, kids recognize their own names, have some understanding of how people feel, and know what most household objects are used for – but they may only say two or three words themselves. 

5)      By eighteen months, a toddler’s vocabulary contains from five to twenty words.  They also understand short sentences.

6)      Speech skills treble by age two, when children begin concentrating on conversations around them.  They can construct two-word sentences and have vocabularies of up to fifty meaningful words. 

7)     Three-year-olds enjoy bedtime stories and recognize the difference between statements, questions, and commands.  They speak in sentences but often make syntax and grammar errors. 

8)      At age four, children can repeat words whispered to them from a distance of three feet.  They speak fluently, in complete sentences, and begin telling stories themselves. 

9)     Five-year-olds begin making rhymes and can learn how to read short, simple words.

Let’s Go Outside and Play!

 Until the last half of the twentieth century, life in the home environment was virtually the only place for a child to learn and develop social behavior and play skills.  Economic and lifestyle changes now compel most mothers to place their young children in day care facilities, and while this is not always viewed as an ideal situation, one benefit is that it provides wonderful social stimulation, particularly for children without siblings.

Social Behavior Milestones

1)      Due to their developmental limitations, newborn infants cannot play or interact with others beyond communicating through crying. 

2)      By six months, kids enjoy playing peek-a-boo and looking into mirrors, but are timid with strangers. 

3)      Nine-month-old children will look for objects that are shown to them, and then hidden, which shows the beginning of memory.  They will wave and clap their hands, but they are still shy or afraid of strangers. 

4)      At one year, children concentrate on putting objects in their mouth and otherwise manipulating them.  They will play and show affection to parents or a familiar adult. 

5)      What some parents refer to as “the terrible twos” actually begins as early as eighteen months, when children begin actively exploring their environment while also showing irrational, selfish behavior.  These toddlers constantly waver between showing affection to parents and struggling to break free.  

6)      By the two-year mark, children want to know the names of everything, and will participate in singing simple songs.  They will begin to make food preferences and ask for diaper changes, which is a signal for parents to begin potty training.  In keeping with their bad reputation, two-year-olds do not play well with other children, are constantly demanding and often throw tantrums.

7)      Three-year-olds love to ask why, and can dress and undress themselves.  Potty training continues and they begin to display nighttime bladder control.  They will share toys with other children and can be reasoned with.  They are much more affectionate toward family members and begin to show interest in strangers. 

8)      At four years, children become more independent and skillful at dressing, bathing, and personal hygiene.  They prefer to play with other children and can understand the concepts of past, present, and future. 

9)       By five years old, children understand the need for rules and fair play, understand the passage of time, and enjoy being a part of a group at play.

Other Tips on Writing About Children Versus Adult Midgets

If you want to portray children in your work, but have limited or no experience with them, the best way to improve your knowledge is to actually spend time with a child who is the same age as your character.  This can be a family member, such as a niece or nephew, or the child of a friend.  Remember when interacting with young children that up until age four, most children are timid or afraid of strangers, so your interaction may be limited to observation only.

To understand how young children relate to each other and adults, try volunteering for an afternoon at a local day care center as a teacher’s assistant.  Spending eight hours with a class of twenty two- to three-year-olds can change your whole perspective on social behavior and interaction among young children, as well as give you some insight on the specific demands your young child character will have on the adults in your story.

The main point is, don’t try to idealize young children in your work.  Avoid fantasizing about what you think your kid might be like, or what you can drag from the dim memories of your own childhood.  You’ll end up writing about children who are just midgets version of your adult self. 

In the real world, any parent will tell you that young kids are regularly loud, messy, defiant, and a hell of a lot of work – as well as being charming, affectionate and filled with the kind of wonder that dazzles everyone around them.  Capture some of that for your reader and show them the real deal.

 Copyright 2002 by S.L. Viehl

All rights reserved.