How to Write Realistic
Young Child Characters
2002, S.L. Viehl
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.
Mean, Kids Can’t Potty Train Themselves?
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.
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.
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.
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.
the Locomotion with Me
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.
Newborns have no control over their heads, bodies and limbs.
It takes up to six months for infants to learn the most basic muscle
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.
At nine months, children begin trying to crawl, can sit without support,
and use their hands to pull themselves up into a standing position.
Kids usually walk by their first birthday, but spend most of their time
crawling on their hands and knees.
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
By age two, children can walk up and downstairs without support, and
begin honing their climbing skills.
Three-year-old children climb with confidence and agility, can throw and
kick objects, and will ride small bikes (like tricycles.)
Four-year-olds can walk and run on tiptoe, and take the stairs with one
foot on each step.
By age five, children can stand and jump on one leg, and are competent at
playground skills such as sliding, climbing, and swinging.
What You Can Do?
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.
and Fine Movement Milestones
Newborns connect seeing with doing by watching their own hand movements,
which may also be the first milestone in becoming aware of their own
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.
Nine-month-olds begin grasping with index and middle fingers, and can
manipulate objects with a limited amount of success.
By their first birthday, children can grasp and release objects and use
both hands equally.
At eighteen months, children are stacking blocks and begin gripping
crayons with help, and begin showing a use preference for the right or left
Child safety caps are always vital, especially when two-year-olds display
their ability to unscrew caps and open containers.
By three years of age, they will be able to unbutton clothes and hold
crayons, and settle on right- or left-handedness.
Four-year-olds can copy simple letters and build high towers of blocks.
At five years old, children can differentiate colors and begin drawing
to Me, Baby
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.
and Speech Milestones
Newborns learn to recognize their mother’s voice in the womb.
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.
By nine months, basic words like “no” are
understood and children begin babbling in strings of vowel sounds.
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.
By eighteen months, a toddler’s vocabulary
contains from five to twenty words. They
also understand short sentences.
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.
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.
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
Five-year-olds begin making rhymes and can
learn how to read short, simple words.
Go Outside and Play!
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.
Due to their developmental limitations, newborn infants cannot play or
interact with others beyond communicating through crying.
By six months, kids enjoy playing peek-a-boo and looking into mirrors,
but are timid with strangers.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Tips on Writing About Children Versus Adult Midgets
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
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.
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.
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.
2002 by S.L. Viehl