A milestone is a significant stage in a child’s development. But I wonder if it includes ‘stone’ in the word ‘milestone’ because there is something really rocky about navigating this terrain with our kids. Each child handles this individually and this has to be managed with absolute consideration. This is because the way a child transitions between life stages has everything to do with how they negotiate their inner sense around what it means to grow up. This is done symbolically. While there is, unfortunately, no rulebook to follow here, it can be very helpful to think about these milestones in a deeper symbolic way, in order to understand what else might be going on for them on a hidden psychological level.

How a little mind makes sense of it all

For all of us, before there were words, there were things. As un-talking babies, we constantly interacted with un-labeled stuff and people. Each of these interactions had an associated understanding and meaning. Essentially a child experiences the world before he can describe it. These visual, embodied experiences become symbols that settle inside us and continue to play an important role in how we compose our lives and relationships, deep into adulthood.

We can see it happening in the simplest of ways: For example, you splurge on some fancy Fisher-Price for your baby… but alas, he only wants to play with the damn box. Now beyond this being amusing or simply a waste of money, it helps to think about how else a child might be thinking about this: The box is a container – a thing that holds other things. Mom, you are that too… you are your child’s container, the one that holds big feelings and protects. Could his discarding the toy be a symbolic act to say, “I’d rather play with ‘you’ my container, instead of this shiny new toy”? Also, notice how disappointed you get when he chooses the box over the things inside… what an interesting opportunity to control mom’s mood. What about car keys … sure they are shiny and fun to play with. But thinking symbolically, the jangle of keys also represents the comings and goings of the most important person in the house. When those keys mysteriously go missing and land up in some drawer, might that be a subtle message that she would prefer you to stay home today? So in this way, an external thing becomes a device to understand an internal thing. Structures on which to send out messages, and emotionally make sense of the world.

Pacifiers, Potties & Pools

So this leads to other important symbols that hold huge value when it comes to navigating milestones: Pacifiers, potties and swimming pools. First off there are certain realities in place: Some schools don’t allow un-potty trained kids. A child must be able to swim by a certain age for safety’s sake and if your child goes into Grade 1 with a pacifier in his mouth, he will be teased. But that’s where reality ends. Now the symbols take over and these powerful ideas need to be thought about by us moms, to ensure that a big mind is mediating what a small mind is telling itself.

Potties: Believe it or not, controlling your bladder is one of the first times a child is physically able to control an outcome in the world. So it starts out being about control. Also what he ‘makes’ in the potty is something that belongs to him. He thinks of it as any other thing he might have made like a sandcastle or art. It is a part of himself that he now has to say goodbye to. Not only is he letting this thing go into the toilet, but on a deep unconscious level, it reminds him of another loss… you. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to do. Not needing mom’s help anymore is complex. He wants the responsibility but he also doesn’t. Making potty training as much about loss as it is about independence.

Pacifiers: I have been thinking about the term ‘pacifier’ vs. ‘dummy’. Both descriptions shed light on this important symbol. It pacifies and calms. It is also a dummy – a stand-in for something important – milk and suckling. It is a symbol of pleasure, of connection with you and of getting what he needs when he needs it most. Speaking of sucking: It really ‘sucks’ when it is time to let all of that go. There is often a huge resistance to moving on, and a big step in managing this starts with simply noticing how hard it is.

Swimming lessons have a two-fold quality: The first is the pool itself. Water is an important symbol: It quenches thirst, it cleans, and it was once a warm safe place in utero. Now with swimming lessons, it becomes an unknown thing. It’s a place where something will be mastered and can be both exciting and daunting. Keeping your child alive, until now has been something that was your responsibly alone. But now your child will (in-part) take this on too. That’s a big deal and kids will feel that in important ways. It is also a time when moms have to partner with a teacher to facilitate a transition. So it’s crucial that this person holds the same values around these shifts as you do.

Symbols To Grow By

Our minds are so complex and it starts when we are too young to talk. It is not a one-size-fits-all process because it also embodies complicated ideas around control, self-mastery and the letting go of important things. Tough stuff that needs to be experienced and lived, so we adopt symbols to help us make sense of it all. The way these symbols resonate will have everything to do with how safe our kids feel to move through to the next stage. So as parents, it is our responsibility to help them decode these symbols and the best way to do this… is gently.


Bowlby, John. (1971). Attachment and loss. London: Hogarth; Penguin Books. (Original work published 1969)

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

——. (1916-17a [1915-17). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. Part I, SE, 15; Part II, SE, 16.

——. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

Haag, Geneviève. (1991). Nature de quelques identifications dans l’image du corps. Hypothèses. Journal de la psychanalyse de l’enfant, 10: 73-92.

Spitz, René. (1955). The primal cavity: A contribution to the genesis of perception. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child10, 215-40.

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