I was thrilled when my girls started walking and talking, took their first steps, and uttered their first words. But I was downright ecstatic when they mastered a few of the skills your pediatrician probably won't be asking about, like knocking on the bathroom door before entering or thanking Grandma without being elbowed. These are the holy-grail milestones for most moms -- the things that make family life easier, give you a moment's peace, or help you save face in public. The only catch: Unlike your child's first pearly tooth, you play a role in making these convenient achievements happen. Here are five that are worth the work.
Milestone: Your child says "thank you" on her own
"My parents were visiting, and my mother put out a special cup for Dori, my three-year-old, while setting the table," recalls Debbie Kaplan of Foster City, California. "Dori said, 'Thank you, Nana, for the lovely cup.' Then she came out with 'Thank you for coming to our house,' which cracked us up."
When kids are likely to reach it: Between ages 3 and 4 kids develop the communication skills and the social understanding to automatically thank someone for something concrete -- like a gift or a snack -- says Sharon Carver, Ph.D., director of The Children's School at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Still, it won't be until about 6 that they say "thanks" for something abstract, like a compliment.
Ways to help them along: Thank your kids for bringing their dishes to the sink or for putting away their toys. Remind your child to say "thank you" in advance when appropriate, and prompt her on the spot ("What do you say to Grandma?") if she slips up. Of course, praise your child when she remembers to be polite on her own.
Milestone: Your child entertains himself for 15 minutes
Recently, while working on the computer, a wave of panic rode over me. No, I hadn't missed a deadline; the fear was brought on by the sudden realization that I had been working undisturbed for a full 15 minutes without my 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, asking for a juice box, hounding me to turn on Caillou, or insisting that I play dentist. I darted to her room, and there she was: completely involved in her bunny house.
Anytime I've asked Lucy to play in her room for a bit while I make a phone call, her need for full-body contact has only tripled, so imagine my shock -- and delight -- when she made this move on her very own.
When kids are likely to reach it: There are (I'm told) infants who happily babble to themselves while their parents catch extra zzz's, so temperament surely plays a role. But more typically, kids are able to amuse themselves for short periods by around 3. At this point, they've mastered many physical skills, which ups their independence and self-confidence, and their attention span increases greatly. Factors like having older siblings to emulate also may speed up their ability to play on their own.
Ways to help them along: Start early by trying not to rush to your baby the minute she lets out a peep, so she gets the chance to learn to cope on her own for a few minutes. As she gets older, get her to play near you -- say, with toy food and dishes while you prepare dinner. Over time, move a little farther away while she plays. Make sure she gets your undivided attention at other times, and avoid "sneaking" away so she'll feel secure and not abandoned when you're in another room.
Milestone: You can drop your child off at a playdate or birthday party
It's kind of fun to go to your child's first playdates and parties, but it grows old fast after a few occasions spent standing around making awkward conversation with other parents while drinking out of Blue's Clues cups and eating cold pizza.
"One or both of us used to be on party or playdate patrol somewhere," says Ellen De Money of Boulder, Colorado. "Now there are times when all three of my boys are at a friend's house, and I can actually shop or cook without interruption."
When kids are likely to reach it: Five is about the age when other parents not only expect -- but also pretty much want -- you to leave. (This way they don't have to entertain you, too!) If it's a family you know well, even age 4 can be okay. Most kids feel comfortable solo now that they've been without you in preschool and have developed relationships outside the home. They also understand that playing with a friend is way better than watching your root canal.
Ways to help them along: Discuss the event in advance and drum up enthusiasm by talking with your child about what he'll get to do -- like eat cake or play with his pal's toys, suggests social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. Get him involved by letting him shop for a present with you. Explain that you'll take him to the party, stay for a few minutes, leave, and then return to pick him up. If your child still seems anxious, gradually lengthen the time you're gone over the course of a few playdates or parties.
Milestone: Your kids can play together without fighting
"Play" between Lucy and my daughter Olivia, 7, used to consist of Lucy mindlessly destroying some complicated toy setup of Olivia's, followed by Olivia angrily chasing Lucy out of their room. But since Lucy turned 3, things have taken a dramatic turn. Now Olivia frequently invites Lucy to play house or school. While Lucy doesn't have much say about the rules, she seems to grasp what's required of her and the two of them manage to sustain harmonious play long enough for me to shower and shave.
When kids are likely to reach it: The ease with which kids play together largely depends on the age difference between them as well as their temperaments, but younger sibs usually begin to develop play skills around age 3. By 5, they're a lot better at negotiating and being able to use words to resolve conflicts.
Ways to help them along: Anything that reduces rivalry and fighting between siblings increases the likelihood that they'll enjoy playing together. To achieve this, avoid getting involved in their squabbles (unless someone's getting hurt) so they can learn to work things out on their own, and praise them effusively when you notice them being kind and helpful to one another.
If they're more than two years apart, steer them away from playing competitive games, where the older one is always likely to win. Instead, enlist your older child to teach his younger sibling a skill -- like how to play a computer game or put together a Lego structure -- a role he'll no doubt relish. If they begin a game of "pretend," try to keep it going by adding something to it -- perhaps giving them some real coins for their "store" or letting them use some of your accessories for dress-up.