It seemed safe to let her pull herself up on this grocery cart because of the carpet. Of course, just to be safe, I stuck my foot in front of the wheels to keep it from rolling away from her. She eagerly pulled herself up on the bright red plastic handlebar, swaying and giggling happily at being upright.
Now, I’m unsure how much credit to claim for what happened next. Maybe I was intentionally putting into practice my beliefs about child development, trusting that the holding environment was established enough to contain her anxieties so that she could play a little, stretch out and try something new. Maybe I just got distracted and lazy. Either way, here is what happened: I moved my foot, which had been serving as a chock block on the back grocery cart wheel, so that it was inside the front wheel. This would have prevented the cart from rolling backwards, but when my little girl leaned against the handlebars, the cart rolled forward six or seven inches until the back wheel hit my foot. Keeping her hands firmly gripped on the handlebars, this roll caused her to lean forward; another inch and she would have fallen forward. Awkwardly stretched forward, she did something new: she moved on foot forward, then the other, slowly walking her way to an upright standing position behind the shopping cart. Her first steps.
Well, I was thrilled to witness this giant leap forward in my child’s development. And, like any curious educator, I wanted to see if she could do it again. So I moved my foot to the back of the front wheel to repeat the process. Again, the cart rolled forward, stretching her out; when the cart stopped, she walked herself back upright. I was so thrilled I could hardly stand it, but I didn’t want to distract her; I praised her in a cheerful but normal tone of voice, then I took my foot out completely.
The cart began to roll forward, her weight leaning into the handlebar. But this time, before the cart could roll far enough for her to lose her balance, she stepped forward as it rolled. Slowly, but with a steady and consistent pace, she pushed the shopping cart all the way across the room unhindered by daddy’s regulatory foot. And when we got to the opposite wall, I turned the shopping cart around and she pushed it back to the other wall. And then I turned it around again and she once again traversed the length of the room. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a total of forty-five feet that she pushed a shopping cart all by herself.
I was so pleased I finally relinquished my scientific remove and swept her up in my arms to rejoice, praise and kiss her. When her mother came home, I excitedly told her: “She walked.” We rushed back to the bonus room, where the shopping cart was parked, to replicate this amazing milestone for her mother. But our little one was not interested; she wanted to play in mommy’s lap with a stuffed blue chipmunk that swallowed a bell. Despite putting her behind the cart and placing her hands on the handlebars several times, she always plopped down on her bottom, grabbed the chipmunk, and crawled into mommy’s lap. Mommy would have to wait until another day to witness her new skills.
Mommy did witness it the next day, when the mood caught her to go for another shopping spree across our bonus room carpet. This time, we both immediately praised her loudly and exuberantly, as if she had just aced a recital for grocery shopping. We cheered and clapped; our little girl, excited by our display, promptly plopped down on the ground and began clapping with us. “Do it again!” we cheered. But she was done; she crawled over to the CD shelf and grabbed a Warren Zevon CD. (I didn’t play it for her; I don’t think she’s ready for it yet.)
I know it won’t be long before she can balance herself without holding onto anything, and then she’ll learn to put feet forward without any help from anyone and she’ll be walking all by her cute little self. If she put her mind to it, she could be doing it this weekend; it would only take a little more practice and dedication. I mean, if it were me, I would just set aside the whole weekend for the single purpose of walking. I’m not an overachieving Type-A sort of person, but when I can see a major goal right in front of me, I don’t want to wait for it.
Which brings me to the humbling lesson I learned watching her take a few momentous steps and then plop down to play with something familiar. My little girl is developing just as she’s supposed to; I imagine that parents of nine-month-olds all across the country are experiencing similar displays of growth this month. In some ways, the developmental process of a child is biologically driven. She wouldn’t have been pushing a shopping cart three months ago because her legs weren’t physically strong enough to support her weight. But even at moments when an infant’s biology isn’t limiting her capacity to do new things, she still seems to titrate her rate of development. It isn’t conscious or intentional; it’s just that her list or priorities and interests stays fairly open. I mean, she could devote the whole weekend learning to walk, but why give up playing with blue chipmunk? Or chewing on her toes? Or crawling, which is still a pretty cool new thing all its own? She’s not in a hurry to be somewhere – or something – new.
I don’t know many adults like that. Hell, I am not like that, and as I said, I’m far from being an overachiever. But somewhere along the line between infancy and adulthood, we seem to learn that goals are to be achieved as quickly as possible; that, in fact, the speed of an achievement is an essential piece of measuring its success. As someone who works in adult education, I see students who usually take one of two positions towards learning: not wanting to learn anything new at all, or not being able to learn something fast enough. Adults don’t seem to be comfortable being a learner in the process of learning. I mean, go back above and read how I brag about her pushing that cart forty-five feet. You can almost hear me saying, “How about that, other parents? Is your child walking forty-five feet?” I can’t even relay the story without injecting my own pride over her traversing the length of the room three times, and then my subsequent disappointment that she wouldn’t recreate this feat for her mother. There’s a lovely Zen-like beauty in my little girl’s ability to be content in a state of not-quite-there-yet. When do we lose that? When do we grow out of being able to tolerate the process of becoming? What happens to us to make us need to be there already, to know all there is to know or do the task perfectly or have everything there is to have?
I’m all the time encouraging my students to give themselves the grace to be learners, to do something imperfectly and allow themselves the space to grow into a new way of being and doing something. It comes from my theoretical belief in transformative learning, but I need that grace as much as my students. And yet here’s my little girl, for whom transformation is occurring on nearly a weekly basis, who seems to allow herself that grace effortlessly. She seems to say to me, “Yeah, so I walked across the room yesterday. But today I want to chew on plastic rings. I’ll walk again later.”
There really is a spiritual truth in becoming like children, in not rushing, in living in the grace of space. Being mobile isn’t about getting somewhere, it’s about being in process. My sweet little girl challenges me to give myself the grace to plop down and chew on some plastic rings in between all the pushing.