In the course of a week, she went from an occasional toddler to the expert pacesetter she’s now become. Seriously, a week, maybe less. And the catalyst for this speedy developmental hike seems easy to pinpoint: she was moved up to the toddler class in her daycare the week of her birthday. She went from being the oldest child in the infant class, surrounded by babies who were still just crawling, to being the youngest child in the toddler class, filled with busy little bodies bustling from activity to activity. Whereas walking was previously a rare delicacy of exertion that couldn’t quite match the speed of the carpet-crawlers all about her, it suddenly became the coin of the realm. Good at crawling as she was, the toddlers in her class could walk just as fast. I have no doubt that just a few days in that classroom were enough to convince our little girl that it was time to grow up a little and develop an upright existence.
There are some drawbacks to this developmental milestone, however (and not just for us, the newly harried parents). Most notably is that our little girl is much more tired at the end of the day. Her net amount of naptime has increased in her new class (all the children nap at the same time, and so this cuts out the distractions of other activities in the room), but she expends far more energy than she’s been accustomed. Despite her zeal for strolling about the place, by the time she comes home in the evenings, she’s fairly exhausted. At times her knees will buckle while she walks, and she will collapse into a frustrated heap on the floor. This is typically followed with shrieking and weeping and gnashing of teeth. Our little girl, in her fatigue, has become quite the drama queen. But in her defense, I don’t think she’s ever experienced a tiredness of this depth. She hates it, and like any young child responds to something she hates, she pitches a presidential fit about it. She’s out as soon as her cheek hits the sheet of her crib, but for a twilight hour in the evening, she’s a weary grump. Despite all the benefits walking offers over crawling, it’s harder and more demanding, and the physical cost of a mistake is higher (particularly on hardwood). Learning to walk comes at a cost.
Of course, going back to crawling isn’t really an option anymore. When you’ve tasted the sweet air in the atmosphere at shoulder-height, the cold bland air near the floor is much less appealing. Despite moments – mostly in the last thirty minutes before bedtime – when a return to four-legged locomotion would seem a tempting respite, it is still a lesser form of movement, an ambulatory ghetto. Hands have thumbs and are for grasping things; using these fine tools for something pedestrian is just insulting.
Each stage of development, while bringing about a liberating advancement of ego-definition and self-expression, comes at a cost. Whenever a person learns something new, she must leave something behind. In this case, it is the ease of crawling and being carried; this ease has been replaced with a new responsibility of self-determination, which comes with the cost of high exertion and not a few bumps and knocks. But you can never go home again, and the loss cannot be reversed.
Remember when you discovered that the Tooth Fairy was really your parents? Remember that mix of prideful knowing, no longer deceived by such childish notions, with a nostalgic longing for a simpler and more magical understanding of the world? That’s called “learning.” Or “growing up.” And there’s a reason that adults longingly eulogize the innocent – and, let’s be honest, immature – states of youth. If you ever wonder why people won’t learn something, here it is: learning is costly. Learning causes loss, and loss creates grief. Adam and Eve were forced to leave behind a blissful paradise not after eating a fruit of evil, but a fruit of knowledge. Although I don’t necessarily agree with this theological interpretation, it makes sense to me that some people might equate maturity with sinfulness. The consequences certainly feel that way at times.
There’s another theological perspective in the New Testament. St. Paul talks about “putting away childish things.” As children, the world may seem simpler, but we see it dimly. As we grow, the world becomes clearer. What we see isn’t always pretty, but it is what we’re called to become. Naïveté becomes ignorance if we don’t grow.
A phrase we often use for this is “growing pains.” I might also submit the phrase “learning losses.” I’ve seen a lot of adults refuse to learn something that is staring them in the face, choosing instead to remain ignorant and, ultimately, be confined in an emotional, psychic, or spiritual ghetto of their lesser self. I have sympathy for this, because I know that learning is costly. It takes courage to learn and grow. This is why I think that Jesus claimed we must become like children to enter the kingdom: we must take on the natural courage of development that I see in my little girl, learning to walk even when it’s hard and exhausting. The rewards for this growth become self-evident enough to be worth the cost, and despite some frustrations about being unable to go back to the easier previous ways, she knows it’s a better way. And when she’s not pitching a fit – grieving, really – she’s loving it. And so are her parents. I hope that I continue to have the same courage she does as I learn to walk in my own life, reaching up for a hand when I can, not just for support, but with the excitement of showing others what I’ve discovered.