Teaching Our Children To Walk
Dr. Joy Browne, of talk-radio fame, said, "We teach our children to walk, then we teach them to walk away." I don't know if this sentiment is originally hers, but it's gotten me thinking.
We teach our children to walk. Our children come into the world totally helpless and completely dependent upon us for every single one of their needs. As parents, it falls to us to provide all of their basic needs, or to ensure that those needs are met by others if we cannot. This is teaching babies to walk, in far more than just a literal sense. We teach them by our example, by living our principles and beliefs out front, where they can see them, by touching them in a loving and gentle way, and by treating them and others as we would hope to be treated ourselves. We teach them with words, by talking to them and listening to them. We teach them by giving them a safe home from which to explore the wonderful world. We love them, and we let them discover themselves.
Teaching our children to walk, to put one foot in front of the other, to navigate across the living room from the safety of the coffee table to the safety of dads outstretched arms without falling down, is a momentous occasion. Babies first step is a classic Big Event. Horizons are expanded by leaps and bounds when this basic skill is mastered. A child can move about, bringing toys with her. Her perspective changes from seeing everything at carpet level to seeing over and around things. Space opens up, and the first inklings that parent and child are separate individuals start to form. It is perhaps the first big revolution in the life of a child, and whether they learn to walk early or late, 9 months or 2 years, hardly anything will change their lives the way walking does.
But teaching the physical skill of walking is one of the least important things we as parents teach our children. They'd learn to walk without us, one way or another. There would be more bruises and bumps certainly, but the human urge to get up and walk is powerful, and will not be denied for long. The other basic things we teach are far more important, and will affect the child in much more profound ways as he grows up. The notion that the world is basically a good place can only be taught by a caring, attentive parent. That is how that message is transmitted—by being loving and by making the child feel safe. No lectures or books will convince a child of the inherent goodness of the world. While they will acquire bipedal locomotion even without our help, how they walk and where they walk depends, to a large extent, on us. We can help them walk gently and peacefully through their lives, or we can teach them to walk with fists raised in protection and aggression. It is through our caring attention or our cold neglect that we truly teach our children to walk.
And once they have learned to walk, our next task is to teach them to walk away. Our children will have to learn, eventually, to break away from our protection and make their own way in the world. Building families, embarking on careers, undertaking adventures and perhaps changing the world are things they have to accomplish outside the loving and secure homes we have worked so hard to create. Whatever our children set out to do, they set out to do without us.
The process is a gradual one. Sending a child off to grade school is usually the first step of that journey. It is the first time the child has been separated for so long a time and at such regular intervals from his parents, and it is the first time we have delegated so much of his care to other people. It is a huge step. The child begins to experience things, both good and bad, that reach far beyond what they've found at home, and parents begin to realize that their children are not entirely their own. A parent begins to give his child up to the larger world.
It is here, as the child grows into young maturity, that our walking lessons are put to the test. The child is on his own in what is often a dangerous and sometimes scary world. No longer is mom or dad there to kiss away the hurts. Our children, armed with our best intentions and the greater part of our love, begin to face the world on their own. Granted, first grade is a relatively safe place, but it is a far cry from the back yard. Children practice walking, learn to balance and juggle responsibility, and, if all goes well, will surprise us with walking, and running, circles around us.
Eventually, there comes a time when our children will turn and walk
away from us. It is curious that all of our work and teaching and loving
and holding and caring are done to prepare our children to leave us
behind. But that is the natural order of things, and all of our efforts
will gain fruition as the door closes, and our homes grow quiet. Most
children make the transition to independence with grace and clarity,
some have difficulty, and a few may have to be shoved from the nest. But
walk they will, hopefully as we have taught them, true and honest and
gentle and peaceful. And the cycle will begin again. They will teach
someone who comes into the world just as they did, helpless and crying,
and the lessons we left them with will not be forgotten. Another baby
will learn to walk, and finally, to walk away.