On learning how to walk

Thoreau couldn’t get enough of it. Beerbohm wished that he didn’t have to do it. Gandhi used it as a political act. Evolutionarily, it is one of the things differentiates us from most animals. Most of us need to do it. Some people could use more of it. Few of us actually think much about it.

I’m talking about walking, a physical activity my son has taken a keen interest in. It started way before his first year, when having mastered and discovered the limitations of crawling, he literally took the next step, by standing on his wobbly feet. Of course, the first few weeks of standing required holding on to objects for support and learning how to fall. Babies tumble quite often as they master their motor skills, but I think there is probably a right way to fall. After a few clumsy spills which resulted in squeals of pain, the little boy learned to fall properly, so as to minimize pain. Soon he was sitting down whenever he anticipated losing his balance.

By his tenth month, my son was regularly walking with support, tracing a straight line at a tiny arm’s length from the sofa and darting from it for a few steps before lying flat on the carpet. This herculean labor continued until he learned a key trick: the best way to keep from falling when losing balance is not to keep going, but to stop to regain composure. And once you know how to stop, you can practice making each stop between a walking motion shorter and shorter until the repeated movement is seamlessly harmonic. Developing this key deceit is crucial to walking, but with repeated practice it develops fairly rapidly. And so once standing, falling, stepping, and stopping are mastered, turning and sauntering are rapidly added to the repertoire.

A curious child that walks poses a new set of challenges to a parent. In a typical span of thirty minutes on one fine Saturday morning, my son pulled a book from my bookshelf and chewed a few pages, threw an old mp3 player in the trash, and broke the flush of the toilet by repeatedly trying to deploy it. A walking toddler will close a door, but being unable to open it again, will knock until you open it for him (so he can close it again, and so on and so forth). Thus, the parent is forced to walk as well.

For the growing child, learning to walk means a much larger world has to be navigated. The world now has slippery, hard, and uneven surfaces. Among other things, the sidewalk has manhole covers, leaves, twigs, cigarette butts, and plastic wrappers. There is traffic: other people, strollers, dogs on leashes, and bicycles (not to mention cars and buses in the off-limit areas). Soon the child comes face to face with a new obstacle: steps. The standard adult step nearly reaches up to the knees, and in scale would be hardly an easy task even for someone with decades of walking mileage.

So, as the child is exposed to the walking world, he is taught that he must hold hands. He does not really like it, since he has a mind of his own. He wants to run his fingers through water pouring out of fountains, chase birds, pet plants, and pick up dirt.  His parent pulls his hand in the other direction. Is it time to go back home? He does not want to go back home. He tries to drag his parent the other way. Failing to move his much larger adversary, he tries to use his body weight to sit down on the sidewalk. And in staging his first sit-in, learning how to fall properly also comes in handy.