The Real Significance of the First Steps

The Real Significance of the First Steps

Fourteen-month-old Melissa is getting ready to walk, and her mother and father are anxiously awaiting the event.  But they may not know that while this will be just a tiny step in their child’s physical development, it can be a giant leap in her psychological development.

Typically during the second half of the first year, babies begin crawling.  During the ensuing months, they start pulling to stand, climbing, and cruising (walking with support).  Then, ordinarily sometime after the first birthday, they eventually begin walking unaided.

These accomplishments are clearly significant.  However, none is really “at risk.”  As long as babies have plenty of suitable opportunities to attempt, practice, and perfect these abilities, they will do so just fine according to their natural and individual developmental patterns and inclinations.  Consequently, parents can relax to a large extent – but not entirely.  Although these physical skills may not be at risk, they are deeply intertwined with another aspect of development that does require careful attention.

It is through these early physical accomplishments that the roots of strong and healthy self-esteem are established.  When an infant first attempts to crawl, climb, walk, etc., she exerts considerable effort.  And when she finally succeeds, she feels a sense of relief.  Of course, given her limited cognitive capacities and experience, her feelings are vague and undifferentiated, and she certainly doesn’t understand the significance of what she has done.

Fortunately, when her mother and father witness the event, they go nuts.  They jump up and down, clap like crazy, and scream with delight.  On a very fundamental level, the infant senses their pleasure, and she gradually internalizes their reaction.  This ultimately leads to the child developing confidence regarding her competence and pride in her achievements.  After a while, it is not surprising to see the little one complete a difficult task, such as climbing on to the sofa, then smiling broadly and giving herself a robust round of applause.  And this capacity to feel good about oneself is one of the best gifts that mothers and fathers can give to their child.

It is ironic that the onset of walking traditionally has been something about which parents have needlessly worried, while its connection to self-esteem has been something about which they historically have not been well-informed.  And it is nice to know that merely by replacing all that anxiety with a lot of emotional letting go, mothers and fathers can ensure their child’s psychological development will be just as strong and healthy as her physical development.