Have you ever watched a child learning to walk? They stumble left and right, forward and backward. They fall over often. We notice parents standing near their children, creating guard rails with their arms, catching them when they fall. Those parents are usually feeling some level of anxiety that their child will be hurt, and, unable to contain that anxiety, they act it out by protecting the child from falling.
Protecting anyone from the consequences of their mistakes prevents them from learning from those mistakes. When the parent prevents the child from falling, they are usually negatively impacting the process of them learning to walk. They are also modeling caretaking behavior, teaching the child implicitly that people who have learned to do something should prevent those who have not yet done so from making the very mistakes that enabled their mastery in the first place.
Of course, it’s important for a parent to create a safe space for their child, and by doing so, provide scaffolding for the learning process. When a child is learning to walk, we might not take them to a lava field, with its uneven surface, razor-sharp rock, and limb-melting lava. At least, we wouldn’t do that unless we wanted them to learn to be ultra-nimble and confident on their feet. There is usually a compromise that we can frame as reasonable, a balance point between our anxiety and their quest for mastery. That compromise might look like a closed room with a carpeted floor.
Pay attention the next time you walk. Walking is controlled falling. You fall forward and catch your own fall using one of your legs. This process is very clear in early walkers: they lean forward, throw a leg out, and fall onto it; it’s a very jarring motion. Sometimes they get the timing a little wrong and collapse onto the floor. These are the golden learning moments, these are the moments when the balance between falling and catching is not quite right. This is the time when the child needs to collapse on the floor and know that they reached the edge of what is possible with Earth-bound physics.
Now the child is on the floor, temporarily immobilized, motivated to move, wanting to walk. Now the child must develop strength, dexterity, and balance to stand up again and to continue. The child is playing with falling and not falling. Let the child play. Incentivize and encourage and increase awareness of your own anxiety so that you can avoid robbing the child of learning.
I’m not just talking about physical children. I’m also referring to the child inside of you, the inquisitive learner that is continually wanting to discover more about this miraculous reality by experimentation. This is the child that wants to move forward and make progress and can only do so by falling forward. Notice your anxiety, and let the child learn to walk by letting it fall as much as it needs to.