Baby Stepping into Growth

“Strive for progress, not perfection.”–Anonymous

During a recent conversation with a new mother, she shared with my husband, John, and me, the plight of her recent episode of sleepless nights.  The mother explained that her nearly ten month old daughter had learned the joys of pulling-up and cruising around furniture for short bursts of time.  Enamored with her newfound skill, the baby girl was now waking during the night in order to practice her newly discovered skills. While the new parent was thrilled and excited at the baby’s achievement of this new milestone, her eyes were rimmed with dark shadows due to her lack of sufficient sleep.  However, as the parent continued to share various stories of her baby’s zig-zag pattern of progression–crawling and rolling by day, pulling up and cruising by night–the mom’s eyes, nonetheless, sparkled with delight.

Initially, as many parents do, I reflected on my own daughter’s development.  She was much more interested in mastering her vocal and verbal skills at the nine-to ten month period.   Her interrupted sleep, at least at that age, was to wake and explore all the ways in which she could babble, vocalize, and soon enough, form meaningful words.  It wasn’t until the 10-11 month period that she became more interested in pulling up and cruising.  Even then, it seemed that she pulled up with the sole purpose to practice all the ways in which she could use her voice!

My daughter’s path of development was not better or worse than the parent’s child, rather it is an example of the varied and unique ways in which children’s bodies and brains develop. In fact, John and I took great amusement in the fact that our own daughter would be more interested in learning to talk before walking.  Likewise, the new mom did not criticize or compare her baby’s progress to that of a child who had mastered walking, rather she focused on her child’s progress.

Upon reflection, the next day, I realized that there was a nugget of wisdom in that story that was worthy of more contemplation.  Reflecting, not only my daughter’s unique mastery of walking, but also upon what I understand as an educator regarding child development, I recognize that learning is all about progress, not perfection.  In fact, the same is true for establishing new habits or making/adjusting to a drastic change in life.  Cultivating growth, change, and learning, in the real world, moves slowly through up and down periods of time.

My parents did not compare my development as a toddler to that of my grandfather!

“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.”–Naeem Callaway

Reflecting on the ways in which babies learn to walk, child development experts state there are certain milestones, such as, sitting, rolling over, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and so forth, that parents should expect. During the process, the baby will learn to balance while standing, then bounce while standing, and might revert back to rolling or crawling. Eventually, however, the child will return his or her interest to pulling up, and perhaps begin to attempt cruising, but may still go back to crawling for a while–or in the case my daughter–focus on developing verbal skills.  

The point is that while so-called experts can point to certain milestones of development, in reality all children learn to walk (and talk) at his or her own pace–some taking longer or shorter periods of time than others.  However, we never compare the child-learning-to-walk to a so-called “master-walker.” Can you imagine a parent or grandparent saying to a baby learning to walk, “Why aren’t you walking like so and so?”  Instead, we foster and encourage each, well, baby-step along the child’s unique time-line of progression.  Which led me to wonder why so many of us, myself included, don’t do that for ourselves?

Nor did my parents compare my brother’s baby steps to his older sister (me).

Why do we, as adults, compare our own progress–or for that matter the progress of school age children–to that of a so-called, “master.”  While having a goal is absolutely worthy, as the old adage states, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither is progress.  In fact, I often have conversations with parents of students that growth often happens in fits and starts.  Each student’s brains are wired uniquely, and thus learning never occurs in a straight upward angled line.  The same is also true for adult learning. 

All progress–be learning a new skill, establishing a new habit, or changing/eliminating a bad habit–looks more like the zig-zag pattern of learning to walk.  How many times per day does a baby who is learning to walk fall down?  Are we ever disappointed in the baby when he or she does this?  No!  Instead, as loving adults, we say words to encourage, foster, and inspire the child to try again.  In fact, I would argue, it is the adult’s positive attitude that is part of the baby’s motivation to get up and try again–at least until they are too tired.  Even then, as we put the baby to bed, we know that tomorrow’s is a new day, and he or she will be right back at it again in the attempt to learn to walk.

No matter how long or meandering the path toward progress is, keep on stepping into the version of your best self!

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”–Martin Luther King Jr.

Thus, this is the type of attitude that we should offer ourselves in our attempts to instigate personal change and growth.  Start with small steps towards the desired goal.  If you “backslide” and revert back to old habits, such as when babies revert back to crawling, get back up the next day, and try again.  Don’t compare yourself to others with self-defeating thoughts or other comparative notions. Each of us has our own distinctive way of learning, changing, and/or progressing.

I would have never told my daughter that she should give up on learning to walk, much less called her a failure when her interest in walking was put on pause for several weeks as she focused on her vocalization.  That was part of her own idiosyncratic pattern of growth, and the same holds true for our own attempts at growth and change. 

We all need a little help along the way towards our goals. Don’t be afraid to accept structure and help as needed!

According to the Kaizen principle that is often applied in the business world, improvements and growth in an organization most successfully occurs through small steps.  In fact, as best as I understand it, the Kaizen principle for growth and change encourages a business to create a culture in which employees plan, implement a small steps towards growth, periodically review whether or not the plan is working, then take action–either by taking the next small step forward or by refining/adjusting the current step.  With each successive step and revision, growth begins to occur. This principle can be applied to our own lives.

Stop comparing yourself to a master-image of perfection.  In fact, I encourage you to stop striving for a so-called image of perfection–after all, this is life, with all of its ingrained messiness and fallibilities.   Instead, foster progress.  Talk kindly to yourself as you would a child learning to walk.  If you fall down, it’s okay.  Cry if you must, but get up the next day, and try again. If you need to hold onto a structure for a while, as a baby must hold onto furniture in its attempt to master walking, remember the baby is developing its leg strength, and you are likewise building strength!  The point is to keep moving forward, no matter if it seems like you’re only making baby steps. Eventually you will attain your version of success that works for you.  

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Starting Over

“A sunrise is God’s way of saying, ‘Let’s start again.”–Todd Stocker

Before typing this, I spent nearly 2 ½ hours trying to decide the best way to begin writing.  I looked at photo ideas, quotes, inspirational readings, ideas I have saved on a document, and so forth . . . all the usual starting points for me.  I would start typing, then moments later, delete all the words.  Type, delete, repeat. My mind was filled with a revolving door of thoughts as I reflected upon the new year and all the possibilities it held.  No matter the number of do-overs, this repeatedly blank document likewise remained an opportunity for a new start–full of the hope and promise that exploring an idea through writing offers, and the enhanced understanding that comes with it.

As we close the saga that was 2020, I can say with confidence that it was certainly a year like no other.  While it began, full of hope and promise, it quickly spiraled out of control globally, nationally, professionally, and personally.  Often, when it seemed the year could not get any worse, 2020 somehow managed to throw more curve balls than a record breaking MLB pitcher.  In fact, it seems to me that 2020 pitched a no-hitter of a game.   

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As a lifelong learner, one of the reasons I write is to increase my own understanding. The process of writing slows down my thoughts, and reduces my emotions which can cloud my thinking. Writing also coaxes my analytical brain to engage more with the world rather than my intuitive/sensitivity center that, from decades of training, extends from me like antenna–seeking, searching, and constantly evaluating the temperament of a room, situation, and people.  While this so-called sensitivity is a pretty handy awareness to have, especially as an educator, it can unfortunately become overwhelmed by the feelings, energy, and attitudes of others, short-circuiting my emotional center and nearly shutting down my brain, filling me with overwhelming negative feelings and stories.

Writing is not the only way in which I tap into my logical brain.  As an educator, I must also remain centered in logic, task-analysis, and effective communication.  While I use my sensitivity skills to help navigate the world of middle school students, parents, and coworkers, I have trained myself to not react nor take situations personally.  I am not implying that I am perfect, rather that my professional and creative self have more in common with one another than private me.

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When left alone with my own thoughts, I am often given over to emotional waves.  This was especially true during 2020.  Far too often this past year, I slipped into the stories and/or negativities that seemed to be surrounding me on all sides. Therefore, one of my hopes for 2021 is a greater sense of equanimity, no matter my circumstance or setting, and I can’t help but think I am not the only one feeling this way. 

I am reminded of a former yoga instructor who once warned students of the danger of attaching to and/or becoming our negative thoughts.  He gave the illustration that if we nourished our body with good food in order to maintain a healthy body, why shouldn’t we feed our brain positive thoughts and ideas.  Therefore, when this recollection randomly entered my mind, as I sat at my kitchen table trying to tease out the precise writing idea floating just outside the periphery of my thinking, I began to look around my kitchen. 

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Due to the holidays, my kitchen was filled with foods that we normally do not keep on hand.  In fact, there was so much excess, as I glanced around, that food was visible on the top of my fridge and counter–something that is normally a no-no for me.  Those foods were as lovely to the eye as on the tongue, but they lacked any real nutritional value.  These were foods, my body reminded me throughout the holiday season, that did not keep me feeling full for very long, and they created cravings I typically don’t experience.  Additionally, I found that these same foods also tended to generate a sense of fatigue and/or lethargy; and yet, my brain kept telling me to consume more of those delectable special sweets, salty-snacks, and other rich treats.  Each time I overindulged, which I did on several occasions, my mind would spin into negative thoughts about myself, my food choices, and lack of willpower–which was so silly since all of the foods were truly special occasion foods only made and eaten in this quantity one time per year.

In fact, by January, most, if not all, of the treats will be out of the house, and we will return to a more healthy, sustainable way of eating, but it supports my point.  2020 was like the sweets and junk food in my house for the holidays, it continually served up an abundance of low-quality fodder wrapped in bright screens, attention-seeking sound-bites, and eye catching headlines promising “breaking news” that was mostly devoid of any positive and fulfilling sustenance.  One sad, frustrating, or anger-inducing event after another kept emotions running high while nutrient-rich content was as hard to find as fresh produce at a local convenient mart.  

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If 2020 has taught me anything, it is that change is inevitable and ongoing, but no matter the change, I have a choice with what I nourish my mind and how I choose to react to change.  While I am unable to rid the world of “junk,” as I can in the kitchen of my own home, I can fuel my mind at the start of each day, as I do for my writing, by spending a bit of time in quiet reflection and devotion, with an open heart and mind, and a prayer that Divine Providence will fortify me throughout the day with those positive morning messages, providing with a greater sense of equanimity in all situations.

Happiness is not the absence of problems; it’s the ability to deal with them.”–Steve Maraboli

2021 is like this once blank document, an opportunity for each of us to start again. Of course, the new year starts with much of the baggage of this past year, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to deal with it and learn to better understand it. Just as a new black document each week offers me a choice as to what I idea or thought I choose to focus my attention, each of us likewise has a choice of where we focus our attention and how we react to each problem or challenge that may occur.  Equanimity of mind seems to me like happiness–everyone wants it, but we wouldn’t know either one without the opposite extreme.  

May the blank page of 2021 serve as a reminder that life is about progress, not perfection.  Let us remember that nature does not create a storm without an end. We may not always feel happy, or remain in a state of equanimity, but we can choose what we nourish our thoughts with.  May we say goodbye to poisoning our minds with discord, disharmony, and dissension–even if the storms of 2020 continue into the new year. Instead, may we focus on what we can control: our thoughts, our prayers, and our actions/reactions. 2020 is done, and 2021 has just begun.  It’s an opportunity for a new start– even if only on the personal level.

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”–Revelation 21:5

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