Big stairs, little person

Today I got to experience the joy of watching my baby girl climb stairs after dinner. This is one of my favorite things to do these days. I’m sure it will turn out to be just a phase for her and she’ll soon move on to other challenges, but right now she’s fascinated with learning the mechanics of the climb.

The thing that surprises me most is how much thought she puts into each movement. I had always generally assumed that babies just sort of ambled about randomly and only discovered how to crawl, walk, and climb by accident, but now I’m not so sure. In a scary environment where she understands that every move matters (don’t worry, I’m right there ready to catch her the whole time), she’s much more deliberate and thoughtful. When she gets herself stuck in a precarious position, she then has to think about what limb to move next and where to lean to get untangled. Those few seconds where she freezes and I can see her slightly shift her weight around test each handhold and foothold are a precious window into how much control and understanding she has of the way her body works and moves.

The immediate analogy that springs to mind in the Internet age is the online game QWOP. If you haven’t played it, go try it for a few minutes. I guarantee that it will make your day more interesting. To me it’s a powerful reminder of how impressive the human subconscious mind is and how much effort and calculation go into the everyday actions we don’t usually think about at all. To the conscious mind, an act like walking down the street is simple: one foot in front of the other. But this only works because the subconscious mind has learned through painstaking repetition how to move a dozen different muscles in a pattern that abstracts away the conscious mental concept “one foot forward”. Even before we’re old enough to begin to understand how we learn, we’ve already put thousands of hours into mastering an abundance of low-level skills that are just as deep and intricate as the trades, arts, and hobbies we usually spend our adult days thinking about.

It’s hard work being a baby. My daughter’s work ethic is rather stunning considering the relative scale of her movement and the amount of motor development she has to do. Imagine spending your entire day using and stretching muscles that are completely exhausted from being used and stretched the day before; it’s no surprise at all that babies can sleep like the dead every night for twelve hours and still nap twice a day. There’s a big difference between sitting and walking around with well-developed adult muscles and the baby-equivalent of training for a triathlon for six hours a day. Compared to what she goes through and how hard she pushes herself, even an exhausting day for me running around the office is easy stuff. If I worked as hard as she did, I’d get cranky around bedtime, too.

Leave a Reply