I’m in the park with my son when I recall a story often told about the confidence of children. A girl is sketching when a teacher asks what she’s drawing. ‘God,’ she says, nonchalantly. ‘But Alice,’ her teacher replies, ‘nobody knows what God looks like.’ Alice looks at her sharply and replies: ‘They will in a minute.’
My son can’t draw particularly well, but I’m reminded of this story because he is now walking with the sure-footed brio of, well, someone who doesn’t fall over every 25 seconds. He took his first steps towards the end of last year, but these took a long time to develop into the strange, rod-legged gait he now has. He walks, let’s not mince words here, like a maniac. He totters from foot to foot with his hands up by his chest, legs moving outward like inflexible drainpipes. He looks like a cross between a T rex and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, or a meerkat wearing two full-length leg casts. It is, I’ll grant you, an entirely hilarious way to get around, but not what you might call stable.
He is not of this opinion himself. He’s checked ‘walking’ off that list of things he needs to improve, along with getting food near his mouth or remembering who I am. He’s moved on to higher pursuits like crossing busy roads, interrogating yappy dogs, or launching himself, head first, into any intriguing holes. Last week he ran towards an open manhole as if it was a ball pool. Yesterday he had designs on a ditch being dug for water mains.
Whoever coined that old adage about ‘having to walk before you run’ may rest easy in their grave (so long as it’s fully covered, or my son might decide to jump down into it), but it’s hard to impart this wisdom to an 18-month-old. All of this – the walking, not the imagery of a toddler jumping into a grave – is adorable, while also being nerve shredding. My task is to follow him at just enough distance that I keep him safe without bashing that confidence out of him.
Because, in truth, I admire it. He had never taken four steps in a row a fortnight ago. Now he strolls around as if he invented walking. I have the opposite problem. I’m seized by a constant sense of incompetence, even for things I’ve done many times. I routinely make an L with my left hand to clarify which is left and which is right. I’ve watched the same YouTube tutorial each of the eight times I’ve changed the filter on his bottle machine. Despite having written hundreds of articles and an entire book, each time I sit down to write, like a penguin studying for his driving test, I’m sure this will be the time I run out of comprehensible similes.
Sadly, at a certain point, growing older becomes a process of humbling, of discovering your frailties and letting them stifle your ambitions. Thankfully for my son, teetering on the brink of the steep stone steps of Springfield Park while I check my own pulse, that tipping point hasn’t come just yet.
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