“Show Me How to Do Life:”
The Implicit Request From the Young Child
First published Fall 2022
How human beings learn the way things work—achieving a new skill or following a sequence of thoughts—is an interesting question to ask. For adults who want to learn something new—juggling, sourdough starter preparation, or washing machine repair—the internet and YouTube are often where we go first in our modern world. We watch the video, follow the steps of instruction, and hopefully go on to have many laughs with juggling balls, bake delicious bread, or troubleshoot a problem and manage repair without monetary expense. It feels satisfying to watch someone demonstrate the steps toward accomplishing these new tasks, and it is a lot easier than reading one’s way through instructions or hearing someone narrate the task without seeing it simultaneously. Now, we want to be still able to read instructions when this technology is unavailable, but seeing something done is very helpful, even without words or a narrative to explain everything that is happening.
It is much the same with young children. Little children are strangers in a strange land and do not know anything about living on the earth. They are eager and completely dedicated to figuring out this earthly life. They let us know that this is true with their attention. They are interested in everything! If the hand accidentally touches and grabs hold of an object, it goes right to the mouth to be explored for taste, temperature, texture, shape, mass, weight, and so on. The next step is that the eyes see something, “grasp” it with their gaze, and reach out with interest to creep toward this new earthly experience to take it with the hand—and then explore it with the mouth as well. No one needs to teach a child to do these things. This progression of entering the world with interest is a wisdom that comes with each child as a birthright. It unfolds naturally and progressively if the environment invites this interest to explore and to come to know this new earthly home.
Every human being comes with another birthright known as the gift of imitation. Little children reach out with their gaze and echo with their limbs everything they see through imitative movements. This happens unconsciously and beautifully as little children choreograph their movements to dance with the movements of the other human beings around them. Their “media” for learning new skills, for awakening new capacities, for learning “how to do life” comes from the upright human models of their loving caregivers. They imitate the postures, gestures, movements, and sequences they see of their adult guides for standing, walking, working, and serving purposefully and joyfully in the world. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, pointed out that this upright, walking, speaking, and thinking human model is essential for all of these possibilities to unfold. Like adults with our YouTube videos, little children learn by seeing and doing. And they are so lucky, for their “instructional video” is the live human being before them. They become dancing partners with the adult leading.
Recently I was caring for our three-year-old grandchild. We had a splendid day baking bread and scrubbing the kitchen floor. The key to our day’s success was setting everything up, so things were within the child’s reach. The big mixing bowl was set on a sturdy step stool right at her height, so stirring was easy. We went through the stages of mixing the liquids with the yeast and letting that bubble up as our first step. Then she added cups of flour and stirred. Most everything stayed in the bowl, but what did not was easily cleaned up when we got to the floor scrubbing. We stirred and then kneaded the bread dough, shaped it into a loaf, let it rise, and then baked it in the oven. The kitchen was filled with a delicious aroma, and there was divinely delicious bread for lunch. She was interested and engaged in everything we did—and was allowed to revel in the experience with no sense of rush or timetable. Everything took as long as it needed until we completed each step.
Then another gift from our baking task awoke. My grandchild was witnessing a purposeful sequence, which she had just watched, with no explanation of what we were doing. Someday when she has seen this process and others with sequential, repeated steps many times, it will awaken within her that many things in “doing life” have distinct, ordered steps in a sequence that matter. Our current world is so filled with things happening instantly that children are denied the opportunity to see that the order of steps matters and that there are many steps to doing meaningful, purposeful work. Some of the most important experiences in life do not happen through pressing a button or a computer key but take time, attention, and a commitment to seeing them through.
Little children try to “make sense” of this world and feel secure living within it. That is true for adults, too. When we are confronted with something new and unfamiliar, we can feel challenged and anxious. Yet if we have had opportunities to see that all kinds of problems can be approached and solved by the process of one-step-after-another, we can find our way. It is instructive and reassuring when we see human work, hear stories, play games, and do chores with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Our fast-paced world can deceive us into thinking that “doing life” is magic where no effort or patience is needed between the beginning and end. To not experience the middle part of a process is a disservice to our children.
“Show me how to do life” is what children are asking of us. They are not asking for “tell me” or “explain to me” how to do life. They are asking, “Please. You do it and show me. Show me how much time and effort things take to do well. I will learn from what you show me. I repeat the order of life’s dancing steps from you. Thank you for being my dancing partner.”