William Crain (2003)

Nurturing the Remarkable Powers of Children

Recently I saw a toddler chasing after a bird in a park. The boy followed the bird across a low hillside, while his mother kept pace on the path below. Whenever he got close enough to take a look, the bird flew a few yards away, and each time the boy resumed pursuit. He tripped and fell on the rough ground several times, but he always bounced right back up and went after the bird again. Smiling broadly, he was simply enthralled. All the while, the mother adjusted her pace to that of the child, remaining at a distance that must have given him a great sense of freedom.

The Boldest Explorers

This toddler’s behavior is an example of what Margaret Mahler (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975) called the “practicing phase” of development. Toddlers are the boldest of explorers. They climb couches, chairs, and stairs, seeing what they can find. They energetically march along a sidewalk, elated by their ability to move upright. And they are impervious to knocks and falls. Along a walk, they will stop and examine the most common objects—a puddle of water, an insect, a leaf—for long stretches of time. Then they venture off again.

Prior to toddlerhood, babies are curious, too. But the exploration drive seems to peak during the second year (from about 12 to 18 months or so). During this period, toddlers can become so consumed by the thrill of locomotion and exploration that they forget about the mother’s presence altogether. After this, the child becomes a bit more wary. Children start worrying again about their mother’s whereabouts, and injuries affect them more.

As adults, we sometimes boldly explore the world, too, as when we hike over new terrains or dive into unexplored waters. The difference is that the toddler’s full-tilt explorations last day in and day out. The toddler’s whole waking life is one wonderful adventure.

When the boy was chasing the bird, the mother exemplified an unobtrusive presence. She was, as Kierkegaard (1844/1946) advised parents, "present and yet not present." She was present in the sense of keeping watch on the boy for the sake of his safety, yet she kept at a sufficient distance to enable him to explore the world on his own. Read the full paper»