Parable of the Toddlers

Two toddlers help each other across a room

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In our ward, Gospel Doctrine is held in the cultural hall. This works well, as those who listen gather near the front, while those with small children will often pace around in the empty space near the back, ready to make a quick exit in case their child suddenly goes ballistic.

Two regular occupants of this space are Callie and Claire. Callie and Claire are friends, or as good of friends as one-year-olds can be. The two are several months apart. Callie, who’s older, has just become a totally independent walker. Claire, on the other hand, can stumble around as long as she is holding on to something, but by herself she can’t go more than a few steps without falling.

Let me ruin the metaphor before we go too far. I pretty much feel like Claire every day, stumbling along one step at a time with an awful lot of help.

A Modern Parable From Two Toddlers

While, Callie and Claire love to hang out in the back of the cultural hall, Callie has recently discovered another joy, running away from her mother. I watched as Callie would dart off across the back of the cultural hall, but after a moment she would return, because as fun as getting away was, Claire couldn’t come with her.

Somehow one of the small primary chairs had made its way into the cultural hall. Claire’s mother put her on the chair so she could enjoy standing up. When Callie saw this, she walked to Claire and  dragged the chair. Claire, with both hands still firmly on the chair took a step, then Callie pulled again and Claire took another step.

Across the cultural hall they went, while several of us watched on in wonder. They reached the other side, and both sat down, now with the joy of both running away from their mothers and being together.

The entire scene was so novel, and so chock full of symbolism, you may very well be drawing your own lesson from their story. Let me share the lesson that stuck with me from watching these two toddle across the room.

The Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky spent his career watching children as a developmental psychologist. Throughout his life he developed many theories about why and how children learn. And right before his death he developed one final theory called the “Zone of Proximal Development.”

Vygotsky had observed that virtually all children learn and grow, regardless of how they are taught or pushed, and that no matter how advanced a child is, some tasks are simply too advanced for children of a certain age.

What Vygotsky noticed was that there is a range between the things children can do all by themselves, and the things they can’t do at all. This is the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky posited that with the help of adults and teachers, children could advance more quickly within this zone.

Progressing with Divine Guidance

As children of our Heavenly Father, we very much have a Zone of Proximal Development. In the eternal scheme, there are many things we are simply incapable of doing. To grow and advance, however, we need the help of God, the Savior’s atonement, and the Spirit’s still small voice.

When we cut these presences out of our lives, we are incapable of progressing at our best, we are little more than stumbling toddlers. But with their help, pulling us along one step at a time, we can accomplish things that would have been impossible on our own merits.

Still other times we are like Callie. Our testimonies feel strong, and we feel ready to reap the blessings of the gospel. But our greatest blessings come from learning together.  It is through improving together as families, and by reaching out with a missionary spirit to others that we can gain all the blessings that the gospel has to offer.

Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor for Public Square Magazine and contributor to Third Hour. He loves emphatically celebrating the normal healthy development of his sons Albus and Whitman, writing about the Church of Jesus Christ, finding the middle ground on most controversies, and using Western Family generic brand lip balm. Christopher is a proud graduate of Brigham Young University-Idaho, and a resident of San Antonio, Texas.