Walking, speaking, thinking from a medical and therapeutic perspective

By Christoph Meinecke, September 2013

The three basic human capacities of walking, speaking and thinking are developed in the first three years of life. They represent the prerequisites for the development of the individual ability to act, enter into relationships and obtain knowledge. If they are disrupted or promoted at the wrong time under stress and pressure, the consequence is often serious illnesses in adolescence and adulthood.

© Kerstin Schreiber/Familienforum Havelhöhe

The angels help

Doctors and psychotherapists note that the number of children with psychological and physical developmental disorders is steadily growing. Medicine, neurobiology, developmental psychology and anthroposophy are more in agreement than ever as to the causes of these disorders. But the humanistic and holistic view of the human being which underlies all these disciplines is extended further through anthroposophy. The latter also looks at the spiritual side of the enormous development through which the child passes in the first three years of life.

The spirit behind the visible

If we observe small children as they learn to walk, we can see an almost superhuman perseverance and tolerance of frustration: the child does not abandon its goal of becoming an upright human being. He or she will not be deflected from that goal however many times he or she might fall over. The same developmental urge underlies the acquisition of language and thinking. Why do we never again in later life encounter such intense purposefulness?

The reason for this enormous developmental intent can be found, as Rudolf Steiner has set out, in the activity of spiritual forces, the so-called third hierarchy. Angelic beings, with whom every human soul is united before birth, continue to shine their forces into the human being also after birth: the Archai (spirits of personality) stimulate the learning of upright gait, the Archangeloi (archangels) the development of speech and the Angeloi (angels) the development of thinking. And the “I of humanity”, the God who took human shape, is at work through all of them. The child is “immersed” in a sea of spiritual activity in the first three years. Only when conscious self-perception begins to occur at the end of the third year of life and the child begins to refer to himself or herself as “I”, do these spiritual beings gradually withdraw.

Too much, too early, too fast

Modern developmental neurology illustrates how important it is that the sequence of individual consecutive developmental steps required to obtain higher mental and spiritual abilities is lived through extensively, that is with the necessary time and intensity. Neurobiology has been able to show that a person whose brain differentiates more slowly subsequently has more  neuronal networks and thus higher cognitive potential than a person whose brain differentiates more quickly.

It can be observed in paediatric practice and in educational advice and care situations at the Havelhöhe Family Forum how childhood today is increasingly determined by a constant rush, pressure of time, a flood of stimuli and superficial relationships. This leads to many different physical and psychological problems. Psychotherapeutic treatment becomes necessary because the children are overwhelmed by their environment and suffer from “too much, too early, too fast”.

This comes to expression in increased restlessness, excessive screaming and sleep disorders. Verticalisation of infants at too early a stage before they have obtained upright posture by themselves opens them up to a flood of stimuli because the diversionary senses of seeing and hearing in particular are more awake when the body is in an upright position. Postural anomalies up to and including postural defects of the spine occur more frequently in later life if infants are frequently put in an upright position at an early stage, that is before the seventh month. It is striking that both things, both increased restlessness in early childhood and postural weakness of the spine, can be associated in later life with attention deficit, learning and speech development problems.

A second cause of mental and physical developmental disorders is the loss of parental attachment or the absence of reliable attachment experiences. Even if the learning impulse in the first three years comes directly from the child with the involvement of the spiritual world, it still requires a model for learning and a present, involved counterpart. How upright and sincere (!) is our posture? How honest, authentic and clear is our speech and how coherently and comprehensibly do we express our thoughts – or do we confuse our child with them? Just as human beings learn as children to deal with themselves, their body, their environment, their fellow human beings and their spiritual life, so their habits determine the whole of their later life.

Epidemic lack of movement

How can we support the child in the first three years of life and be the required model? The essential components in this respect are: providing space, giving time, providing a relationship – inwardly filled with clarity, honesty, trust and love.

The development of movement requires a space in which it can unfold freely, joyfully and without pressure to perform. This was indicated by Rudolf Steiner and it has become a fundamental principle of Waldorf education. Every developmental phase requires time. If we anticipate developmental steps which children can later perform by themselves, we deprive them of the opportunity to do the job themselves and of the pleasure of achievement. This experience of self-efficacy is the basic condition for the development of healthy self-confidence. “Give me time to do it myself” is the appropriate motto for child development so brilliantly formulated by Emmi Pikler.

The development of movement skills is the prerequisite and key for all subsequent healthy development. Lack of movement is increasingly putting the health of our children at risk. It leads to circulatory and bone disease, metabolic disorders, obesity, learning and behavioural disorders. Researchers describe the lack of movement as the epidemic of the twenty-first century. Learning to walk without love, Ru­dolf Steiner told the first Waldorf teachers, and learning to walk under pressure can in later life lead to rheumatic diseases and metabolic disorders.

Conditions for the development of speech and thinking

What, then, is the supportive atmosphere required by speech development? Language can only be grasped positively if honesty, that is sincerity, lies in the spoken word which can arise as a soul virtue in parallel to upright gait. If dishonesty and scepticism, a manipulative, ironic or diplomatic intent underlies language, it does not support attachment. If the small child has to be on guard against what the other person is saying this can lead in later life to psychosomatic digestive and eating disorders. The endeavour for clear language leads to the clear development of thoughts in the speaker. It is important for the development of human beings that they should be surrounded by clear thoughts. That also includes: what rules apply in social life? How are they revealed in everyday activity? How do we communicate them? What signals do I give the child? Are they inherently contradictory or can they be clearly interpreted, or – as the specialists say today – how consistent or congruent is our style of upbringing? Disjointedness and lack of clarity in the thought environment of the child have psychosomatic effects in later life. They lead to increased restlessness and nervosity. Steiner was very concerned to sharpen the awareness of these relationships. We find them confirmed every day.

It would be a misunderstanding to conclude from this that we have to give children a causal explanation of the way the world works. In the first phase of life children learn primarily through imitation and example. To begin with they want to know from us how the world is, not why it is as it is. An explanatory style of upbringing above all in the first seven years leads to anxiety and sleep disorders in children. We experience this repeatedly in daily practice. Clarity of thought is not therefore communicated to the child intellectually but he or she experiences it in the circumstances which surround him or her – or not as the case may be.

Better late than never

The first three years of life and the way in which walking, speaking and thinking are learned determine the whole of subsequent life. Making this comprehensible and experienceable was one of Steiner’s core concerns. Basically his remarks contain a call to establish a preventive approach which starts in earliest childhood. The Havelhöhe Family Forum has developed a corresponding early prevention concept and has worked with it for more than ten years.

And yet, even if a lot has been left undone in the first years, not everything is lost. We can understand the indications in anthroposophy as a consolation and spur according to which we have the opportunity to link each night with the spiritual forces and beings at work in the human being in the early years. In that way we can find the connection with healing actions throughout life. This happens if we practice our actions, speech and thoughts throughout the day in such a way that the beings of the third hierarchy can perceive it during the night. Steiner expresses it broadly like this: humane actions during the day which respect the other person as a spiritual being enable us to link with the sphere of forces of the Archai during the night. An idealistic and generous attitude towards the other person in our speech during the day gives language the harmonious sound which is perceived during the night by the Archangeloi.

Idealism and spirituality in our thinking during the day allow us to connect with the sphere of the Angeloi, the angels, during the night. Here a path of daily exercise opens up by which we can reconnect to the spiritual forces of the angelic world through our actions, speech and thinking and thus have a healing effect on ourselves and our surroundings.

About the author: Dr. Christoph Meinecke is the father of five children and a specialist in paediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Havelhöhe Community Hospital in Berlin. He is the founder and chief executive of Familienforum Havelhöhe gGmbH (www.familienforum-havelhoehe.de) and managing director of Emmi-Pikler-Haus e.V. Berlin (www.emmi-pikler-haus.de).