This week I attended a talk on “Constancy and Change on the Path of Parenting” presented by Holly Koteen-Soulé. Holly was a Waldorf kindergarten teacher and parent/ child leader for 25 years. She has been involved in teacher education at Sound Circle Center since 2000. And she is the mother of three grown sons and grandmother to four young children. Her wealth of knowledge and experience was evident through the information and advice that she offered parents who attended. She has a wonderful gift of being able to offer the ideals of Waldorf pedagogy with the realities of parenting. Waldorf education offers students support in physical, social/ emotional, cognitive and spiritual development. But it doesn’t happen at school alone — it is a task that is shared with parents.
Holly began her talk with the image of a bulb. When a baby is born they are held close in the protection of their family. But as they grow the bulb begins to sprout and slowly their world expands to extended family, friends and school. According to Rudolf Steiner, it is not just chance that brings a child into his or her family — the child chooses his/ her parents. This may be at odds with some parents’ philosophy but for just a moment imagine such a truth. Was there an experience in your child’s first three years that made you wonder if you already had a connection with this new person in your life? One parent remembered when her son was placed on her chest just after his birth. One of his eyes was crusty but he opened his other eye and looked at her. And as she looked back at his one-eyed gaze she thought, “He knows me.” Another mother remembered her son telling her when he was 2 years old, “Mama, I choose you.”
Parents who attended the talk shared living questions and challenges they are working with in their homes and with their children right now. Some included a 4 year old not wanting to participate fully at meal time, how to encourage resiliency in a child, another 4 year old being stuck in negativity with a first impulse of “No!” for any request, battle of wills with a 5 year old and ill-use of language in a kindergarten class. The questions led to an overview of child development out of the insights of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education.
Child development can be categorized in 7-year cycles: The first 7 years (birth – 7 years old) focus on the body and development of the will, the second 7 years (7 – 14 years old) focus on the soul and the development of feeling and third 7 years (14 – 21 years old) focus on independent judgment and the development of thinking. Each of these cycles can also be divided in thirds with the first third focusing on willing, the second third focusing on feeling and the last third focusing on thinking. So when looking at the first seven years of childhood the time from birth to 2 1/3 years is the Willing Willing period, from 2 1/3 – 4 2/3 years it is the time of Feeling Willing and from 4 2/3 to 7 years old it is the time of Thinking Willing.
So what does that mean?
Holly shared an example of one of her grandchildren who she cares for during the week. When the child was very young, his mother could slip away and the child would continue on happy in his activities. But once he was around 2 years old, he began to miss his mama when she left. His mama and Holly would let him know that Mama would come back home. But he was unconvinced. He would say, “Mama come back?” As he got a little older, he began to understand what to expect through a repetitive rhythm of the week. And slowly his statement changed to more certainty: “Mama come back.”
Around the change from the Willing Willing period of birth – 2 1/3 years to the Willing Feeling period we notice children start to use the word, “No.” There is great power in this word and it illustrated the beginning of differentiation the child feels between him/herself and his/her parents. This continues to be defined as the child turns three and begins using “I” to refer to himself instead of using “me.” And then: “I want…” or very often, “I don’t want…” What should we do when our child begins to push boundaries to discover their place in the world?
The answer lies in rhythm, imagination and imitation.
When we provide our child with a daily and weekly rhythm, we offer them security and predictability. It is ideal to establish these rhythms and expectations during the first 4 years before the Thinking Willing period. But it is never too late — however it will take more consistency and clarity from parents to create rhythm as the child gets older. We have to balance this rhythm with moments of special activity. This allows our children to develop flexibility and resiliency.
Imagination allows parents to enter into the world of childhood. Holly offered parents the advice to become storytellers. A great place to start is telling your child stories of when you were a child. Therapeutic stories can also be created for the child about their own experience. For some children it is best to have the story be very literal. But for others, the story and characters can be changed so it is not so close to the experience at hand.
“People will not become free beings ….if the power of imitation is not implanted in them in the age of childhood. Only if this is done will they as adults have the basis for social freedom.”
~ from Education as a Force for Social Change by Rudolf Steiner
One of the things children are asking of us is to be worthy of their imitation. Often parents recognize the need to get clear on their values when they have children. Our children let us know our habits — good and bad — by mimicking what we do. So if we want to teach our children our values (for example: respect, compassion, patience, joyfulness) then we have to practice those values ourselves. We can also support our child’s development by creating space to involve them in purposeful activities such as cooking, cleaning and caring for pets. This allows the child to experience what’s important and what their purpose is within the family. It helps if their tasks continue to grow with them so that they are given new and more challenging tasks as they get older.
Of course, even when we strive to offer our children the gifts of rhythm, imagination and imitation, there will still be challenging moments. Our children will push back, cry, refuse to cooperate and say (or scream) “No!” But we can learn in those moments to hold the image of our child in joyful moments and respond with love. We can pause our rhythm and offer a slower and quieter day for renewal. We can bring the child close for a “time-in” so they can rest in the clarity of our larger perspective and purpose in the moment. And in those instances when we can’t respond mindfully, when we can feel our own frustration rising up, we can offer ourselves the same compassion and care. We can give ourselves a “time out” to regroup and relax so we can start again.
Childhood is a journey and we, as parents, must continue to adjust our parenting to our children’s changing needs. And delight in the gift of watching this little bulb grow and bloom.
How have you had to reshape your parenting in response to a new phase in your child’s development?
“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility — these three forces are the very nerve of education.”
~ Rudolf Steiner
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