This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, July 2005
As preparation for our latest Christopherus publication, Joyful Movement, I have read a number of books, including The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction by Carol Stock Kranowitz. There are an enormous number of children out there displaying characteristics of sensory integration problems and Waldorf education, being primarily a healing form of education, has so much to offer such children. I read this book to get some perspective on how those outside of Waldorf work with these challenges.
I should also say that I had put this book on my “need to read this” list some time ago in response to the number of times I had seen it mentioned in Waldorf circles, including on my Yahoo list (groups.yahoo.com/group/Waldorf_at_Home/
). I know that this book is based on the work of Dr Jean Ayers, who pioneered Sensory Integration work and she is highly regarded by many in the Waldorf community.
So… I have to say that after all this I was quite disappointed by The Out-of-Sync Child. I had expected a lot more. Before I move on to specifics, let me quickly add that I can, of course, see how many parents will find this book of great use, both in affirming their suspicion that something’s not quite right with their child and as a rich resource of ideas on how to work with their child to address some of these issues.
I’m looking at this book right now. And I’m re-reading the comments on the cover by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.: “This book is great … It will let parents off the hook of blaming themselves … and will help them get on to the job of addressing the child’s underlying difficulties.”
I’m all for a no-guilt approach to parenting. Absolutely. Guilt is a soul-numbing, constricting phantasm that lays us low, immobilizing our will, fogging our thoughts and warping our feelings. So “letting parents off the hook” is a good thing. But … (here it comes) how do we simultaneously recognize that how we form and hold our child’s environment, especially in his early years, is of the utmost importance in raising centered, peaceful children and then not take responsibility? Can I write this without upsetting people and making people feel bad? Can you all imagine that I stretch out my hand in kindness, smile warmly at people and say, “This is not about blame and guilt but about courageous recognition of the truth concerning young children”?
And please – I do know that there are certain children who despite the most Waldorf of Waldorf early parenting still exhibit challenges. Of course. But (here it comes again) in my experience this is the minority. In my experience I can see a direct correlation between a go-go-go, always active, always hectic, ‘let’s stimulate the children’ approach to parenting (i.e. what is considered normal by most people including most ‘experts’) and how comfortable a child is in his or her body and environment and with other children.
The Out of-Sync Child devotes all of one page (out of 322) to “possible causes of SI dysfunction”. There is no mention of TV, video or computers. There is no mention of children subjected to before-school care, long days at school and then after-school care. There is no mention of early intellectualism or parenting approaches that stress children by treating them as being older than they are.
There is, of course, plenty about children needing appropriate opportunities to use their body and their senses – but no discussion of how our society’s norms (early intellectualism, child-unfriendly communities, lack of valuing play, push for early and almost constant socialization of young children, use of the media, parents who want to “have it all”) undermine these opportunities.
And it is society – it is not a question of simply blaming individual parents for how they have parented. How are parents supposed to know? What are their friends, Dr Phil, Oprah, women’s magazines, their mother-in-law and the pediatrician all saying? So again – no guilt here!! No blame. Just the suggestion that people look at their parenting practices in the healing light of Waldorf and say “OK, now I know about something different. This makes sense to me, it feels good and I want to do something new in my family and parenting.”
One of the most important gifts Waldorf brings to us to help us understand and parent (and educate) our children is the gift of understanding the developmental stages a child goes through. Now this isn’t new – Piaget and Montessori also have identified clear developmental stages of children, although somewhat different in sequence and very different in meaning and consequence than Steiner. This is Child Psychology 101 – so I don’t quite understand where that has gone in a book like The Out-of-Sync Child. There are so many things described as possible symptoms of SI dysfunction but without the context of age! Yes, if my 10 year old constantly spills things, cannot relate to other children and avoids eye contact with me, I would certainly have some red flags. But a 3 year old? Whose expectations of developmentally-appropriate growth and behavior is this book based on?
An example: the book quotes a mother who says, “By the time Rob was two, I felt that he had a special need, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. He required constant attention. Time-outs didn’t work because I couldn’t contain him. He was defiant, disobedient, disrespectful, and demanding. He was always busy, always talking (great verbal skills!), strong willed, contrary and easily frustrated. I felt blessed to have Rob, and wouldn’t trade him for the world of course, but he constantly tested and rejected me.”
There is no context – we do not know if this child spends 12 hours a day in daycare, if he is shuttled between divorced parents, if he spends whole mornings watching TV, if he is given lots of choices and has a chaotic lifestyle. What we do know is that the mother’s expectations of what a 2 year old is like are not being met. Somehow she has gotten the picture that her son’s behavior is atypical for a 2 year old – and if his environment matches one of the possible scenarios listed above, then she is misinformed. A 2 year old with a lifestyle or environment that is not nurturing, not meeting his needs, will become … all the adjectives she listed. And even though we don’t know what this family’s homelife is like, we can infer that it is problematic since she believes, for instance, that one can use time-outs effectively with a 2 year old. She does not have a working knowledge of what 2 year olds are like compared to, say, 5 year olds, and the book does not offer any enlightenment on this.
The point here is that this poor mother is not informed about how children develop and grow, what they need and what one can expect. Given that the right environment – a peaceful, calm homelife formed by clear and consistent rhythms; adults who treat a 2 year old as a 2 year old, and do not offer lots of choices and verbal direction; no media; lots of outdoors time; and the presence of a warm child-inclusive but not child-centered parent – then defiance, disrespect and disobedience will transform into a lively and spirited interaction with the world. By magic? No – by hard work and reclaiming of a child’s childhood and an affirmation that the number one role of the parent is to create the healthy forms and rhythms of the young child’s life and to actively parent. And part of this is a healthy nurturing of the senses and the child’s need for activity.
Back to The Out-of-Sync Child, Rob’s mother has gone on to consult with a number of therapists and doctors. Undoubtedly Mom’s parenting has improved as she brings more physical and sensorially-appropriate activities to her son. One assumes that Rob is spending more time receiving the “sensorially rich diet” that the Out-of-Sync authors refer to and, therefore, is having more of his needs met, thus his behavior is improving. Too bad that this situation had to arise and Rob’s mom didn’t have a different paradigm to work with. And too bad a well-respected book like this offers intervention as a solution instead of favoring a preventative approach. But prevention in this case means a certain kind of parental responsibility which is not in favor in our society. It is far easier to look toward genetics, allergies and other individual-centered solutions instead of more difficult solutions which challenge us as adults and as part of society.
My plea is for parents to really work to understand the developmental needs of their growing children – and to understand that, for the young child, of major importance is formed and rhythmical physical activity. I’m talking about circle games, finger plays, chores like chopping vegetables and polishing wood, free explorations in nature and work in the garden. By meeting these physical needs – as well as her other needs – a child is more likely to be, well, like a child. Silly, unpredictable, playful, exuberant, moody, challenging – but basically a joy to be with, both for herself and others.