Drowning in Dialogue

Just the other day I was in our local co-op (center of life here in our small Midwest town – especially now when there are two feet of snow on the ground) bobbing about doing my shopping when I became aware of a woman with a small child. The little fellow could not have even been two – maybe just two. It was their shopping day and that woman obviously thought that the way to shop with a small child was to “engage him”. For her, to engage meant to speak with – to my observation, it meant to drown in excess verbiage. Worse, almost all of her interactions with the child were in the form of questions.
“What shall we have for supper?” “Do you like beets?” “Aren’t these pretty carrots?” “Can you put the apples in the bag for me?” “Do you like these kinds of beans or these?” “Can you choose a loaf of bread for us?” And so on.
Suffice to say that this little fellow, though he was keen to be involved, was fairly buried under the onslaught. Occasionally he would venture a thought or say an occasional no or yes – but this of course only led to more questions. “No? Why not? Don’t you like apples? But we need the apples for your snack later.”
Where to start…..for me there are so many problems with this commonplace scene that it’s hard to know where to begin. Obviously the woman (not his mother – a child care person) was keen to interact with her small charge and clearly thought that she was doing what one was supposed to do. And why not? If one follows the advice in all the major parenting magazines, one is encouraged to talk, talk, talk and talk to one’s child even when she is still in utero! And of course not only is one supposed to carry on an unending flood of words, but one is also supposed to question the child – no matter how young – in order to “give her choices”. Of course, once we stop and think about this for a moment it quickly becomes nonsensical. Real choice means having the ability to reflect on one’s life experience and to weigh up possibilities and come to a reasoned answer. A child under 7 – especially a child under 5 – does not have this. She is in the process of acquiring life experience and needs a great deal more of it before she can meaningfully exercise the human capacity for making choices. And she, in the meantime, needs to learn the “rules of the game”, how to be a human being by living parallel to adults (preferably her parents) who she can observe in their everyday activities, making choices and “doing life.” Obviously, the occasional choice is fine – but not the unending daily exercise of constantly giving a child choices.
Add to this the fact that the young child does not learn primarily via her latent intellectual capacities. She learns by doing and by engaging with her world – in her world – by doing. To constantly be speaking to a child and forcing upon her choices she is not in a position to make (and which, if we are honest, are really not choices anyway – do people who ask their 3 year old what they want  for supper really mean it? And will they honor that  “choice” if and when it is verbalized?!) is to place undue stress upon her abilities to reflect and consider. And this means that one is taking her out of the developmental stage that she is at. Under 7’s need to be engaged via their powers of imitation and through activity. The growth forces in the human being are primarily directed toward upbuilding the physical body in this first stage of life. These growth forces are removed from this vital work if they are prematurely turned toward intellectual growth (which includes pushing a child into making choices and by otherwise being overly verbal with her). This is why early learning is considered to be so harmful by Waldorf educators. All one has to do is look around at the sorry state of the majority of our society’s children to find confirmation for this profound and vital understanding of human development.
So a morning shopping at the co-op (which is a great activity for a little one) should look more like this:
Child and parent (or carer) come into the store – “Wheeee! Up we go” as child is playfully lifted into cart. Child is given a bag to hold to put things in.
Quietly, look at the lovely vegetables and fruit together. Maybe pick up a lemon or melon and inhale its aroma and offer it to child to do the same. No words exchanged – just a warm look and smile and shared experience. You choose some potatoes and places them in the child’s bag – “Open wide – here come the potatoes!” Maybe the child can then put his hands into the bag and feel the dusty hardness of the potatoes. Humming softly, continue shopping. Stop occasionally to feel a pineapple – pass it to the child to run his hands over it then carefully put it back – child protests and adult says “The pineapple needs to stay here until someone comes along to buy it. We don’t need pineapple. Bye bye pineapple” wave to pineapple and continue to walk away. Child also waves good bye to pineapple. Carry on – maybe at the bulk bins you can say “OK – I need my helper now. Let’s put your bag in the cart.” Lift him out of cart. Go to rice bin (conveniently at child level of course!) and say “Here, you need to keep the door open for me” as you scoop rice into bag. As you twist the bag shut and label it you can say “OK – shut the door now so the rice stays clean and safe in its bin!” And carry on. “Oops – where are you going? I need my doorman” if he wanders off. Or “Nope – we don’t need any quinoa today….come we need to get our milk. I need you to open the door for me so I can get the milk” and off you go.
And so on. He can stand in the cart and help you remove items and place them on the conveyor belt. He can help you put things (some things) into the bag. And he can hold onto the cart next to you (or be back in it) as you walk back to your car which you have of course parked as far away from the door as possible so that you can take a long time at this task, slowly walking through the parking lot, perhaps stopping to watch – silently, no cross examinations! – other people pack groceries into their car. Or maybe you see someone you know and your child learns the important social lesson of waiting while you talk to your friend and not whining. This is your morning’s work – there is no rush – what are you rushing to? This is what life with a small child is – so savor it and prolong it. Slow down and include him in your (child inclusive, never child centered) life. This is how he learns – by living life.
A little child needs to be actively engaged in the world, learning through activity.  It is the adult’s task to think through the daily activities and create ways to include the child in them so he can have experiences and not merely observe life. A life that is narrated by an overly-verbal adult is a life that is outside of a child’s experience. He has been removed from the immediacy of what is happpening and is being asked to think about things. This is unhealthy and produces children who have a hard time losing themselves in the everydayness of life. Such children often display a variety of developmental challenges which manifest as ADHD or sensory integration or other issues. Or they are children who are demanding and hard to be with. They have lost the hallmark of childhood – to be unconsciously at  peace and in the world.

Posted on March 3, 2010 in Family Life and Parenting, Kindergarten (and pre-K)

  • K Frey says:

    I appreciate the sentiments but I have to cringe when someone tells others what parenting “should” look like (a morning shopping SHOULD look more like this). Personally, when I’m shopping, I do some of both – some of the “bad mom” behaviors and some of your “good” ones. And I think I’m doing fine. I’ve also seen the “give choices” theory work absolutely beautifully when a child is reaching their limits and you just need a few minutes to finish what you are doing before stopping to respect that the child has reached his or her limit. Which is not to say that this method works best when used constantly throughout the day, but my point is that I don’t consider it to be written off as all bad, all the time. Lastly, different parents and different children have different personalities. I’m a very externally-focused, outgoing, Type A person so I’m VERY talkative – pretty much all the time. Some children have more verbal personalities too. To force myself to not be “too” verbal with my daughter would not be respecting my own qualities and strengths as an individual. And if I can’t use my own innate qualities and strengths, and in fact are told they are “wrong,” I don’t think my parenting would be very effective.

  • Amy says:

    I enjoyed this post. Next time I am in the store I will surely be more attentive to my use of words- because I never really thought about being overly talkative (I am not by nature). I really like your reminder for us to slow down and not hurry, it is easy to fall into that mode sometimes. Your “inclusive not child centered” is something I greatly appreciate about the Waldorf philosophy and something I had not heard prior to my study of Waldorf. It validates my instincts as a mother when society tells me otherwise.

  • Heather says:

    Thank you for the post. This is a great example for our 2.5 year-old boy. Is this what you would recommend for children under 7 in general? Do you having any other posts or ideas for engaging older children (7 and up) in shopping trips? When we go as a family or I shop with all of our boys, it can be challenging to maintain any kind of focus! Especially with the highly stimulating food-store environment (even at our natural foods store). When possible, I try to take them individually.

  • donna says:

    Hi Heather,
    Here is a link to the blog index – have a look at the entries under the Early Years section – there should be some there that are helpful.

  • Heather says:

    Thank you!

  • Rachel says:

    Donna, your description is wonderful. I know this concept made a difference in my daily life. My girls really relaxed when I stopped the “this or that” choice paradigm. It DID always seem hollow, kind of manipulative, anyway. They were slightly under five at the time.
    It was after I had heard something that just really resonated with me; it was a Waldorf KG teacher of many years answering a question about this subject. I’m probably paraphrasing, but she put it something like this: “Although others may believe in offering young children freedom of choice, we in Waldorf education believe in giving young children freedom FROM choice.”

  • katherinebiel says:

    I agree with K. Frey. This post made me smile and shake my head. I do love Waldorf education, but I don’t like the judgments that many seem to have of snippets of time they know nothing about. We all are trying our BEST, and I do mean our very best. By the time our children are teenagers, perhaps we have muddled through and made mistakes, some of which turned out to be not-mistakes-at-all, if we are very lucky 🙂 I firmly believe in some sort of divine intervention! How else could good people come from so many differing environments.
    I am naturally a quiet person, unless riled, when I will state my point respectfully. I’d probably never be that person at the store. Yet, I’ve been criticized by many people (my mother-in-law, and others) for not talking enough with my children! Yet, my children are quite talkative, and have been since they were babies. Perhaps this is due to some other fault of mine? Perhaps their ‘souls’ have incarnated too quickly? I take this post as yet an example that mothers cannot win in our current culture. I’m sorry, the post I’m responding to is meant as an example of what not to be, but it seems disrespectful.
    It seems like Waldorf has so very much to offer the world without the judgments! Please stop the judgments of other mothers! None of us can really understand the complexity and wonder we are entrusted with. I think if the job of motherhood were more respected, if the individuality and needs of children were respected by our culture, I think then that the world would be a much better place 🙂
    I think the wool winding is wonderful, the organic plant-dyed wonderfulness of it all, the rhythm, the fables…but most important of all is the love we have for our children. Without the rest of Waldorf, with all the tiny *wrongs* of talking too much, or using plastic, or the occasional ungainly outburst our love wins the day for our children. So, heads up, moms. We aren’t perfect, but in a way I think we are much more than perfect can ever be.

  • Kim says:

    You articulated this commonplace interaction so well Donna. So often I want to be like the Old Woman in Goodnight Moon – you know, whispering “hush”. We are so literal and data and results oriented we forget that parenting (and caregiving in general) is essentially a spiritual venture, not an intellectual one.
    My husband made a similar remark the other day when we overheard two young moms discussing their experience with Teach Your Baby to Read videos. The children were 7 and 15 months. The 15 month old is still not able to walk independently and the other baby was in a baby seat with a bottle propped. We both felt it would have been ultimately more beneficial to have less words and more happy, physical activity.

  • Sumiyeh Haqtalab says:

    Being phlegmatic, I can see the benefit of both arguments expressed in the article and the posts of readers. I think that the greatest validity of Donna’s article comes when those well-meaning caretakers/parents do the overly verbal choice driven approach when they think that is what is expected of them as ‘the right thing’. If parents like K Frey are naturally chattier, that will naturally bubble out, even when they exercise the discretion to have better verbal interactions, not more of them. I am chatty, but there were times when my children were that age and constantly verbally engaging themm was the ‘right thing to do’, that for the life of me I couldn’t think of anything to say and was utterly content to just gaze into their content faces as they nursed.

  • jessica says:

    As parents we need not to think of ourselves as world tour guides for our child. Instead we need to think of ourselves as earthbound guardian angels. We do not tell children what to think. We guard, protect, and gently enable our child’s path to discovery of the world and himself by his own accord and definitions. How do we do this? By allowing the child experiences in things that interest them not by talking our child’s ear off!
    I believe the point is that MEANINGFUL verbal communication with children is important. However, when parents simple chatter to appease, to distract a child, or to fill in silence; the end result is demeaning to the child and impeding to the child’s development. Why? For one, children don’t need distraction they need opportunities to learn self-control. When a parent distracts a child they take away this learning opportunity from the child. How are children to learn how to cope with their feelings when the parent is always interrupting them? When a parent chatters to appease they ignore problem behavior and reward it with attention. When a parent chatters to fill in the silence, they are taking away “thinking time”, reflection, and discovery from their child. Perhaps the child was quietly reflecting on the shiny red apple wondering how the apple tasted when mom decides to ask questions about lemons in the next booth. Now mom has replaced her will for that of her child’s. Over time this child will learn that their will is less important and must be approved by mom. Meaningless chatter also can place serious doubts in the child’s mind about the parent’s self-confidence, authority and decision making skills.”why can’t mom decide on tonight’s vegetable?” “am I in charge of dinners now?” “why does mom never make choices on her own” “who is the adult?” Now when a parent speaks to a child for point and purpose or genuine interest this involves the child, shows interest in the child as a person and contributor to family life, and demonstrates a reciprocal respect. As a teacher and expert in many pedagogies I can say from experience these simple reminders to parents:
    1. Children are sense organs they can’t filter out sensorial experiences like adults. This includes highly talkative adults who eventually sound like a TV running non-stop in the background.
    2. Children are innocent by nature and therefore keen observers of humanity. They see through pretenses, acts, and false motivations that society has taught us adults to ignore. If you are asking your child a question that you really don’t care the answer, your child will see through this! Talk about carrots because you want to share your passion with the child. Don’t talk about carrots to pass the time.
    3. Children understand and are capable of a great deal more than many adults give them credit for. Talk to children with respect and let thy words be counted!
    4. Observe your child. Care about their interests. Enable them to discover and learn not by talking but by experiencing.

  • Vanessa Tamplin says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this, Donna! For the most part, I think this issue arises from the fact that we’ve told to talk to babies and children as much as possible in order to “stimulate” them and build their language skills. Of course, some degree of chatter is natural, but this ceaseless chit-chat that you describe is just contrived. It also produces children who are overly chatty and (from my personal observations) not content with just being children. And good luck if you happen to have a friend like the woman above; you’ll hardly be able to get a word edgewise as the children (accustomed to a constant verbal exchange with adults, as mini-adults) will dominate the conversation.

    Are you familiar with “RIE”? One, but by no means the only one, reason I strongly dislike this educational style is that you are meant- positively obliged- to interact verbally with your baby by asking him or informing him of what you are going to do. As in, “I see your diaper needs to be changed. I’m going to pick you up now and take you to the changing table” (picks up baby). “Mummy is going to now wipe your bottom, OK?” All said with the tone and syntax of one addressing an adult, mind you. Again, a very unintuitive and contrived way of interacting with infants that could only have been devised by a theorist, because hardly any normal mother would adopt this behaviour spontaneously.

    Non-verbal communication is very important to us as adults, but oh, how much more so even to children!

    I hope the compulsive non-stop verbalizing trend fades away.

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