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.
*Heather’s link to articles on waldorf education – https://www.christopherushomeschool.com/your-questions-answered/suggested-readings/articles-on-waldorf-education/