Trusting the Child?

In my recent blog where I wrote about our middle grades curriculum, I referred to Waldorf Unschooling. What follows is from a discussion on our (now closed 2014) discussion forum where a member asked a question she entitled "Waldorf vs Trusting a Child". Herein lie some of the misconceptions and confusions about Waldorf – as well as about unschooling. In many ways there is overlap – but there are also very clear differences between the two methods. Here are some of my comments on this:
I would like to ask about the phrase "trusting children vs Waldorf"…. I would ask the question "trusting what? In what way?" And as opposed to….. not trusting? Might there be different ways to trust based on different perspectives? This is a bit like my wonderings about so-called "gentle parenting" – much of what I see in the "gentle parenting" movement is, I would say, heading toward actually hurting children because it lacks a true understanding of the needs and developmental processes of children. Thus what might seem to be gentle in the mind of an (obviously caring and concerned) adult can in fact – in practise, be anything BUT gentle as children are propelled toward premature intellectual development by parents who act as friends and not as well, parents. If a child is rushed out of one phase of childhood to the next no matter how willingly she goes along with what is being done, then she is being short-changed and developmental growth that is necessary is stunted. Simple as that. Does that mean one needs to feel guilty about those Baby Einstein videos one let one's child look at before one discovered Waldorf? Absolutely not! Guilt is also harmful – more harmful really. One simply needs to move on and do what one can to amend the situation. And healing is always possible!
And let me also say that we all "make mistakes" – me too! There are many things I did with my sons that I wish I hadn't done. If I am honest, at this point I can see the results of some of those things and they're not all good. But that's life. I have moved on and did better things as my sons grew. I belabor this point because of the plague of guilt that can surround people. I am also trying to head off accusations of "Waldorf purity" or similar unsavory and undeserved labels! Is there truth, is there lawfulness, in the way children development and what is required by that development? Yes, there is. And so it is a question for the adult to learn about this and to find what he or she needs to do to parent and educate in harmony as far as possible with this development. And this is something for the adult to discover and do. It comes from adult observation of the child – it is not something which the child initiates. He is here to learn – that's why we have parents and why it takes a full 21 years for the "I" to fully incarnate! There is a lot of learning to do in that time! And there are many years of changing relationship between the parents and the child during that time. But the bottom line is that parents are here to parent, not absolve that role in the face of a child's perceived demands. We grow by parenting. The child grows by being parented.

Back to our subject, for me one of the critical issues is this role of the parent in unschooling (and I know that that term covers a huge range of beliefs and practices) which can be unclear. For me one place where this comes to the fore in questions where there are discipline problems.

If one is assuming that children are "good" and that, further, they are simply inexperienced but perfectly rational beings (which is what most "progressive" forms of education boil down to) then this will inform your parenting choices in a particular way. If however, you do not believe that human beings are either good or bad – but live in the potential between both and, further, if you believe that children have a totally different consciousness than adults (anthroposophy 101) then this will inform your choices in a different way.

My experience tells me – and my studies of anthroposophy deepens this – that children are not bad. Nor are they good. They are learning – like all human beings – and because they are children, they have not yet fully incarnated and their developmental needs strongly influence (I would not say determine) how they act. Further, one needs to always factor in questions of the challenges many children have which cause them to behave in ways that defy our usual adult expectations. Further, the tricky behavior that all children exhibit from time to time but which can be overwhelming in some children, forces parents to act in ways which can challenge them to the core. If one believes in some sort of "democratic" family  then one can find parenting extremely hard if one's child is not able to act in a way which allows this. And this is so whether one's child is 4 or 14. Parents also can forget that acting out and rebelling are a part of what children do too – and children don't always rebel against the things a parent is ok about them rebelling against! They can also rebel against rebelling if rebellion itself is part of a family's dynamic! And in these cases it really isn't a parent's business to say things like "oh, it's ok – he's just rebelling" and then look the other way. The act of rebellion is (potentially) a creative act and needs the tension between the child's yes! and the adult's no! to come to a fruitful resolution.

I think that boundaries and rules and a parent unequivocally acting not as a child's friend, but as her parent help enormously. Children need those boundaries – some more obviously than others. And there are times when a parent just has to say no – and though you may be surrounded by many unschooling families who have found a healthy relationship to a parent's role,  I know from experience that there are vast numbers of unschoolers (many of whom call themselves radical unschoolers – but not all) who wouldn't dream of saying no or giving any boundaries. I have friends, for instance, who would let their son watch any videos he wanted – he saw Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart by the time he was 10!! So then when he was about 14 I had a conversation about violence and the media with this boy's dad – and you know what he said? He said he wished he hadn't let his son watch all those videos when he was younger because now such films appear to not effect him at all and the dad finds that very frightening. Something has died in that boy.

Melodramatic? Well, there's a book called Nam (can't remember the author – he was a vet) I read many years ago which chilled me to the bones. It was about how the de-sensitizing training for American soldiers was speeded up as they shipped more and more of them over to Nam near the end of the war – basically, first step involved killing frogs. The next step involved dead dogs. Then live dogs. Then dead Vietnamese soldiers. Then live ones – then the young soldiers were ready to go out into the battlefield.

Moral of the story? Children are attracted to things which as parents we have a duty to say NO to. We cannot simply "trust" a 10 year old boy to be able to determine whether he should play violent video games or not or where the boundary is for this. They want to eat sugar, run out into the road, watch violent video games, etc etc. There is no "trust" involved here, that's not what this is about - there is only learning. I would say that the trust here has to be in the adult's trust of his or herself to make the right decisions for the children. And, most importantly, this also must include learning to step back at the right time. The right thing at the right time – a hallmark of Waldorf education and a true understanding of child development.


Posted on June 10, 2010 in Family Life and Parenting

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