Respecting the Child

This piece was written in the middle of my guest appearance on the blog, “Catherine et les fees” so as to clarify and deepen some things which had come up during our conversation. A link to this thread is found at the bottom of the article. And by the way, if anyone wants to invite me to guest on their blog, do contact me donna (at)

The issue of respecting a child, is so important and so woefully  misunderstood. Here we have a great example of “you mean one thing by this and I mean something totally different”.  So I need to try to define terms a bit here.

Some people, especially those coming from AP or “gentle parenting” background may come from a place where listening to what the child says and basing one’s actions on what s/he says are paramount. From a Waldorf perspective, it is also critical that one listen carefully to what a child says – but we – or let’s just stick with what I think as it makes things a little less complicated as there are of course differences within Waldorf – so I would say yes, listening to  a child is important.  But sometimes what is not said is actually more important. Or what the child’s developmental stage is saying. Or what lives behind those articulated words.

For instance, we have the example of a child who refuses to do her work – some people might just say oh, ok then, don’t do it then. Others will say no, you must do it. Both positions could be wrong, and either could be right. It depends entirely on the context of the situation, which includes the child’s age. So…if one is asking a child to do something which is beyond what she is developmentally ready to do, then it is quite reasonable that she refuses.And because she is just a child, she cannot say “Mom, I am not able to do this much writing because my left-right orientation isn’t complete and it is too much of a stretch to do this”. We might know that this is a possibility because we are adults. Our job is to understand enough about children and about this particular child so we can make that detterminations. We are not respecting that child if we expect her to be able to articulate her needs. For to do this, she must be self aware and self conscious and until she has reached and passed the nine year change, her natural stage on consciousness is NOT self aware and self conscious. To expect her to be so is to in effect say that her earliest stages of development are not as valid as her later ones.

Along the same lines, she might be testing you to see what you will do – and here things get very controversial because some people can think that by saying that children test adults I am saying that children are manipulative. Well, if by the word manipulative, we mean “conscious of what they are doing” (and I am speaking of young children here,though depending on the situation even teens – even adults unfortunately – can test another unconsciously) then no, of course not. But if by manipulating we mean “pushing one’s buttons, seeing what happens” then of course they are manipulative – they are manipulating” things to see what happens and seeing where the power vacuum is. And it is really scary to be a child and to discover that there is a power vacuum, ie that an adult collapses in the face of a child’s testing. And children can react in unexpected ways to this discovery  – some continue to push in a seeming attempt to push that adult into finally finding herself; some behave very badly; some go inward and become quiet and perhaps even prematurely self sufficient.

Children come to this earth not merely as less experienced adults – they do not spring as fully formed autonomous beings,  as Athena emerged from the head of Zeus. They are not merely less competent – they have entirely different ways of experiencing the world, have an entirely different consciousness than older children and adults. This is perhaps THE key to Waldorf education, what one needs to grasp if one wants to work meaningfully with its essence.

A great example:  I used to run a Waldorf parent/toddler group many many years ago. Most of the children were around 1 or 2 years old but we had one 3 year old who loved nothing better than playing with (and bossing around) the little ones. One day she decided to organize a game of hide and go seek. She looked around at the other children clumped adoringly around her and covered her eyes with her hands. “I’m hiding” she declared. And so she was. To her consciousness, because she could not see the others, then it followed that they could not see her.

This is not merely an example of “less experience” – it is clearly an example of “different consciousness.” And this is what we MUST understand so that the zillions of questions we have as parents and educators can at least take a coherent shape. Without an understanding of how children experience the world, then it is hard to imagine how one can come up with any meaningful questions at all. One needs a basis for forming those questions, a framework of understanding to refer to so that then one is not merely doing what someone advises, but understanding for oneself what the advice (good or bad) springs from.

So back to the example above, of the child refusing to do her work, we listen to  what she says. We acknowledge what she says. Then we decide what to do. Maybe she has been working very hard and very diligently over the last days or weeks and so we say “Hmmmm….you don’t want to do your writing. Let me shorten it a bit and then we’ll finish our lesson and have an early snack after you copy that into your book.”  We might say “Yes, you have been doing lots of writing. Let’s take a break. fter snack you can draw a picture instead.”

Or we might say to the child who is testing us “Nope. Gotta do that writing my lovely! No two ways about it!” We try a bit of lightness and warm but firm insistence. Tears might follow – that is good! The child is able to release her tension – that is so important and so right! So often parents  fear their child’s strong emotions, thinking that it means they have done something wrong. On the contrary, it can mean one has done something right. Every human being experiences the tension between what they want to do and what they can, in a given situation, do. What a gift we give children if we let them experience that tension and then do not collapse in fear if they scream or cry but gently hold the space and do not get upset ourselves. This is not about us – it is about that child. It can be supremely selfish of us to take away the child’s emotions and not let her experience them.

And of course this is fraught with dangers! Absolutely! One can easily list to the other side and become authoritarian. But that is the danger in every human encounter. For example: I have someone now who works for me – do I ask too much of her? Am I listening to her opinions? What happens when we disagree? Can we find ways to work together? And so on. Of course, the difference there is that we are speaking of two adults. So in that relationship, my  employee also has responsibilities – she has the responsibility to speak up, to make her thoughts known, to be take ownership of the balance between her life and her work and so on and so on.

With a child, the relationship is of course utterly different. And it is entirely understandable that parents do everything they can to not perpetuate the oppressive relationship that they might have had with their parents. Remember the story I told of the boy in the bull’s pen? (On Catherine’s blog I told the story of finding a child of about 5 poised to jump into a bull’s pen at the intentional community where my family used to live.) Well, once I go to know his mother, I understood why she created no boundaries for her children – her father was an unbearable bully and ran his family like a military unit. So she swooped to the opposite extreme with her children. What was interesting there was how her two children reacted to her utter lack of boundaries and her desire to give those children “freedom”: the daughter was one of the dreamiest non-focused, “out there” children I have ever met. She lived in her own world and seemed unable to cope with the one she had incarnated into. The little boy, on the other hand, was totally out of control, one of the naughtiest (and most wonderful) children I have ever worked with.

To finish, I want to share one last anecdote, this from a book by Corrie Ten Boom whose family worked hard during WW2 to save the lives of many Jews and were eventually destroyed themselves by the Nazis. Corrie tells a story of a train trip she took with her father. She was about 13 and asked her father a question about sex. He paused for a while and they sat in silence (that alone is something worth taking from this story as so often parents seem to think they must immediately always respond to the questions of their children without any time for distance or reflection). Then he said “When we get off the train, will you carry our bags?” Corrie said no, she couldn’t possibly, they were too heavy for her. Then he solemnly said that the same was true for her question, that for now, its answer was too heavy for her to carry and that he would carry it for her until she was ready to carry it herself.

So – what do you think of that? Some undoubtedly might think how quaint and old fashioned – that children Need Information. Do they? Says who? I used to work with teen girls in a juvenile detention unit – they had all the information that anyone could wish for. Did that in any way at all stop them from acting foolishly (or  fearfully)? Nope. Not a jot. What those children had needed but did not get were adults willing to bear the load of being parents  and taking the full responsibility of carrying them until they were able to step out into life themselves. No amount of information could make up for the hole that was in those girls’ souls.

Of course that is an extreme example – but do you see how it follows on? It is based in the thinking that children are simply less experienced younger people – no different from adults except that they are younger and do not know as much. Thus from that point of view it makes perfect sense to think that by giving information, children will then “be empowered” to make right decisions. One can see how people honestly think that this is respecting children – and of course from one point of view, it is. But in a larger context, in a context of understanding what it means to be a child, it is not. I do not dispute the loving compassion in the intentions – nevertheless, it remains highly problematic.

If only it were that simple!

And by the way, least anyone think I am some sort of 19th century throw-back that is against sex education, I should hasten to say that at the slightly Waldorf high school where I used to teach I led the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” class. But my emphasis was on human relationships – that of the teen to his/herself and to others. Information was given, but it was very much of secondary importance.

If what I have written here resonates with you, I encourage you to have a good look through my other blog posts on similar subjects. Here is the Blog Index.

And here is the link to our Bookstore where we sell a number of audio downloads that deal quite concretely with how to work with children in accordance with their developmental needs.

And here is a link to our early years ebook which is entirely based on conversations between me and mothers dealing with such subjects.

Lastly, here is the permalink to the thread on Catherine’s blog so you can have a read of what prompted me to write this post!


Posted on October 20, 2011 in Family Life and Parenting

  • Donna, Donna, Donna… Can we clone you? The world needs many YOU! I cannot thank you again for bringing light to my dilemma. Now all is so very clear. THANK YOU!

  • anonymous says:

    sigh…thank you. I have your curriculums through second grade (son is only 6 1/2, but I am reading ahead). I have been wondering if I picked too soon and have been looking into all the curriculums and testing the waters at discussion groups online. I won’t name names, but I feel more nourished when I read your words that the others. I’m so glad I picked your curriculum. Your words resonate with acting out of how steiners work fits together with mama love. We are not a full of kids classroom and your words address us that way…that we are mamas first and trying to find the fit with waldorf secondly, but with importance. With gratitude, I thank you for doing your work.

  • liza says:

    I really miss your daily voice through the forum, Donna. I learn so much EVERY time you write. Like a salve you are for the collective soul of Motherhood (big M). Your thoughts and wisdom have sculpted my parenting and redirected my understanding about children…and myself. I hope that you are well. With love, Liza(babylove)

  • donna says:

    Thank you all so much for your kind words of praise. I am so pleased I can be of service, and that Christopherus is meeting its mission in the world.
    And yes, Liza, I am well – thanks so much for asking! Hope all is well with you and your family!

  • Federica says:

    Dear Donna,
    I followed the thread and found it also precious. I’m not homeschooling but there’s so much that reasontes with me as a parent.
    grazie, ciao
    Federica (Italy)

  • Penny says:

    I have just begun reading/processing the entire set of questions/comments at Catherine’s blog – I am astounded by your wisdom Donna, and your clarity. Catherine is right – the world needs many YOU!
    (and on an unrelated note, I walked by the Steiner School in NYC last week and thought many good thoughts of you :))

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