Parzival’s Mother

The medieval German Romance Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, is read widely in Waldorf high schools and teacher training courses, as a rich allegory for the modern human’s struggle for inner development (or as Rudolf Steiner put it, the development of the consciousness soul). (See here for an interesting article on how the story of Parzival relates to adolescence.)

I haven’t read it in a few years, but the other day it struck me that my current inner struggles about sending my kids to mainstream schools in some way resembles a thread in the plot of Parzival.

Queen Herzeloyde (Herzeleide, “heart’s sorrow”) loses her husband in battle, and so in her grief she vows to raise their son, Parzival, alone in the forest where he will never encounter knights, the chivalric life, or anything that may harm him. She doesn’t even tell him his name, only calling him bon fils, cher fils, beau fils.

Does this work?

No, of course not. One day some knights happen to ride by Parzival in the forest, and it’s all over. He’s overawed by their splendiferous armor, their knowledge of weaponry, and so on. He’s gone before Herzeloyde can say boo.

Now, without sounding too presumptuous, I remembered this part of the story when I was mulling over our school situation the other day. We’ve been pretty firmly in the Waldorf camp for a long time: Anthropapa and I have both studied the foundational works of anthroposophy and quite a bit of the Waldorf pedagogy as well. We’ve worked for two Waldorf teacher training colleges. Our kids went to a Waldorf home day care last year.

Here in the wilds of Pocatello, however, there are no Waldorf schools to be found. No Waldorf anything, so far. Just some homeschoolers and a fledgling school about an hour away. We’ll be glad to get to know them, but it’s not possible for us to commute that far right now.

So we found our best alternatives: a Lutheran school for SillyBilly, and the Early Learning Center at ISU for Napoleona. Both fine, sound schools where the kids are safe and happy all day long.


These are mainstream schools. They are definitely not Waldorf. There are computers, there are movies, there are character books. There is reading and math in kindergarten. There are USDA lunches, complete with the tater tots and pizza I remember from when I was a kid (OK, they get some fruit and/or veggies with each meal, I will admit. But none of it is organic, no less biodynamic.)

I feel like, despite my best intentions, my kids are off into the dark woods, following a bunch of people dressed in shiny stuff and sporting the coolest rides they’ve ever seen.

Now, I realized that Parzival had some kinda destiny to follow, what with all the finding the Grail and helping the Fisher King and all. But Herzeloyde just wanted to protect him, so that neither of them would have to feel the grief she felt at the loss of her husband.

I don’t anticipate falling down dead the way Herzeloyde did when Parzival left her. But I do feel like we’ve tried so hard to provide a safe, nurturing place for my children, and now they’re off to fight wholly different and unanticipated battles.

And unlike Herzeloyde, I have options. We could move closer to the fledgling Waldorf school. I could homeschool them. Some day, we’ll probably move somewhere else, perhaps where there is a Waldorf school. But right now, I’m feeling my own heart’s sorrow.

*  *  *  *  *

Images from the beautiful Codex Manesse.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Books, Deep Thoughts, Napoleona, papa, Parenting, SillyBilly, Uncategorized, waldorf education

22 responses to “Parzival’s Mother

  1. My heart goes out to you. I have never experienced being a part of a Waldorf community like the one you just came from, but I have a deep longing to find people in my area who share similar ideas about life. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to have left that community behind.

  2. I am right there with you sista. I have so much inner struggle about this, I chose homeschooling but I have felt like I am raising Amelia like Parzival, alone and cut off from the world, cut off from the things that may give her sorrow. This summer Jerome and I have been reading the Auragole series to each other (which is a Parzival tale in a modern apocalyptic Anthroposophic wrapper) which also fueled my inner conflict. Do I keep her at home or feed her to the pre-packaged, corn-syruped, no child left behind, seven headed computer monster?

    Despite my own conflict, I remind myself how adaptable children are and if I can let go of my own pre-conceived idea of what “should” be, Amelia will do fine in whatever situation. As will yours, they will thrive because they have a loving nurturing home that reinforces the values you want them to reflect.
    (Those images are just perfect, I will show them to Amelia.)

  3. I am a waldorf mother using the public school system. Is it ideal? No. But my girls are thriving and eat more natural foods and play with more natural toys than their peers. We do our homework outside on the deck most afternoons and I do afternoon enrichment to incorporate many waldorf practices.

    I feel what you are going through. I’ve been there. But, I also believe in creating balance and I do not want to shelter my children. I also believe that the MOST important thing is your home environment. Know for sure that your children will turn out to be wonderful people because of how you are raising them. No more mommy-guilt allowed! 🙂


  4. Eve

    Oh, you don’t know how much I identify with what you wrote. I just haven’t had time to write about it.

    I love so much of what Eileen wrote, but I also believe that it’s a parent’s job to shelter her children until they are truly developmentally ready to handle themselves. And, contrary to what Lisa Anne said, children do not do well with “every” situation. We psychologists make a living from the fruit of all the situations that children don’t cope well with later in life.

    You’re correct to be concerned and watchful–not fearful, but intelligent and committed to your instincts and values. You’ll all do fine ultimately if you do that. And God makes a way in the wilderness.

  5. I think you will find the best way in the end. You could end up nearer the Waldorf school. Who knows how the future will work out?

    I don’t know much about Waldorf education, other than what I have read on your blog (and what you say is very much in tune with what I’d like for Kiksy). The other day, though, when I was looking around preschools, I was having similar feelings of dismay at the options available in this area. I visited one preschool where a staff member actually said to me that “rote learning is good for them” (“them” being two to three-year-olds!) There was a strong emphasis on children “being made to follow the rules and do what everyone else is doing”. I got a horrified look when I said that Kiko generally followed his own interests at home. When I said it was hard to make him do otherwise, I was asked if I “knew how to be firm”! I was going to blog about this but I didn’t want the people concerned to come across what I’d written and identify themselves. I could see that they genuinely believed their system was the best way and what they were doing was right for the kids… it just was not in tune with what I believe in and what know is right for Kiko.

    Luckily I’ve found a church-run preschool which is strongly child-centred and play-based. I walked through the door and breathed a sigh of relief. The kids get to make stuff out of cardboard boxes, and there is no naughty corner – yeah! I’m really hoping I can get him in there.

  6. Dawn: I always feel such gratitude for our years in the Waldorf communities. They really nourished us. Maybe I’m a little spoiled, eh?

    Lisa Anne: When my husband and I talk about all this, we always come back to the fact that we both went to public schools, watched TV, etc., and we did fine. Of course, parents always want more than “fine” for their children. But it’s a good reminder that I can’t really ruin my children!

    Eileen: That’s a great reminder about the power of the home environment. One nice thing about the schools we have chosen is that things like Game Boys and cell phones are prohibited on campus. I was really concerned about the power of peer pressure! OTOH, I don’t want to “shelter” my kids from the outside world, and create a desire for forbidden fruit.

    Eve: I feel like I “sheltered” my kids for their first years, which really has given them a solid foundation. I wouldn’t have sent them to these schools if I thought they weren’t ready for the most part. But I am still thinking about whether I could possibly homeschool them, or at least my son right now. I feel a bit stuck in that I really need to work for financial reasons, but I’m holding myself open to new ideas.

    Helen: It’s funny, Waldorf methods stress a certain amount of freedom for the young child, but then the adult needs to have inner strength and authority as well as setting the rhythm of the day for the child. So it seems these preschools you visited have swung too far toward the authority/structure side. Of course, following rules and going along with a group are important life skills…but not necessarily for a toddler!

    I think every school has the children’s best interests at heart. But what they think is best isn’t always the same. My son’s school proudly advertises how all of its grades are in the top percents of academic achievement in the state. One could argue that they are putting undue emphasis on academics to the expense of the other realms of human development, and so not doing the best for the children. But it’s good to remember that people aren’t bad for doing what they do, just different.

  7. I often lament the fact that Dea was never able to have the Waldorf experience that Lo does/will have. Back then the only Waldorf option was the private school which we could not afford. And I’m not “homeschooling” after preschool. We did get Dea into what is called an”optional program”-kind of like a charter school. It was as close to the Waldorf pedagogy as we could get-big emphasis on the arts and rhythm.
    Anyhoo, I’ve come to realize that Dea is a bright kid who has never really had any problem areas in school(we’re lucky), and would probably have done very well in any type of learning environment. She just has that drive, ability, and temperament. Would Waldorf education have benefited her the most? I’m sure of it…but still, she’s doing great in public school. And she’ll do fine in life. What helps is that at HOME we follow a lot of the waldorf/anthro lifestyle. We don’t watch broadcast TV, we steer the kids clear of online networking, video games and mainstream toys and crap food. We guide our children in garnering a love for nature and the earth, for fellow man…. We try our best to live green… It’s makes a tremendous difference. It counterbalances all the outside influences.
    Dea has been exposed to those mainstream things via public school and going to friends homes enough so she’s never been seen as an “outcast”.
    We have noted as of late however, that we do need to yield a bit when it comes to the computer, junk food etc. ALL of her friends communicate via internet-they just don’t use any other way. Dea wound up sneaking an IM profile and using it unbeknownst to us. She just felt left out and we were being totally unyielding. her friends never wanted to sleep over because we have “Nothing to eat” and no fun video games. So…..what’s so bad about a homemade pizza and ice cream, a bag of chips for the occasional sleepover?! Maybe we can set her up with an IM program and just install software for her protection and for us to monitor? Establish boundaries for it. She needs to experience the whole thing and decide for herself whether it’s worth her time or not. What about a Wii? It will get them off their butts at least. I played a dance game on our neighbors thing and was sweating! What about introducing some good ole board games to her friends as well? “yield” is the word-o-the season here at our house.
    Yikes! A tangent overtook me! I should just post this on MY blog!!!
    Your kids will be OK . Do what you can to give them the education you think would be best, but if it just can’t happen, do what you can at home to expose and supplement-and know that they’ll be ok.

  8. runninL8: Don’t worry, I like long comments 🙂 I think it’s important, especially for teens who are trying to both fit in and figure out their individuality, to compromise on these things. As you said, once in a while doesn’t hurt — moderation in ALL things! I know there are Waldorf purists out there, but for me I think that would be too dogmatic and impractical. The social component of human life is important, too. Dea is probably old enough to experience and decide, whereas my kids still need more intervention and protection.

  9. Nana

    hokay! I’m an outsider here and will probably cause some apoplexy for some of you. Does anyone think it odd that a system (and don’t try to deny that it is, indeed, a system) such as Waldorf would become established in a country (Germany) which is known for its regimentation and by-the-rule-book attitude? This has been a highly organized and orderly country for a very, very long time. Let’s not forget the German propensity for rich food!

    Now let’s apply this phenomenon to every day life, but in reverse. If you give your children the kind of nurturing environment which the Waldorf method encourages, it will be instilled in them and carried with them wherever they are.

    If Waldorf could bloom in Germany, then Waldorf raised children can bloom anywhere. Kids need to be introduced to a variety of controlled experiences. Otherwise how can they learn to make intelligent, well thought out, decisions for themselves when they leave the nest?

    Henitsirk needs to stop beating herself up over this because it’s not healthy for her and her family. She needs to put a more positive light on the challenge which life has given her at this time and remember – it’s not forever, but it is for now.

    Nana loves you, Pookie.

  10. Penny in VT

    I too, am in your boat. I found your blog today, just when I need it most to know I’m not alone… and you’re not either 🙂

    Thank you for posting this, and to all the wonderful commentators for their ideas – I was feeling so lost!

    Good luck with all the adjustments – Penny (new faithful blog reader!)

  11. How interesting that Parzifal is used in this way… it’s a great story .. and these pictures are wonderful.
    I identify with your struggle even tho I don’t have kids yet! They’ll be ok.. whatever they do, I’m sure 🙂

  12. Penny: Welcome! I’m glad you found something useful here.

    Rima: I know you like medieval art…so I’ll keep trying to find new delights 🙂 I think there’s often a split between what our ideals are and what we can manifest. We just have to keep on trying.

  13. Pingback: A Reply to Nana « Anthromama

  14. I feel for you . We’ve had the joy (for the most part) of having our children in a Waldorf school, but it has not been without its difficulties. Hels’ class has had a very rough journey and we’ve actually spent much of the year looking for an alternative school. In the end, despite the angst, we’re keeping her at Waldorf. We were very close to sending Hels to public school. We felt like we have come a long way in creating the home life and values that we want to support our growing children and that she could manage. In the end, though, those intangible qualities of spirituality, quietness, and beauty won out.

    Good luck in figuring it all out.

  15. I feel for you . We’ve had the joy (for the most part) of having our children in a Waldorf school, but it has not been without its difficulties. Hels’ class has had a very rough journey and we’ve actually spent much of the year looking for an alternative school. We were very close to sending Hels to public school. We felt like we have come a long way in creating the home life and values that we want to support our growing children and that she could manage. In the end, though, those intangible qualities of spirituality, quietness, and beauty won out–we’re keeping her at Waldorf…for now…with a class of FOUR.

    Good luck in figuring it all out.

  16. Sarah: Wow, I had no idea Hels’s class was having such troubles! A class of four certainly doesn’t foster good classroom dynamics, I imagine. I’m shocked that you were considering sending her to public school as you seem so committed to Waldorf. But then, as you say, the home environment is crucial.

  17. And…she stayed at Waldorf after the school made some big changes. They’ve worked really hard to form a “middle school” this year. They began the year with a middle school assembly laying out new privileges and responsibilities. They then took all 3 classes on an outdoor adventures ropes course where kids, in mixed-age teams, had to do trust activities. The 3 classes are integrated in other ways–multi-age French, Chorus, Orchestra, and PE. There’s a weekly middle school lunch. Then every other block is mixed, so her next block is Chemistry and it will be with the 8th grade. There’s also middle school community service, all 3 grades are mixed onto committees where they work together on festivals, beautification, working with the younger children, etc.

    So, it’s quite a new approach, but I think will help with the social part. All 3 grades are having to rise to the challenge of working and mixing with others.

    all that said, Hels cried herself to sleep the other night over the stress of all the newness.

    • Mary Louise Collins

      I came across this post as I was finishing my preparations to teach Parzival on Monday.

      Sarah—Middle school years are very hard indeed. I teach at the Lake Champlain Waldorf High School, and in a 10th grade block where I have the students engage in a week of oral story-telling activities, one of the prompts is to tell a story about a time of challenge that you have had to overcome, and a large number of them tell stories about 7th grade in particular. At our school, we began a new “upper grades” program last year (when my daughter was in 7th grade) emphasizing an apprenticeship approach, and intensives in math, foreign language, and English. The craft activities are all in the afternoon and they have the time to involve themselves deeply in the activity. We made this change after a year of study of adolescence in the College of Teachers. Seeing the shift in the social dynamics and academics has been very rewarding. This year’s 9th graders (who began this last year) have come into the high school really committed to working hard in all areas, and we’ve started shifting things in the high school as well, since we really envision this as a 7 – 10 program. It sounds like your school is making some of the same kind of adjustments. And while a small class size is obviously less than ideal, I am reminded of our high school’s second graduating class. It began with 6 in 9th grade and ended with 2. I took them to Scotland and Ireland for their senior class trip! Just yesterday one of the two stopped in the high school to chat. He’s now a senior at Bowdoin, and doing very well. I know it’s hard to have trust when you see your child struggle, but perhaps you can take comfort in the knowledge that her teachers bring her in their meditative lives and genuinely see her higher self.

      As for the many parents who cannot get their children a Waldorf education for whatever reasons: home environment is the most crucial factor. Never doubt it. If you provide a loving environment that emphasizes the beauty of the natural world and the inherent spirituality in it all other people, you’re giving them the best of Waldorf. My middle son has special needs that mean that he attends the public school rather than our Waldorf school. While it occasionally disturbs me that he sees so many movies at school and is receiving a spirit-free education, I recognize the good will and expertise in the best of his teachers. And at home, he knits, designs and makes costumes, puts on plays with his siblings, spends a great amount of time in nature and has what we offer.

      Good luck to all. I better get back to preparing my main lesson on Parzival!

  18. Sarah: Sounds like a great idea! The whole eight-year cycle was created based on the existing structures of German schools–I’m actually editing a book on education in Germany post-WWII, and it talks a lot about how schools were arranged since the 1800’s. Blocks of four years formed the basis of the different levels, essentially a compulsory primary and secondary sections up to grade 8, and then a more or less elite third section to grade 12.

    So, we are missing the normal American structure of a middle school. I think it makes sense to acknowledge that kids in grades 6-8 are in a different space than either primary or high school. Seems like various US Waldorf schools are giving it a try. I hope it all works well for Hels’s school.

  19. Alida


    My heart goes out to you. Here in Oregon there are not many Waldorf schools and none in my city. I’ve read many blogs this week about mom’s holding back the tears or not as they send their kids off to Kindergarten.

    I feel relieved that at least for now, I’m keeping them home and no tears will be shed…st least none of mine!

    I agree with the others that home is the most important enviroment. As much as we’d like, we can’t shelter them from every situation or look around every corner, as your story illustrated.

    All the best to you and yours, hoping a solution you find more suitable presents itself soon.

  20. I wish this school was on its feet enough to hire you! I am “just a homeschooler” as you put it – a Waldorf one but still a homeschooler. There is a big difference in the mind set. The folks at the school don’t understand why my children aren’t there – I told them again yesterday… “because I am a homeschooler” – this is my calling. We aren’t a second class… especially not to us, but many don’t understand why we would do such a thing.

    I hope you find what you need and can grow to enjoy Idaho for other things.

    Many blessings.

  21. Alida: Oregon has some well-established schools in Portland and Eugene, but that’s about it! I always try to remind myself that there would be challenges and negatives at a Waldorf school, too. I just don’t write about them here 🙂

    Melisa: Please don’t think I meant that in a disparaging way! I just meant that there are only one or two people that I know of in the area (well, directly, only one really – you!), and they are committed homeschoolers and so not going to start up a school. I meant it more as an expression of a lack of community/lack of population, not a judgment in any way about homeschooling.

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