A while back we had lots of conversation about structure, regimentation, and authority. I’m finally getting back to it now, and thought I could share some concepts from Waldorf education and anthroposophy that relate to these aspects of parenting.
Waldorf methods, especially in the early childhood period, emphasize rhythm. The thought is that the child is nurtured within a regular daily, weekly, and yearly rhythm. From the timing of daily meals to the recurrence of seasonal festivals, the social and home world of the young child nurtures the healthy development of both body and soul.
Discipline issues are greatly reduced when there are strong rhythms. Activities are taken as a matter of fact and become habits. Observe how a child can go into fits when he is occasionally made to clean his room…. Rhythm gives children a sense of security and a sense that life has real form. Knowing what’s next enables the child to go with the flow with greater ease.
-Jaimmie Marx, quoted at Waldorf in the Home.
So what is meant here by rhythm and boundaries?
Imagine that you are a four-year-old child. Now imagine that each day, you know more or less what will happen: breakfast, then playing outside, then a snack, then some quiet indoor play, then lunch, then a nap, then another snack, then a walk, then dinner, bath, and bedtime. How comforting it would be to have a basic understanding, even if not entirely consciously, that your day will unfold in a similar way!
In contrast, imagine that you are the same child, yet each day might be at grandma’s house, or the babysitter’s, and meals might be eaten in the car, or at unexpected times. Some days you might not get a nap, or an afternoon snack. Some days you might even spend the night at grandma’s house, but you’d never know that until you got there. How unsure you would feel!
This attempt to bring rhythm to daily life is also beneficial to adults, as I’ve written about before. When we are freed from having to decide at each moment what to do, we are also freed to use our consciousness in other ways. For parents this also helps with fatigue and feeling overwhelmed–the secret behind FlyLady and lovers of slow cookers worldwide!
“Better authority with security than freedom with fear.”
-Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, 1957.
If the child is “held” within a regular daily rhythm, then the child can be free within that rhythm to develop and grow healthily. The rhythm is seen as another form of nurturing–just as a plant that receives plenty of water but not enough sunlight will not thrive, so a child who eats well but always has some anxiety over where they will be each day might not be able to devote sufficient forces to their development, because those forces are being are being diverted into handling their worries.
In a similar way to rhythm, setting age-appropriate boundaries creates a sense of security in the child. A leading proponent of this idea was Magda Gerber, who founded Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) in California in 1978. Her work was based on the finding of Dr. Emmi Pikler of Hungary, who observed, among other things, that children who can play freely in a safe space will not only develop their physical motor skills, but will also develop a sense of self-mastery and confidence, as well as trust.
Central to the RIE concept is providing the very young child with a completely safe space, so that adult intervention is minimized and the child can freely explore and play. When my children were infants and toddlers, I used baby gates to keep them safely enclosed in our living room, and out of the kitchen when I could not supervise them there. I made sure that I did not have to constantly say “Don’t touch that!” by removing breakable items and making sure the furnishings were age-appropriate (no glass tables with sharp corners, no precious tchochkes within reach).
Now that my kids are older, I set different boundaries for them to allow them to safely develop new skills and explore the wider world. They can play outside without direct supervision, because they are old enough to remember to stay by the house and not wander off. But they are not allowed to ride their bikes in the street, because they are not yet aware enough of cars. My son can use a sharp knife in the kitchen with supervision, but he can’t yet cook on the stove.
Boundary setting shows them (if unconsciously) that I love and care about them, promotes a feeling that their world is safe, and allows them to use their growing consciousness in other ways while I provide the Ego* forces to make decisions they are not ready to make. For these reasons, I believe children want adults to set boundaries, much as they complain about some of them!
In the first six or seven years, the overriding concept for child development and education is imitation. The young child wants to do what he or she sees others doing — if you are washing the dishes, the child will want a little pan of water and some spoons to wipe with a cloth. If you are always reading a book, the child will want some books to read as well. In this same way, the child will learn to speak politely, have good table manners, and other social graces if the parents model that behavior.
Think about how we use the word authority in other contexts: someone who has the most complete knowledge or mastery of a subject, or who has been given the power to make decisions or take actions. A professor might be the world authority on particle physics, or a minister completes the marriage ceremony with “by the authority vested in me by the state, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
In a similar way, the young child looks to the parent for complete authority — mastery of all things in the environment and therefore worthy of imitation, and as the final arbiter of decisions. Having too many choices calls on Ego forces that the child does not naturally have yet, and puts an undue burden of power on someone who is otherwise (more or less) in a state of union with the world.
From [the sixth or seventh year], the child’s soul becomes open to take in consciously what the educator and teacher gives, which affects the child as a result of the teacher’s natural authority. The authority is taken for granted by the child from a dim feeling that in the teacher there is something that should exist in himself, too.
-Rudolf Steiner, An Introduction to Waldorf Educatio
Now, authoritative adults are not authoritarian, which suggests an unfeeling and ruthless ordering about of subordinates. Rather, the authoritative parent knows what is right for the child, and through loving concern directs the child through example and redirection. The parent is in charge, but it is with the sense of providing the Ego forces that the child does not yet control.
What the child sees directly in his educators, with inner perception, must become for him authority — not an authority compelled by force, but one that he accepts naturally without question. By it he will build up his conscience, habits and inclinations; by it he will bring his temperament into an ordered path….
These living authorities … embody for the child intellectual and moral strength….
With puberty the time has arrived when the human being is ripe for the formation of his own judgements about the things he has already learned.
-Rudolf Steiner, The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy
With the older child, the time has come for more independent decision making, and the transition from imitation to imagination. Now the child will build on the foundation of security and boundaries set during the earlier phase of life. By imitating worthy actions of adults over the first seven years, the older child can now begin to create both inner mental pictures and an inner sense of order.
*By “Ego” I mean what Steiner described as the immortal aspect of the human being, distinct from the physical and soul aspects.