Mark and Maria
My wife and I have been involved with the education of children in Waldorf oriented institutions for some 25 years, completing in that time educations in Anthroposophic Curative Education and the Waldorf Teachers’ Training. Five years ago, our daughter was born, and 3 years ago our son. What follows is drawn from all this experience. These are guidelines: as in all personal health and education questions, each parent or caretaker must develop their own sense of what is right for each child in every moment.
The arrival of a child on earth is a great and joyous occasion: every child is a messenger from a higher realm, bringing his or her own unique knowledge and abilities not only for their own life, but for all humankind and the earth herself. This spirit soul being enters into an earthly body that is foreign to it, a product of earthly genetics. That this body be remade into a fitting instrument of the soul is the main task of the child, helped by his parents and educators, in the first seven years of life. As Kahlil Gibran says in his masterpiece, “The Prophet”:
Your children are not your children…
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you…
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
Arriving as it does from the warm, dark, all-embracing world of the mother’s womb into a cold, light-filled and heavy world, it is essential that the child be put in its mother’s arms and at her breast as soon as possible after birth, and continue in a warm, all-protective environment, wrapped and swaddled, with a colored veil over the cradle to soften the light. It should be kept indoors for at least six weeks, at which point a much stronger earthly “arrival” can be observed: the child begins to smile, to focus its eyes a bit, and recognize people: the first brief trips out into the world may be ventured. We would let our babies sleep outside in the fresh air, in a shady place, for their morning and afternoon naps. We would place the buggy under a friendly tree or on the balcony with an old umbrella to shield them from wind or direct sun. Until a child is three it should always be well protected from cold, wind, water and sun. Of course, it should get out into the fresh air, but warmly dressed; a head covering of some kind is always very important. The life-forces are needed for internal forming and structuring and must not be used for fending off the elements. As in much of the advice that follows, the golden rule is that we must allow the young child to build a healthy, strong house for its soul. Once this is done, this house, the body, will better withstand the onslaught of the elements, bad diet, irregular sleep or excessive demands of work that teenage and adult life send our way.
The child makes the world its own by drinking in its perceptions and reproducing them in the form of imitation. That which is perceived will actually go into the formation of the body itself. Studies have shown that the richer and more varied the visual and aural stimulation are in the first two years of life, the greater the number of neural connections established in the brain, the basis of future intelligence. The small child, however, relates strictly to loving, intimate human contact and the immediate living world about him. His mother speaking and singing to him lovingly will work wonders; a cassette player blaring at him will do nothing at all for his neural connections or his soul. A living animal like a dog, or cat, or duck, will fascinate and stimulate him to no end. All television, video and computer images call forth a passive and or mechanical response in the child: this clouds his soul and paralyses it. All forms of mechanical sounds and images, television and cassettes, videos and computer games should be strictly avoided before age 7, and only very gradually introduced after that, with strict guidance, making sure the child understands and afterwards puts into his own words and images what he has experienced. Computer use is not appropriate before ages 12-14, when the child has learned out of his own effort the paths of number computation, the rules of language and grammar, and the basics of logic. Around age 12, the power of abstract thinking is born, and the abstraction of the computer screen becomes appropriate. Introduced earlier, it robs the child of basic skills, makes him lazy and ignorant, and in earliest childhood robs him of basic human contact and comprehension. It can be very difficult to keep the TV, video, computer, or VCR in its place in everyday life. It can help enormously to move the TV set out of the center spot in the living room and keep it in a shuttered closet so that the adults can have access to it when the children are asleep. When we visited relatives or friends, we would speak to them ahead of time to avoid a discussion when we arrived. Our children have profited immensely from avoiding TV and the like in these early years. Relatives’ and friends’ understanding of our views has grown as they see how well the children are developing and how creative, peaceful, and healthy they are compared with TV-watching children.
We must provide the child at all times with the feeling that the world is whole and good. Thus, the small child should be guided in all things, and not faced with choices it does not comprehend: these will make him insecure, awaken anxiety in his soul, and breed excessive behavior like tantrums, and destructive or insolent responses. These are the child’s way of demanding that Mom or Dad set guidelines. If the parents seem unsure and put these choices to the child, his world is turned upside down. Of course, the child must learn to choose, but the choices must be appropriate: the child must grasp easily what is offered. Nor should the small child be addressed regarding his “feelings”, analyzing, and contemplating them: this too will only breed insecurity. Speaking with the child more in statement form can be helpful. Instead of, “Would you like to go outside now?” when it’s not really a question, one could say, “Now we are going outside”. Or instead of, “Would you like to come to lunch?”, one could say, “Now we are having lunch”. The small child lives in a world of endless love, uncontemplated. If discipline demands that this love takes a sterner face, then this must be done without doubt or hesitancy. “No” is not a useful word in the first three years. Much more, the child must be led positively away from the negative; he should be distracted or given a better alternative to the unwanted behavior. After age 3 the child must become ever more conscious of the set limits, and feel the consequences of his actions, good and bad. Positive guidance, not discussion, is the order of the day, as much as possible, until around age 9.
Similarly, the small child should as much as possible remain in one known locale as well, into which it can gradually expand. If distant travel is necessary, the child should be protected with the proper clothing and oils. When our children were very young – 2 ½ years and 8 months, we took a month-long trip to the U.S. from Holland, followed by a move to the U.S. a year later. We used massage oils containing peat on the children’s bodies and used a woven mat of peat on the babies’ seats or beds while travelling. This clearly helped them get through the effects of time and climate change and jet lag more easily. As well, the parents must envelope the child with unchanging love and care through such changes.
As regards diet, the striving is to gradually bring the child down to earth. Mother’s milk is ideal in the first year, supplemented and gradually replaced by well-cooked grains and vegetables. Animal proteins such as meat and eggs should not be given before 3 years of age. Strong spices should also be introduced only gradually, as they, like meats, bind the child strongly to its body and the earth – indeed most children of their own accord will reject these over-stimulating foods. Many allergic reactions, skin and digestive problems can be avoided through slow and careful introduction of new foods to the child’s diet. Good observation to the child’s reaction to the new food can be your guide to providing a good diet. Some children enjoy and thrive on more “challenging” foods, others need milder foods for a longer time. Pure sugar and chocolate should be avoided as well, as they cause the soul to awaken too strongly and loose its “grounding” in the body: excessive energy and behavior is followed by depression. Honey, fruit, and carob are wonderful and healthy replacements. All pre-processed foods should be avoided, firstly because of their high salt and chemical contents (preservatives, additives, food-colorings and “flavor enhancers”), and secondly because experiencing Mom or Dad in the kitchen washing, chopping, and cooking fresh food is an especially enriching experience and a source of endless happy imitation.
Anthroposophic medicine proceeds from the striving to let the child’s body grow strong in the encounter with the world, developing his own natural immune organization. Medicines, compresses, baths and oils, diets and therapies all aim to strengthen the child’s own constitution so that it can fight and defeat the diseases of childhood like measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc. While many Anthroposophic parents do immunize against polio, diphtheria, and tetanus (we did), the milder childhood illnesses are seen as good and necessary preparations to face a world of viruses and microbes that year by year grow stronger and more varied. At the same time antibiotics grow, through overuse, weaker and weaker in the fight against them. Thus, the use of antibiotics should be avoided except for the cases where they are truly necessary. Such medicines as aspirin and Tylenol, that simply mask symptoms and weaken the body’s fighting response, should be avoided as much as possible. The epidemic spread of such diseases as asthma, allergies and diabetes among children and young people which has been registered in recent years – all diseases of weak constitutions – can be seen in direct connection with the overuse of immunizations, antibiotics, and symptom-masking drugs in childhood.
The child will not only imitate Mom’s and Dad’s every motion, he will imitate the soul content expressed through it. If Mom sweeps the floor with quiet joy, singing a song, so will the small child. If she does it with irritation and a curse, the child will drink that in and make that part of himself. The quality of language is of the utmost importance. Every language and culture have a wealth of songs and rhymes, finger games and stories that are the building blocks for the small child, if Mom and Dad sing and play them with him. The small child lives for endless repetition, exactly the same, again and again.
Rhythm is of the utmost importance in all aspects of life in the early years: daily rhythms of rising, eating, napping etc. that happen at the same times are the basis of health and well-being. Mealtimes, with if possible, the whole family gathered, are special and should be marked with a verse of thanks, joining hands in a circle. Bedtime is special as well, and should have its own ritual of story time, followed by a prayer or verse and a song. Celebrating the rhythms of nature, of sun and seasons, of growth and devolution, of the cultural festivals embedded in the year’s rhythm, all these make the child feel as one with the world and cosmos around him. All health and healing lives in the breath and the breathing processes, and through thesesteady rhythms the child comes into a living breathing and his own earthly being, his family, with all mankind and with the world as a whole.
Leaf by leaf, branch by branch, the steady rhythm of vegetative growth is the heart of the child’s development at this stage. Rudolf Steiner pointed out that this inherited body, strange to the soul-spirit at birth, is entirely remade by age 7, every cell has been replaced, namely by the child’s own living activity. He makes the body his own, strong with the love and richness of living experience he has absorbed. The emergence of the second teeth, the hardest substance the body produces, is a major sign of the completion of this process. His life forces are now free for their next task: the intellectual activity of the school child, which he has become. Just as his life-forces previously formed organs and life processes, now they form letters and arrange numbers, putting them together into images and concepts with which to grasp the world. The processes of writing, reading and arithmetic should thus not be practiced before this point; this robs the child of the forces he needs for building his body and weakens his constitution. The young child takes in the whole world, not analyzed and broken into parts, but as a singing, dancing synthesis in the living songs, verses and stories sung and spoken to him by loving, living people.