As part of some study in Steiner early childhood education we were asked to reflect on Rudolf Steiner's comments on the young child from his work "The Child before the 7th Year" and what we had observed from our own experience. For this experience has been in Behaviour Management, leading Steiner playgroups and parenting. I find this process of reading and reflecting on Steiner's lectures to be greatly rewarding and so important in digesting what is said and how I may bring it into my life and work. I'm sharing some of my reflections here...
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“If one listens to what lives in the human heart, one can find that man’s true happiness on earth depends on the awareness of this human freedom, on his appreciation of human values and on his feeling for human dignity.”
The listening Steiner asks of us requires great internal work. To me this also looks at the practice of knowing oneself. This leads to questions of how can I truly know myself, and how can I bring this knowing with authenticity to my family, children and all? What “lives” within each of us? Or perhaps “the human heart” is not so individualistic or internal. Perhaps the human heart is a collective experience that we all share. I truly believe that the collective desire of humanity is for equality, justice, compassion, kindness and love – these desires are not unique to individuals, they drive us as a species. I see these as the human values and the feeling for human dignity that Steiner refers to.
I see the human freedom he describes as the opportunity we are faced with in our time in physical form to separate, if only momentarily, from the state of oneness that is our cosmos. To me I see happiness as the soul being able to continually expand within each person – bringing us back to oneness within our time as separate individuals, and being human is not about yourself in isolation, it is about seeing and hearing another, to love and serve the world, to have respect for and ability to relate to others, for others.
“Anyone in charge of young children… must ask the question: Have I been specially chosen to fulfil the important task of guiding and educating this child, or these children? … What must I do to obliterate, as far as possible, my personal self in order to leave those entrusted in my care free from being burdened by my own subjective nature? How must I act so that I do not interfere with the child’s destiny? And, above all, how can I best educate the child towards human freedom?”
In early childhood the child’s etheric forces are tied up in building the physical body. Steiner indicates that during this time we must refrain from interfering; yet understand that everything we do in the child’s vicinity impacts on their development.
In my work in behaviour management, I am involved with families of varying socioeconomic and educational positions, who have children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. I sometimes doubt my abilities as a healer and educator in this capacity. In reflecting on Steiner’s words I can see this as my personal self and subjective nature overpowering. When I see my involvement and presence as part of the child’s destiny, to be there, to listen and see the child as they are, it comes to me that my work is of great importance, dissolving any doubt and unburdening those in my care.
My choice to study early Steiner education stemmed from an overwhelming personal and heartfelt truth that intention is fundamental to all therapeutic, educational, leading and nurturing roles that I am drawn to (behaviour management, teaching, playgroup leading and mothering). To me this intention is two-fold, to act in a way worthy of imitation and to trust the child’s innate capacity for extraordinary growth and development.
Steiner’s questions for caregivers of young children are daunting to me at times as they highlight the sheer magnitude of responsibility the adult holds… then I read them again and feel an authentic simplicity that dissolves the need to have the answers, that it’s the continual questioning of ourselves to come back to the best intentions.
“What really matters in education is the mood and attitude of the soul, which the teacher carries in his heart with regard to the being of man.”
This quote highlights the importance of our inward belief that the world is inherently good, that there is the capacity for goodness in all circumstances and in all people. For me, this is the soul speaking. In my experience it is my responsibility as the educator to be in the right frame of mind, so that these moments of trust in the goodness of the world carry through in my mood and attitude.
I see that the role of a Steiner playgroup leader is to be a nurturer and participant in joyous warmth. I am meeting parents and small children often in their first structured setting. In a practical application I would approach the children with insight, in my own individual way, with respect and view of my own freedom, to offer the same opportunity for each child. My intention is to deliver this through love and warmth, connecting with others through my actions (e.g., giving, receiving, speaking and listening) and offering true empathy for someone. I show this with warm attention, enthusiasm and understanding.
“(In the first two-and-a-half years) the child becomes a perfect mimic, a complete imitator. This imposes upon the grown-up the moral duty to be worthy of imitation, which is as far less comfortable task than exerting one’s will upon the child… Education during these first two-and-a-half years should be confined to the self-education of the adult in charge who should think, feel and act in a manner which, when perceived by the child, will cause it no harm.”
If the child is a complete imitator, they are absorbing all that we as caregivers offer. We cannot select specific components of ourselves to control what we would like a child to absorb and simply hide parts that are not ideal. The true essence of each of us comes across in all we do, our gestures, beliefs and attitudes are entwined, and the young child is most open to see this. This highlights the importance of adults to engage in self-work, to then be able to offer one’s true best to the child in care.
As a mother of two young children, I have found that my self-work is the integral component of parenting - to forgive myself in the areas I feel I can improve upon, and continually trust in and practice being worthy of imitation. It is these moments of my own conscious practice that I am most authentic, calm, warm and loving with my children, and they in turn respond with loving kindness. There is no suppression of will and no harm inflicted. Yelling, requiring the child to obey and losing composure and compassion seem to be when the adult ego and will overrides.
I often felt that my attitude to work on myself was selfish, compared to what I see other parents doing, such as offering activities like structured craft, giving intellectual answers, playing with the child and offering more, but when I observed the children and adults engaging in these activities they seemed contrived and inauthentic - despite parents believing them to be educational or entertaining. To me this is part of the parent exerting their will onto the child.
“…great care must be taken when the child develops these two faculties (to speak and to walk), which are instrumental to the upbuilding of the soul. The child continues to live by imitation and therefore we should not attempt to make it remember anything of our own choice. At this stage it is best to leave the evolving forces of memory alone, allowing the child to remember whatever it pleases.”
In leading a playgroup and working with parents I have witnessed much adult behaviour surrounding children 2-4years of age. It seems tempting to many parents to view their children as little adults; recalling facts, having knowledge and thinking. I have witnessed parents using the child’s budding faculties as entertainment (e.g., the parent asking a young child to count aloud in Greek in front of other parents) or to fast-track things a child is capable of doing independently in their own time (e.g., propping them up before they can sit, making them shake the morning circle bell when the child is content to simply hold and look at it) with a feeling of achievement-based competitiveness to meet developmental milestones. From Steiner’s indications, this kind of interference is carelessness and a disregard for the child’s whole being. To me the goal of true education is about living as a human being, in the world of all living things, of all humanity – not academic skills and information recall. With this in mind we can take great care of our children, offer loving clarity and trust for the child’s innate capacity, and allow their faculties to truly evolve.
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Continued in Part Two here