Monday, September 19, 2011

Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Nurturing our children from birth to seven

 Well, I just finished this book and it was very interesting. It was not quite what I was expecting, but it was well worth the read. It explains the Waldorf philosophy of how to nurture young children, which I knew nothing about. (I did not realize this was even the subject matter of the book until I began to read it.)
            In the Waldorf philosophy, the 3 cornerstones to raising happy, healthy, and capable children are:
1-   An understanding of children’s development – so that we don’t ask too much or too little of our children as they grow
2-    An understanding of the important of physical and emotional warmth for growth and development of children
3-   An awareness of the importance of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms in our children’s lives

I couldn’t agree more with the first cornerstone.  When we don’t understand the way a child develops, mentally and emotionally, we often expect too much of them, or sometimes, too little.  For example, expecting your 18 month old to not touch dangerous or precious items is asking too much. They want and need to touch everything. We simply put these objects out of their reach. Or, asking a 2 1/2 year old, "What did you do today?"  They do not yet have the capacity to just remember the events of the day with out a visual or other cue to associate the memory with.  Or, expecting a child who is cold, hungry, or tired to be able to mind and perform tasks.  Young children must first have their physical needs met.  They can’t ignore pain or hunger.
That being said, I don’t agree with the degree to which Waldorf holds back information from children until they deem them old enough to handle it.   Surely, we should protect our children from a lot of information in this world.  A pre-schooler does not need to know about all the suffering in the world, for example, but I don’t believe it hurts for to teach them math concepts and pre-reading and writing skills.  Waldorf delays teaching reading until children are 7!  The teacher in this book says not to give children too many facts. For example if a young child asks why the sun has gone away and it’s dark now, she believes a good answer is to say that “Father Sun has gone to sleep.  He will wake up again in the morning.”  I can’t imagine telling my child that!  When they ask a question, we should give them an answer with some truth to it!
The Waldorf philosophy puts great emphasis on the importance of imaginative play for children. It advocates the use of only very simple toys such as simple dolls, carved wooden animals, baskets of stones and shells, silk and cotton cloths, simple dress-up clothes, and wooden blocks - things that a child can pretend are different things at different times.  It also talks about how having too many toys can be overwhelming for a child, and often they won't play with any of them, or they will develop a short attention span, moving from one thing to the next without getting much enjoyment from any one toy.  I think having simple toys and not too many toys is great.  However, I think it is also great to have some toys that teach concepts, as well, like in Montessori. 

The second cornerstone is a bit out there for me. So, it is important to keep you child warm. Ok – common sense – we don’t want them to be cold, of course.  However, their reasoning behind it is weird - that being cold interferes with proper organ development and that it can lead to a child who closes himself off and has trouble receiving emotional warmth later in life.  I just don’t buy that.
This book speaks of how young children's systems are much more sensitive than adults' to things such as noise (loud noise or background noise, especially), scents, cold, etc.  They believe that if the senses are overloaded it can cause a child to withdraw.  I think there may be some truth to this, at least for some highly sensitive children. I do think we should limit artificial noise like TV for small children.  I know I feel agitated when I am somewhere with a TV that is too loud or that is on and I am not actively watching it, so I am sure young children often feel that way too.  Of course TV is a whole other topic!  Waldorf equates it to a “poison,” but I will discuss that at another time.

I do agree with the third cornerstone, that rhythms are important in a child’s life.  Children do like to know what to expect and to have a daily and weekly routine, and traditions that are the same every year for holidays, for example.  However, I don’t think it is necessarily important to have a set day for things like laundry and other household chores, as the author advocates.  In this day and age, flexibility is key, even when you have your set routines to guide you.
            I particularly liked the section on creative discipline. It offers ways to deal with children that do not include scolding, yelling, or criticizing.  One example of discipline that I thought made a lot of sense was that if a child is playing violently or too rough, the cure is real work. Have him help in the garden. Activities like digging, carrying things, etc. - things that have a goal in the end and require physical, rewarding work are the best ways to get the aggression out.  Punishments, whether they be spanking, scolding, or a time out, don't help the situation.
The book also says not to ask children to do things, but tell them. They don't need to think they have a choice, when they actually don't.  They need clear communication, not confusing requests. "You may put your dishes in the sink now." is much better than "Will you please go put your dishes in the sink?"  It also warns against giving too many choices. Young children are easily overwhelmed - it often works out better to not offer any choices or just to offer two. Children who are consistently offered too many choices may have trouble making choices later in life, or may become self-centered and not as in tune to the needs of others. 
I can say, from my experience, that my son does have trouble if I give him too many choices.  Some days I make him breakfast, give him his clothes to wear, and pack his lunch, all without asking him what he wants, and he’s fine with it.  Some days I say, “Do you want oatmeal or a waffle?”  “Tuna sandwich or tuna and crackers?” or “Blue shirt or red one?”  But I learned never to say, “What do you want for lunch today?” because he will either take a really long time deciding or will get upset because he can’t decide.  He’s had huge meltdowns just because he couldn’t make a decision.
I think it is important to learn to prevent difficult situations as much as possible.  One suggestion in this book is that with very young children, rather than, say, telling them to clean their room, having them say no, telling them more firmly, having them say no more firmly . . . Simply say, "It's time to clean up," and the two of you go together and do it.  The "no" phase is a normal part of child development and this makes this phase easier on everyone.
One of the book's final points is that any teacher (parents, included) must constantly work on self-discipline if we are to teach discipline to children. "The growing and developing in the child listens to the growing and developing in the teacher." Becoming a better parent is a constant struggle, not something that is accomplished after reading a few books. I am taking this advice to heart.
So, all in all, a pretty good read. Some of the reasoning in this book seems a bit out there, and perhaps outdated.  If you can get past that, and take the suggestions at face value and the reasoning with a grain of salt, I think it has some great ideas.

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