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Habits Win

Updated: May 16, 2023

The most fundamental principle of Waldorf Education is that the educator (parent and/or teacher) is informed by an insightful understanding of human development. When we understand the hallmarks of human development, then we are able to educate and support according to the forces and stages at work in the growing beings for whom we care. We will recognize those things we observe as either timely phenomena, or as challenges that the child may need help to work through. And we must be very clear on the latter point: all children need help working through some challenges along the way. Our modern societies bring many bountiful gifts, to be sure. At the same time, our cultures and experiences are so far removed from how human beings experienced life on Earth for millennia, that we are beset by challenges throughout our lives, sometimes from the very moment of our births. This fact, within the limits of reasonable challenges, is not a tragedy. Struggle and resistance make us stronger and, at least later in life, more conscious of how we can live in a healthy balance. Without the resistance of the rosin and the bow on the string, the violin would not create such beautiful tones. Without the resistance of gravity, the child would never learn to stand, balance, walk, run, and dance. So, challenges will definitely occur for children along their paths of development. Facing these challenges and working through them equips human beings with unique strengths that may very well become signature aspects of their destinies.

I would like to focus on a particular stage of life and a significant tenet of that developmental process. I am focusing on the second seven-year cycle that runs from dentition (the onset of the change of teeth) and puberty. This is from around the seventh to the fourteenth birthdays, but it does not follow the calendar exactly, of course. We will look first at these milestones themselves and then look at the evolutionary momentum at work in that second seven-year period of life. The milestones are dentition and puberty.

Let's look at dentition. What is being expressed here? It is right between the first and second seven-year cycles. The first seven years of life are all about the human being incarnating into a physical body. The soul-spirit is taking hold of it. It is easy to see that the newborn has very little control or coordination in this regard. The first three years of life alone are an unbelievable time of development. There are entire books devoted to exploring the profound developmental achievements occurring in just those three years. And then within the first seven, the child becomes comfortable living in an organic, physical body in an even fuller way. From beginning life as a newborn being who simply nursed and slept, the seven year old is able to talk, climb, jump, control urinary and bowel evacuations, remember events and experiences, and imitate others' behaviors--among many, many other skills and abilities.

So what happens, what changes are afoot at this point around the seventh year? The change of teeth commences. And in this expression, we can see a physical "flowering". The teeth are the epitome of human physicality. They are the densest things in the human body, one could say they are the "most physical" aspect of the human body. Being so mineral and dense, they are the last things, even beyond bones, that might endure decay over time or destruction by forces such as fire. They are the most enduring parts of the physical body to be used for identifying an individual. So, when we have the "milk teeth" falling out to be replaced by the "adult teeth" we have a flowering of physicality. It is a sign that we are ready to begin a new stage of life because we have come into our physicality.

On the other end of the second seven-year cycle and/or at the beginning of the third, we have puberty. It is another kind of flowering. In the second seven-year cycle, we are doing more than just becoming physical beings; we are developing the healthy rhythms (hopefully!) with life forces that will sustain us in these physical bodies. What's the difference? Like the teeth, the physical body is most strictly related to the mineral kingdom. Without the life forces, the physical body is just a corpse. The second seven years emphasizes the work of the life forces, sometimes called "etheric forces", which enliven the body and sustain it with a healthy organization of forces and rhythms. Think of a tree. The tree's body is very much a mineral arrangement, but as a plant, it is a living being with life forces for growth and organization. It grows from seed/nut to full maturity, with the ability to create offspring. The plant kingdom as a whole is that which is most related the second seven-year cycle with these life/etheric forces most predominantly at work. So when the child reaches puberty, this is a flowering of life forces rather than a flowering of physical development. Certainly, there is still physical development happening as we see in the bodily changes at adolescence; however, the most significant changes in this cycle are the organization of the body's organic systems and the ability to reproduce. The pulse and breathe rates harmonize into a four-to-one ratio that is healthy throughout life. The liver rhythm is settled. Eating rhythms become more regular. Kidney and bladder functions (and bowel functions) are more regular and controlled. Sleep has settled into regular rhythms. These organic processes are accompanied by behavioral rhythms, too. And it is these behavioral rhythms that we refer to as habits.

If I could help every teacher and parent understand only one thing, it would be this: HABITS WIN. They will always prevail. We can sometimes will ourselves to behave outside of our habits, but it is difficult and it will always be a matter of swimming upstream. In the end, habits win. When parents/teachers understand this, they have the most important lens of all, in my opinion, which enables them to see exactly how to work with the child between dentition and puberty. And here is the other thing to understand about the power of habits. Habits form in this second seven-year cycle no matter what. They must. It is simply how we have been designed by our evolution.

Picture the life of primitive human societies. Babies were born to parents who were often in their teens, having just experienced their own flowering into sexual "maturity". The babies would spend their first seven years learning how to be in their physical bodies. And as I mentioned before, they were also learning how to imitate their parents. This served them well. They had to learn skills that would help them survive and thrive; yet, there were no schools. There were no "teachers". Children needed a very efficient means to learn behaviors that would serve them for survival, like the bear cub watching its mother catch salmon by the river. Children learned speech, how to find food, how to hunt food, how to make shelter, etc. These human behaviors were passed down primarily through the most efficient of all ways, through imitation. And as the child grew, these imitative actions eventually became habits in the second seven years of life, because the child performed the actions repetitively. The additional advantage in this second seven years is that the child was not always imitating; they were also independently learning and adapting. This allowed for new and, ideally, better or more efficient behaviors. Thus, as they passed more advantageous behaviors (better habits) along to their offspring, human beings as a whole gradually became wiser, more efficient, more sophisticated. But there was a limit to how long these imitative and adaptive behaviors could create habits in each individual. This was limited by the need to create offspring. The average lifespan was much shorter for early homo sapiens. So, the production of the next generation needed to happen earlier than we idealize today.

Enter puberty. Now the human being is able to procreate. Habits were, for the most part, set. (There is always the potential to create new habits later in life, but it is more difficult because a new habit is usually working against the force of an earlier habit.) Parents would pass along their habits, whether inherited from their parents or adapted during youth, to the children and then the process would begin again. The parents had their habits to sustain them and their society. The children would eventually learn to imitate them and eventually have the chance to improve upon them. On and on and on. This went on for thousands and thousands of generations--and it continues to work in us with an extremely strong evolutionary momentum. This pattern of development is one of the fundamental reasons that homo sapiens have been so successful.

So what does this mean for us today? We still form habits during the second seven year cycle. Some of those habits are based on behaviors we learned to imitate and some are based on things we repetitively do during these years. Repetition is the key. When we repeat behaviors, we are activating certain neural pathways in the developing brain. The more we do a thing, the more we activate those pathways. The more we activate those pathways, the more those pathways are myelinated. Myelin is a kind of insulation for neural pathways. The insulation protects those pathways for future functioning and it enables the impulses moving along those pathways to travel more quickly. So, if that action is a beneficial one, the human being is able to make it a habit and to do it more and more quickly and skillfully. This is why children can learn something like the playing of a new instrument so quickly. If they just practice every day, they pick it up so much more easily than the mid-life adult. It is as if the child's biology is saying: "Oh, we must need to be able to play the piano to ensure our survival; so let's ensure that all of these associated neural pathways are protected and optimized for lifelong function." In other words, our very biology takes repeated actions and behaviors as signals of an evolutionary imperative.

So, today, we can simply know that between dentition and puberty, habits are forming. Whatever the child does repetitively during these years will become a habit. Does the child brush her teeth each morning? That will become a habit. Does the child keep his room tidy? That will become a habit. Did the child imitate Parent doing chores and does he continue to do chores each day? That will be a habit. Does the child imitate Parent staring at a small electronic device during mealtimes and does he now have a small electronic device of his own? Does child see Parent procrastinating when there is a job to do? Is child allowed to do the same? You can see where this has the potential to go. The first seven years of children's lives, we adults are informing them with everything we do--literally everything we do--and especially with our own habits. In their second seven years, we are either helping them reinforce good habits or we are allowing them to develop poor habits. They may hold on to things they have imitated and they may also adapt other behaviors. Either way, habits are forming, according to the evolutionary imperative.

If we maintain household rhythms around orderliness, timeliness, fulfillment of responsibilities, etc. then we are optimizing this habit-forming force within them. We are setting them up with habits that will support them for the rest of their lives. If, however, we are simply allowing habits to be established randomly, because we do not have a household/family structure and/or we do not have our own healthy habits in place as models, then they will likely develop poor habits which will work against them for the rest of their lives. After all, poor habits are easy to develop. They are like weeds, much easier to grow in the garden than vegetables. It is much easier to form a habit of lazing on the couch all day than it is to form the habit of doing some kind of physical workout every other day. It in our own lives.

When we have healthy habits in place during childhood, we are in a position of optimally learning and achieving throughout our lives. This can apply to higher educational pursuits or the joy of hobbies, however the individual might find interest and fulfillment. With such habits, opportunities abound. We can then truly follow our bliss and find meaning in our pursuits. For adults working with children, we just need to understand why and how these kinds of habits are developed. Then we can help the youth develop habits that will free them to pursue their destinies with as much potential as possible.

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