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The Child's Limited Consciousness and Our Roles As Their Guides

I invite you to take a moment and consider your first memory. I am speaking of the very first thing you remember. How old were you? What do you recall? Is the recollection vivid or blurry. Is it as clear as your memories from adulthood? Does it appear in your mind more like an almost-forgotten dream? How reliable do you think your first memory is? Is it possible that it has changed over time?


This is just a simple exercise to look at our own growing consciousness so that we might consider the growing consciousness of the child.


Waldorf homeschool teaching guidance

It is said that there was a message chiseled above the entryway to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Greece: Know Thyself. How succinct! But...what could it mean. I will not attempt to unravel such a mystery except to say that the longer I have lived with this message, the more I believe it applies to almost everything in life. For now, let us apply it to the subject at hand. In other words, in order to understand the emerging consciousness of the child, let us attempt to see the emergence of our own. Perhaps it is only in reflectively observing our own consciousness that we will have any perspective with which to consider the consciousness of another.


It is nevertheless and odd endeavor. How can a conscious being observe their own consciousness?


This very morning, I sewed cloth covers for the side mirrors of my car and the side mirrors of my son's car. I did this because there is a little bird who has become fixated on our mirrors. As well as I can tell, the little bird sees a rival in the mirrors, because he will attack the mirrors over and over, for hours at a time. As you know, if a bird spends enough time in one place, it will leave its droppings there. Our mirrors were becoming quite messy!


I bring this up because, according to those who have studied animals, most birds do not understand that they are seeing their own reflections. This applies to most animals. There are very few creatures who understand that the image reflected in the mirror, the image that moves exactly as they move is only a reflection of themselves. It is a curious thing when one considers it, especially when we remember that we use this very word "reflection" as another word for consideration, pondering, or thinking. We reflect on things when we are trying to figure them out or understand them more deeply. So it seems that there are very few creatures outside of human beings with this ability. Certainly, that little bird has not been able to understand the mirror more deeply. It does not see itself. It sees something that it wants to attack. And it goes on like that, for hours, day after day, with no insight at all. It is completely running on an instinctual response. It is not "learning" anything, no matter how many times it rams its little beak into the mirror glass.


We learn though. We are able to reflect. In fact, we can reflect on the ability to reflect, which sounds a bit like being in a hall of mirrors, where some things may not be as real as they first appear!


So let us consider another memory. Go a little further into your childhood. Perhaps you can recall a playground from elementary school, or a place you went in your neighborhood. The important thing is that it needs to be a place you were very familiar with for some time in your childhood that you did not revisit for a while.


I will give an example. I spent my first seven years living in a typical suburban neighborhood. The kids would all come out after school and play in the yards and streets. We ran around, rode big-wheels, rode bikes, climbed trees, etc. Our house was at the top of a huge hill that descended down to a lower level of houses. If it was time to go home and I found myself at the lower level, I had to basically ascend a mountain to get home. And if my lower level friends were up top at dinner time, they would ride their bikes or big-wheels at almost light speed down the hill, because it was so steep. At least, that is how I remembered the hill.


A few year after we had moved, I asked my mother to drive me past "the old house". I was so surprised, truly shaken, when I realized how different my perceptions and recollections from my younger years had been. The "huge hill" was a very slight slope downward, hardly noticeable actually. The streets were narrower, the houses were smaller, the yards were much tinier and the trees were much more compact than I had remembered. It was the first time I had ever had such an experience. It really amazed me. I can still feel that near-disbelief I felt then.


So, how often does something like this happen in life? How often are we so certain of our perceptions, so convinced of our recollections, when actually things were not quite as they appeared to us? How often are our convictions based on perceptions that were influenced by our level of consciousness? Does this only apply to those of the very young child, or is it possible that our consciousness has continually evolved throughout adulthood and we are still perceiving things differently, perhaps not as dramatically so, as we did just a few years ago?


As you contemplate this, consider something else. What do you remember learning in elementary school? What do you actually remember learning in school before high school? What beliefs that you had in those years about how the world works, how people are, how you are, what is absolutely true--how much of all that is still true to you today?


For myself, the answer to any and all of those questions is very, very little. I earned good grades in school, but I don't remember much of what I "learned". My views of the world, of people, of myself, and of great mysteries such as spiritual worlds has all changed dramatically since those years. My understanding of what it takes to live in this world, to find balance, discipline, and wisdom, to give and receive love, to understand the incredible challenge and power of forgiveness, to grasp the precious moment because of my mortality--these are things that I had hardly begun to even consider in those years.


And I venture to guess that many of you can relate to what I am sharing. Your memories are unique, of course, but the experience of growing, learning, and becoming is much more universal despite the innumerably different details in all our lives.


During our recent webinar on the Role of the Arts in Neurological, Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development, we had a time of questions and answers. At one point, I was re-assuring parents that children do not always know what is best. In fact, rarely so! Despite their abilities to be sincere and to even sound somewhat logical, their emerging consciousness is nowhere near what it needs to be to make actually important decisions.


So, with all this in mind, I invite parents to be parents, just as Rudolf Steiner invited teachers to be teachers. He used the wonderful picture of being the "loving authority". This balance is such a brilliant way to embody what the child needs. There is the love, of course, and there is also the authority. There is understanding and there is guidance. There is compassion and there are requirements. There is sympathy and there are clear boundaries.


Certainly there are times when the young child senses what is actually best and even chooses that. These are wonderful signs of maturation and we can not only celebrate such moments but also look for those to increase in frequency as they grow. At the same time, we must remain aware that there will still be many times that they will be like the little bird who attacks my car windows, when instincts and urges and desires and self-centeredness and a simple lack of maturity will lead them to choose things that are not for the best. In these moments we must be willing to step in and guide, require, expect, etc. We are the adults. We are the wise ones. So long as we are not becoming imbalanced toward an abuse of our authority, then we can safely assert that authority for what is best--and we can do so with very little commentary, debate, justification, etc. This can be hard, perhaps harder today than ever, but it is what the young people need from us.

I will end with a picture from Charles Schulz, the creator of the "Peanuts" cartoons. In those cartoons, the children sometimes talk to their teacher. While we can hear what the children say, the teacher sounds muffled, as if she is saying "Wah, wah-wah wah, wah-wah-wah, wah." This is brilliance! This is exactly how we sound when we talk too much to kids, hoping that we can somehow convince them to like us when we have to make adult decisions that they don't like. Please try to trust me when I say that their displeasure is NOT PERSONAL. It is just what they have to do as they try to discover who they are. It is not personal. If we play into their drama, then we drop out of the place they need us to remain: the wise, strong, loving authorities. They need us to be that today so that their lives are guided for the good. And they need us to be that so that many tomorrows from now, they will understand how to embody that themselves and make decisions for themselves and others (our grandchildren perhaps!) from that wise and mature place.

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