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The Gift of Clean Consequences

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

One of the hallmarks of Waldorf education is that Rudolf Steiner wisely decided to begin with a deeper understanding of the human being, particularly with child development, rather than a "well-designed" curriculum. In fact, he continuously encouraged the early Waldorf teachers to avoid the temptation of thinking about a set curriculum for any subject or any grade. Instead, he always stressed the importance of seeing the child before you. When we have an understanding of child development and when we combine that with clear observations of the child before us, then what the child needs next becomes the clear directive. We can design and adjust the curriculum so that it meets the child right where they are.

Waldorf Discipline: The Gift of Clean Consequences

Or, here is another way to think about it. If curriculum is a well-designed shoe, then we still need to know what size the child will need, we need to understand the shape of the child's foot, have a sense for how fast the foot is growing, and whether the child needs laces, velcro, or elastic band fasteners. When we really understand the foot (the child), then we can fashion the shoe of curriculum so that it fits optimally. Then the child can do so much more with that shoe. On the other hand we can give a child an $800 pair of exquisite shoes from a fine European cobbler, but if the shoe is four sizes too big, the results will be far from desirable and an otherwise fine shoe becomes basically worthless in that application.

Understanding the human being and the developmental stages of growth are paramount in education and can help us as parents as well. So, this offering is meant for the contemplations of any adult who works with children.

Rudolf Steiner gave the early Waldorf teachers a four-fold picture of the human being. I will share it very briefly.

  1. The physical body - This is what is developed up to the change of teeth, approximately age 7. The qualities of this part of our being are what we share with the mineral world.

  2. The etheric body - These are the forces of life. Without these, the physical body is just a corpse. These come to their most dramatic development between the change of teeth and puberty. These are the forces of growth, of rhythm, pattern, and memories. (Notice memories are not the same as intellect or thinking.) The qualities of this part of our being are what we share with the plant world.

  3. The astral body - This enters its most outward development during the years between the onset of puberty (the 14th year) and sometime around the age of 21. These forces are those of emotions, urges, desires, the dynamics of having a soul. The qualities of this part of our being are what we share with the animal world. There is a sentience, an obvious consciousness, but it is not a true self-awareness. There is not a possibility of truly free thinking.

  4. The ego - This begins its true development after approximately the 21st year and continues, potentially, for many years thereafter. This ego-being is not shared with any other life form on Earth. It is uniquely human. At the same time, it is not something that automatically develops like the growth forces. It is given to us as a great potential. Our parents and teachers can certainly help us gain advantages and characteristics for healthy ego-development, but a lot of what happens there is up to the individual. We can be raised well, fed well, helped to develop healthy physical, behavioral, and emotional habits, we can be educated well, etc. These can greatly aid the adult human being on the path of ego development, but nothing guarantees this development. The individual will be faced, many times in adulthood, with the opportunity to consciously choose the path of awakening or the path of remaining asleep. Lastly, ego in this sense is not the same as egotistical. Healthy ego is a dynamic balance of consciousness for the self and the other. Living as a human being is BOTH a solitary experience AND a social one.

So why are we surveying this fourfold model of the human being? Steiner gave us a wonderful guideline for utilizing these forces or "bodies" as adults working with children. He said that there is always a "pedagogical law" that brings right relationship into balance. He said that it is the adult's next-higher body that works most directly with the child's. So, if I am working with a nine-year old, then I know that the child is in their "etheric" developmental stage. Therefore, it is not my ego forces that come into contact most directly with the child, but my astral forces. My ego must be in charge, keeping my astral forces in proper balance if I hope to have a beneficial impact on the child.

This sounds strange until we look at a practical situation.

I hear some glass break in the other room. I rush to the room, feeling frightened and agitated (astral forces). I find my 9-year-old trying to hide a frisbee that he was tossing with a friend inside the house, something I have repeatedly reminded him not to do. I see that no one was cut, fortunately. Then I notice that the glass was part of the picture frame that held an old favorite black and white photograph of my grandmother's immediate family. The broken glass scratched the photograph.

My fear has abated because no one was cut, but my agitation turns to anger.

This is an important point for stopping to reflect on the moment. It is a pivotal point (and be clear that I mishandled this kind of moment many, many times as a parent and as a teacher). The lesson to be learned is clear. The child should not have been throwing a frisbee in the house, especially since the child has been spoken to about this several times before.

Let's state the situation clearly. The child misbehaved. This is just a simple fact. When a child misbehaves, there is an opportunity to help the child learn.

What we have yet to see is: Will the adult also misbehave? This depends on whether the adult's ego can keep the astral forces balanced.

So, before we look at the two pictures of balanced and imbalanced astral forces, let's establish an appropriate consequence for the child's misbehavior.

The child will pay for a new picture frame. The child will come with the parent to visit a printer or photographer who might be able to amend the scratch on the photo. The child will not have any friend's over or go to any friend's house for playdates/sleepovers for two weeks.

Now let's look at the pivotal point: how the adult administer's consequences.

Imbalanced Astral Forces

I slam my hand into the wall with a loud smack. I raise my voice and keep raising it as I say: "What are you doing in here?! How many times have I told you to only throw the frisbee outside?! Look what you have done! You could have gotten hurt or hurt your friend! Oh and look at this--you've have broken my favorite photograph--and it is scratched too! (Child's name), you will have to pay for all of this! You will have to see if there is anyone who can fix this scratch, and you aren't doing any playdates or sleepovers for two weeks!"

Balanced Astral Forces

I stand there and take a deep breath when I see that no one is hurt. Everything I am about to say is said calmly and with sincerity.

"Okay, don't move until I see where the broken glass is. Alright, step over here. (Child's name), leave the frisbee in here with the glass. I will clean it up later. I am sad that the picture frame was harmed, but I am glad you are both safe. (Child's name), we will talk about this after your friend goes home. For now, I am going to close the door and no one will go in there until I have cleaned up all the glass."

Later, when the friend has gone home...

"(Child's name), you will need to use your allowance or savings to pay for a new picture frame and come with me to see a specialist who might be able to repair the scratch. Also, there will be no playdates or sleepovers for 2 weeks."

The consequences were the same in each example, but in the latter, the consequences came to the child "cleanly". In other words, they were not cluttered with the my astral imbalances. I did not shame the child and I did not scare the child. The child, whether they initially show it or not, felt sadness and regret. When they experience me staying balanced and calm, they have an unobstructed view of their deed and of the appropriate consequence. Over time, they will have a healthy appreciation for this. Moreover, they learn on a deep level that they can trust me when unfortunate things happen. On an even deeper level, they are learning that they need to stay calm and collected in similar situations themselves.

In the former example, I brought in shame and fear, compounding the problem. This will make it more difficult for the child to learn the appropriate lessons from this action. Instead of learning that they made a poor choice and that poor choices result in unwanted consequences, a lesson that will be valuable throughout life, they learn that I get angry (yelling at the child) and somewhat violent (smacking the wall). Deeper than this, they are learning that they cannot trust me to keep my cool when unfortunate things happen. How angry could my parent be toward me? Would my parent ever smack something harder than that? Would my parent ever be physical toward me? They are not learning from the misdeed. They are now focused on a bigger problem, my lack of self-control and healthy perspective. And even deeper than that, they are learning to become angry and somewhat violent themselves when unfortunate things happen to them in the future.

So even when our disciplinary steps are appropriate, the real question is our own self-control. Have we, the adults, developed our egos to the point that we are in control of our emotions or do our reactions and emotions override the ego and create even more problems? This path of self-development is far from a hermetic or solipsistic practice of self-importance. We are not attempting to develop our egos in narcissism. Rather, we must stare soberly in the mirror and realize the impacts we have in the world around us. We must see how important we are to those young ones entrusted to us. Fittingly, the importance of "self-development" is most keenly and poignantly seen where it affects others.

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