Updated: Apr 28
There are several bodies of research from the behavioral, developmental, and psychological points of view that highlight critical or pivotal points in the human being's growth and maturation. One of those is around the 8th or 9th year. Simple search engine entries can yield a plethora of these studies and/or articles related to such findings.
Long before search engines, Dr. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education (sometimes known as Steiner Schools, but more often as Waldorf Schools), noted the significance of this age and the importance that parents and teachers should have an understanding of it.
As a Waldorf educator for nearly 25 years, I have not only read a great deal on the subject, I have also compared my studies to the actual phenomena with actual children. I have come to see what is often called "the nine year change" in three phases. Naturally, there is no perfectly clean border between each phase; there are periods of transition. Still, I have found that there are some signature characteristics that we can notice in most children during this developmental experience. Therefore, I will write an article about each of these phases.
Before I go any further, please understand that what I will say applies to the "theoretically average" child. I am not and would not characterize a specific child other than to share actual examples from many different children. Secondly, it should be understood that this is a developmental stage, not one that comes at the precisely same biological age for every child. There are far too many influential factors for us to suppose a "perfect" time for these developments. Rather, let us simply strive to understand the characteristics so that we can recognize them when they occur, understanding that most children do experience these things around the age of 8 or 9.
The three stages I see are the crisis, the struggle, and the resolution. This article will focus on the what I call the "Nine Year Crisis".
Imagine a young dolphin. It swims with ever-increasing skill and strength. It can leap, spin, dive, and dart with extraordinary elegance. Life for this young dolphin is an absolute joy. The sea is its home, full of wonder and perfection. Its large dolphin pod is an array of perfect family members as well. Life, indeed, is perfect--so perfect that the young dolphin does not yet even have a concept for perfection or imperfection. It lives in a state of ignorant bliss, as is so natural for young dolphins, you know! Then, one day, the little dolphin finds itself trapped in a tide pool large enough to hold it but also small enough to drain a bit as the tide ebbs. Soon enough, the dolphin understands that it has found some real trouble. Where is the water? Where is the family pod? Why is this happening? Fortunately, the tide pool was deep enough for the young dolphin to survive until the tide flowed in once more. Happily, the dolphin found itself free again, back in the blue sea, back among the pod. Nevertheless, a new awareness had come into the dolphin's soul, a bit of unease. The same sense of perfection, of safety, of oneness, and of joy was no longer there. The dolphin could still feel these things to some extent, but not as it had before. Now the dolphin understood, perfection and imperfection, at least on a soul level. The dolphin knew the feeling of fear. The sea, as it turns out, is not quite as safe as it once seemed and it is much, much bigger than the dolphin ever imagined.
Now imagine the child of around eight or nine. Do I need to create a parallel story? The story for the human child can occur in many many different forms, but the resultant unease is characteristic of the crisis. Something--and it can one of a thousand million different things--will shake the child's sense of oneness. Something gives the child a sense that things are not as easy and perfect as it has seemed before.
And to be clear, it is not that the world has changed. My dolphin story is a bit too simplistic to fully convey this truth. What has changed is the child's consciousness. The same child has experienced pain plenty of times before. The same child has witnessed "mistakes" and "problems" and "imperfections" before. Many times! Until now, the child's consciousness was somewhat impervious to such things. It did not take such experiences into any type of consideration. When she is ready for it, or more precisely, when her consciousness has developed to a certain point of awareness, she will grasp onto something and the grasping itself will begin to have a chain reaction of effects.
For myself, it was a pocket knife that my ten-year-old neighbor sold to me for a roll of nickels. I proceeded to run my thumb down the blade to test its sharpness. It seemed like the thing a big boy who owns a knife should do. I sliced my thumb deeply. I remember an instant before I ran home to my mommy in a screaming terror, an instant of total and absolute disbelief. My thumb was open and I was bleeding in a significant way. This experience changed me. I was not immediately altered into a new person, but the process had begun. I realized that I could be hurt rather easily. I no longer fully trusted my own judgment. I no longer fully trusted my friends. I no longer fully trusted tools, especially knives.
While we as adults can recognize such moments as good "learning experiences", this would only be seeing a part of it. It is certainly true. I learned a lot about knives. On top of that, I began a period of doubt and uncertainty that in some ways is still a part of me today. For a young child though, this first brush with real uncertainty can shake the ground. This is the crisis.
Once the child is in this state of crisis, she will question many things. The classic example is to ask one's birth parents if she was actually adopted instead. I had a child tell me once, when I had been absent from teaching school for a couple days for an illness, that he thought I would not return to teach. Another child once struggled for a time to step anywhere there was the slightest chance of being muddy. Another child went through a time of being afraid to sleep at night for fear of dying in his sleep. It can come in myriad forms, but the defining characteristic is that the fear or doubt is new and it is not quite rational.
Can you imagine how easy it would be to over-react if we do not understand that this kind of fear is natural for the child? I am not saying that we should ignore such things. The child who is afraid needs us, as always, but we should be observant, not reactionary. These are our children; we know them. We can sense what is fearful and what might need more professional attention. We must have some foundation of trust in our own judgments, because one thing that is always true is that children want our attention and if they get it by us over-reacting, then they will do whatever caused us to over-react even more. So we must give attention. We must observe. We must be careful to balance awareness and understanding into our parenting and teaching.
So until the next article, think about how this may have shown up in your own life and perhaps the lives of children you have who are already at this age.