I hope you found the first installment of this three-part series of articles to be thought-provoking, even if you were already familiar with the phenomenon of what Waldorf Educators refer to as the "nine year change". As I said before, this series of articles is aimed at seeing some key characteristics of three phases of this change: the crisis, the struggle, and the resolution. Yet, before I launch fully into part two, the struggle, let us review a couple of key points.
In the first article, I said: "...[P]lease understand that what I will say applies to the "theoretically average" child. I ...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."
In the crisis, we saw that any number of experiences can become the catalyst for a changing awareness, and that it is the consciousness of the child that is the actual change. At a certain point of development, the child realizes or senses, often in relation to experiences of pain, fear, or suffering on some level, that things are not quite as perfect as it once seemed. This new sense of "imperfection" applies to the self and to the world and to others in the world. This is the stage of crisis.
There is a universality in this experience. We can all relate to the hallmark sense of crisis. Whenever the predictable, safe, and enjoyable norm is shattered, we enter a state of crisis. Perhaps you are laid off from your job. Perhaps your significant other leaves you. Perhaps a loved one dies unexpectedly. As adults, we are familiar with these types of events either in our own lives or at least in the lives of people we know and care about. We can easily recognize how much such things can shake us to the core. So, then it should be rather simple to understand how much this can affect a child who is having such an experience for the first time.
You may rightfully ask: "How can a 8 or 9 year-old child be having an experience of crisis for the first time?"
It is a fair and important point that we must return to again and again to fully appreciate what is so significant about the nine year change. The child is not having experiences of pain or fear or suffering for the first time. We all know that children have boo-boo's, feel sad, upset, etc. The difference is not the experience but the consciousness of the child who is having the experience. They are beginning to become self-conscious in a true sense. It is just a beginning, but it is a beginning.
Remember the story of the young dolphin in the first article? In that story, the dolphin found itself trapped in a tide pool. Not only was the dolphin in mortal danger, it felt truly alone for the first time in its life.
This is another characteristic of the crisis that we must highlight. The steps of becoming self-conscious, or of developing the sense of self, of having an independent ego--these steps will include a sense of alone-ness, which is not quite the same as loneliness. With loneliness, we crave the company of others and the loneliness can be addressed by spending quality time with friends, family, etc. Alone-ness is different. The process of addressing this is fundamentally different. I will return to this thought of how we as human beings attempt to truly address this sense of alone-ness. For now we can understand that these two feelings often overlap extensively. In other words, people who feel alone often feel lonely. People who feel lonely often feel alone. And yet, we all know that it is possible to feel very much alone even in a crowd of friends and family. That is the difference.
The 8 or 9 year-old feels alone for the first time. Until now, there was a one-ness that pervaded the child's experience. Just as a fish does not have a concept for water, the young child does not have a concept for one-ness or alone-ness. When the young child is not close enough to its parent figure, it might become sad and yearn for that closeness, but it is a momentary instinct, not a realization, not a shift in consciousness. For the 8 or 9 year-old, it is a realization and a shift in consciousness. It may begin dimly, but it is a beginning, and this is the crisis.
Ok, so what now? Now we can move our attention toward the second phase, the struggle. To be sure, many of the aspects of crisis will remain in this transition to phase two, if you will, and we add to the crisis the struggle. The struggle is characterized with a new level of questions and new behaviors. I will share a few examples.
My son reached this stage of development and began to ask some new kinds of questions. He had a sense, from whatever began his own process of the nine-year-change, that things sometimes did not go as planned and it seemed to fascinate him. He was sometimes almost obsessed with scenarios of disaster.
"Daddy, what would you do if the house was on fire?"
"Daddy, what would you do if that truck ahead of us blew up?"
"Daddy, what would you do if there was an earthquake?"
He had what seemed like a super-human ability to imagine catastrophes and to list them off in questions like these at a regular and uninterrupted clip. I felt, in equal parts, impressed by his imagination (however grim), concerned with his awareness of potential catastrophes, and worried that I would not be able to address them adequately. If you have been through this phase with a child, you might be able to relate. He had always been a very inquisitive child, it was just that he had come into a new consciousness, an awareness that there are real dangers in the world.
I will go ahead and share how I attempted to answer some of his questions.
"If the house is ever on fire, your mother and I will get you out safely and, if possible we will get out our valuable belongings like you train set, but most important of all is to get you and your sister out safely."
"If that truck blew up, I would stop and try to keep everyone safe. We would not let it harm our car."
"If there was an earthquake, we would go to a safe place and get down low and wait for it to stop."
Do you see the words I kept using? I used the word "safe" each time and I used "we" a lot too. These are the important things to reinforce. Your parents will keep you safe and you will be with them. Everyone will work together to keep everyone safe. These address two of the primary aspects of the crisis while the child struggles with the sense of possible dangers.
And...it can be a game of whack-a-mole!
Do you know this game? In some arcades, this game existed in my youth. There were a number of holes, maybe seven, and down in each hole was a plastic "mole". One at a time, the moles would pop up out of their holes and the player was supposed to "whack" them back down with the little mallet. The game sped up over time and eventually the player could not keep up. Let's not get into the possible negative psychological effects of this kind of game. Let's just take it as an example of a certain kind of activity.
My son's questions were like the moles. In the game, the moles were never harmed or killed, nor were they transformed or taught to stay down. In fact, the only way in which the moles were affected were that they went down, only for a bit when "whacked". My son's questions were like this except there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of questions. I could answer them, as I did, but that only addressed the issue for a bit. Soon enough, there was another question and another and another...!
Why did my answers, however aptly and lovingly given, not change the situation? Because my son was struggling within. My answers were certainly helpful, but only to an extent. He had begun his path of individuation, of feeling his alone-ness in this great big and sometimes scary world. We all know that at some point, the words and gestures from others can be very fulfilling, but they cannot absolutely address our own inner doubts and fears. Some of these doubts are ours to wrestle with for years, perhaps even our whole lives.
So those are some examples of the questions that come in the struggle phase. There are also the new behaviors that children will often exhibit. All of the behaviors I am thinking of have one common trait: falsehood or misrepresentation. In effect, the child begins to explore the conscious lie.
I remember my first lie. I don't know why, but I do. I am not suggesting it was the first time I told my parents something that was not true. I am saying it was the first time I knew that what I was saying was not true. Again, the difference is the consciousness, the awareness.
"Rev, did you eat the chocolate chip cookie?"
She stood in my bedroom doorway patiently. I had known, as soon as I had indeed eaten the cookie, that the question might come and I was prepared for it. I knew that I should look my mother right in the eyes when I spoke; so I did when I told her that I had not eaten the cookies. I did not know who might have done that. Like the proverbial mother, she knew better.
The ten-minute interrogation that followed tested my new resolve to a life of dishonesty. I repeated my claims of innocence as long as humanly possible, but in the end I broke into a tearful confession of guilt. I knew that I was sure to receive a punishment such as no one could ever imagine. I had not only eaten the cookie, which was bad enough, I had lied, actually lied!, to my own mother. Was anyone ever so guilty?
"Why didn't you just tell the truth? I was going to ask you to put the dish into the dishwasher."
And she walked out of my room with nothing more. She could be a savvy mother like that. She knew better than to over-react to my attempts at lying. Children will try such things. She knew that if she could defuse my sense of fear, I was more likely to be honest with her in the future, perhaps when honesty might be related to something much more serious than a stolen cookie. On the other hand, if she had over-reacted, I might have associated honesty with some harsh experiences. Thus, I could have become less likely to be honest with her when it really mattered. My mom was not perfect, of course, but she handled that one perfectly, in my opinion.
My daughter started dressing up in different ways at this phase. She became interested, much sooner than my son, in what was fashionable and she wanted to dress up as characters. She was essentially trying to represent herself in different ways. It was no more malicious than my son's questions or my attempt to hide my cookie-eating guilt, it was just another form of playing with the difference between what is going on inside one's self and how the world responds to it.
Sure, as a parent, there were only certain lengths I could healthily allow it to go. She had an early interest in make-up, but I was not going to allow my 9 year-old to wear make-up. It is not because I am old-fashioned, it is because I wanted to reserve things for my children to have as possible rebellions when the time came. Once again, this is why we parents and teachers need to understand the stages of child development.
The adolescent MUST rebel against authority. It is part of their individuation process. You might doubt this, but I say this with absolute conviction about how this works. I hope you will at least not dismiss this idea immediately.
If we have not held any boundaries up to that point of adolescence, then they will have to go to Pluto in order to rebel. They must sense that they are "crossing the line". Thus, we must keep lines for them to cross. If we have upheld firm boundaries as their loving authorities, then they only have to go to the moon. The choice is actually far more the parent's choice than the adolescent youth's in terms of how far the rebellion needs to go. I wanted my child to feel that dying her hair purple was a radical act of individual freedom. I did not want her to need to get married at sixteen to a guy she met while hitchhiking to a concert in Colorado just so that she could feel like she had asserted a strong sense of her self against her parents' authority.
Now back to 9 year-olds...
Regardless of the form of the struggle, the struggle must happen. The child will have an initial sense of crisis. Then will come a period of struggle. What I have shared so far are the most common aspects of the struggle. I have also shared some initial techniques to employ. Answer questions with safety and a sense of group inclusion. Don't over-react to lies and other dishonesties, but still maintain certain boundaries for the future. Still there remains some things we can do as parents and educators that work like a balm for the struggling child.
We can teach them the basic skills of how we live on this earth. Think of it in terms of the basic human needs: food, shelter, and clothing. If we can give them some meaningful experiences of these things, then they will gain something very valuable from us and from themselves.
In Waldorf third grade curriculum, this is why "Food, Clothing, and Shelter" is a critical component. Ideally, the students experience gardening, and at least a visit to a working farm with crops as well as animals. The learn to basics of textile creation and of sewing and other related hardworking crafts. They learn about various types of shelters that people have developed in different geographical places and in different eras of time. There are two very important pieces of this that we must be aware of. They need to experience humans who know what they are doing and they need to experience themselves at lease learning how to do some of those things. We don't need to be experts in all of it, but the child needs to experience at least a couple of experts. I am no great chef, but I am willing to try cooking new recipes. This is good enough for the children to experience and I can help them feel more confident about cooking basic things, with an adult's help. Still, I don't know how to milk a cow. So, a field trip to a working farm was critical. The children watched a woman milk a cow, a woman who had just won the "milking contest" at the county fair the week before. She was impressive and the children could feel just how strong her hands really were. Then she showed them how they could participate in making cream from the milk. These were important experiences. Also I challenged myself to learn how to do some basic hand-sewing stitches and teach them to the children so that they could make some simple items such as shirts and pajama bottoms.
So, on the one hand, we certainly need to understand that children will simply struggle. They will and we can allow that to some extent. On the other hand, we can guide them into certain areas of "struggle" with the most basic human needs, struggles that will give them a sense for the basics of living on this earth. Remember, the earth has just become a much bigger place in their awareness; so it is helpful for them to gain a sense for what it means to live on the Earth. This level of struggle, appropriately aimed, becomes striving--and that is an important transformation we can help them achieve.