The gradual incarnation of the child is one of the bases for the effectiveness of Waldorf education. It gives Waldorf educators a deep understanding of what children really need at each stage of their development. Nursery and kindergarten teachers and class teachers in the first three grades, for example, are acutely aware of the importance of the child’s etheric body. While some rare individuals can actually see these forces (the healer and author of Hands of Light, Barbara Brennan, is apparently one such person), for most of us, close observation, some training, and native intuition provide sufficient sensitivity.
The etheric or life-formative body can be characterized as warm and as pulsing with a calm, steady rhythm – something like a large human heart. It is just these qualities that we seek to provide for younger children. We must surround our children with warmth, both physical and emotional. Sometimes we need to struggle with them to put on their wool hat, and extra sweaters. At other times we need to impose an extra layer of parental protection. A cozy and protected nest created at home and at school conserves and strengthens the child’s etheric forces.
Rhythm in daily life is the other factor crucial for the well-being of the etheric body. The major rhythms that need to be developed and maintained for the child are those of mealtime and bedtime. Children should have their meals and should go to bed at roughly the same time all seven days of the week (though holiday times may invite some flexibility).
Establishing this regular daily rhythm can be difficult for parents. As adults we are much more under the influence of our own astral nature and it wants, desires, and emotional ups and downs. Our desire to e somewhere else and to be doing something else and our desire to be spontaneous and undisciplined will often conflict with maintaining a regular schedule for our children. But part of being a parent is sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of one’s children. And the vagaries of the adult’s astral do nothing but disrupt the needs of the child’s etheric body. The child’s rhythms are like those of the moon and tides and, if supported by external rhythms, will hum along quietly and smoothly. What upsets and weakens the etheric body are the tempests and the accompanying disruption of daily rhythms. The effect is passed on to the physical body. The endocrine balance is upset, adrenaline is released, and the breath and the circulation of blood are disturbed.
A challenge, especially for younger parents who themselves enjoy a more active life, is to protect their children from overstimulation, particularly before the age of nine. Among the things that adults take for granted but that can overtax the child are:
- Travel and visiting new places
- Time spent in automobiles
- Literature meant for older children (Harry Potter, Twilight, et al.)
- v Crowded places such as supermarket, department stores, sporting events, amusements that depend on fear and excitement
- Participation in competitive sports
- Rock, hip-hop, rap, and other music meant for adults
- Radio, television shows, movies, DVD’s and computer games that are meant for pre-teens and adolescents, not for young children
All of these influences – like rock music that, played in a greenhouse, causes the plant to shrivel and die – will weaken and dissipate a child’s life forces.
A good deal of discipline and self-sacrifice are required to provide this etherically calm and protected space for a family. The desired mood can be compared to a cow’s slow, even munching of grass. To persons of even temperament, this may not be difficult. For others, it will require conscious effort and the changing of established habits. The etheric body needs predictability, evenness, and lots of rest. To provide this for their children, parents themselves need to slow down and, often, stay home or close to home a lot more. They need to carefully plan transitions from one activity to another so that they and their children will not be rushed and pressured. And they need to avoid emotional outbursts when with the children.
A wholesome diet, rather than one based on fast food and snacks, is also important. Fat is a nutrient that is most essential to the etheric body, and children should get a variety of high quality fats and oils from both animal and vegetable sources. The favorite food of children today is French fries, but oil that has been heated to high temperatures is not so desirable. Especially important are the so called “essential fatty acids” available most plentifully in oil-rich fish, but also in egg yolks and seeds (including flax seeds and nuts, particularly walnuts). Parents should have care when imposing their own low-fat, vegan, or vegetarian diets on their children. Such restricted regimens can harm children physically and emotionally.
Some forms of attention deficit and hyperactivity syndromes respond to a therapy focusing exclusively on extra care for the etheric body of the child. This involves an improved diet that includes omega-3 essential fatty acids, the establishing and maintaining of a clear rhythm of daily and weekly family life, and setting and enforcing firm, clear limits on behavior. In order to grow and thrive these children need a clear and predictable environment in which they can feel safe.
When a child’s etheric body is not getting the care and protection it needs, the signs can include irritability, dark circles under the eyes, poor appetite, being easily agitated or overly tired, and a pale, sallow complexion. Frequent illness can also be a symptom of etheric draining. A quiet and calm home atmosphere, a clear, regular daily rhythm of life, the exclusion of junk food and of the junk stimulation of television and other electronic media, and the loving attention of grounded adults together comprise “chicken soup for the ether body.” These measures can revive and strengthen the life forces in a child and, in doing so, can restore a healthy blush to well-rounded cheeks.
For the older child, it is the unfolding soul that needs protecting. A child of ten, or even of thirteen, is not ready to deal with the world of “drugs, sex and rock and roll,” though in many instances this world may have already been thrust upon her. The attention and vigilance required of parents to create this protection for children and early teenage children is great and also time-consuming. Parents must stand not only as role models but as authority figures in providing guidance to their children. Being an authority figure does not mean being authoritarian. Parents need to stay interested in what their children are interested in and maintain an active dialogue with them and their friends. But parents need to recognize that their primary role is not to be their child’s buddy, but rather a source of higher judgment that sets reasonable standards of behavior and follows through to see that they are observed.
In considering influences on our children’s evolving soul life, we have to decide what we want to keep out and what we want to encourage. The list of things to exclude includes adult and adolescent clothing and fashions – particularly sexually suggestive attire, tattoos, body jewelry, and so on. These are obvious, but we also need to be aware of anything that is too stimulating – garish pictures of monsters and of bizarre machines, for example, and other “in your face” images. All forms of media need to be monitored, not just for surface content of sex, violence, and crude language, but also for their intensity or pacing. In Japan a few years back, the succession of images in a children’s television program was so frenetic that it caused seizures in hundreds of children. Other research has shown that exposure to video games resets the threshold of pleasure in children so that everything else is boring to them – especially school.
The aim here is to help children retain the innocence and wholesomeness of childhood, to delay their encounter with adolescent “cool” until they are truly adolescents. Parents can effectively act as guardians at the threshold of the adult world. Other practical steps include: putting off the time when a child has a personal iPod, cellular phone, computer, not allowing a television or computer in the child’s room (otherwise, content and amount of use cannot be monitored), limiting television and video viewing, watching with your child when he does watch (so you can serve as a moderating influence), and being firm about his seeing only movies that are appropriate for his age.
On the other hand, we want to promote those things that enrich our children’s feeling life and create in them an appreciation for what is true, beautiful, and good. Waldorf education works toward this goal consciously, but support at home is vital. Encounters with nature and cultivation of the arts should be a regular part of family life. Individual music lessons (in addition to group lessons at school) are an effective character builder. Too much sports and too intensive training while a child is still young are also problems.
The experience and habit of serving and caring for others can begin with children having regular chores at home – for which they are not paid! Taking care of pets is also an excellent step in this direction. Older children can be given the experience of caring for the young, sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.
Finally, each family needs a clear set of behavioral and moral standards that are made explicit, that are taught to the children, and that are modeled by the adults. Manners, civility, consideration of others, truthfulness and honesty, the treatment of all family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers with respect, and speech that is civil and free of profanity are all part of this. There is a coarsening today in speech, behavior, and morals that can be redeemed only by conscious and concerted efforts within each family.
Religious instruction and practice can also be important for a child, even if the parents themselves are not motivated in this direction. One antidote to the dubious offerings of popular culture is the cultivation of a sense of wonder and magic in childhood. The noted Jewish commentator on family and religious issues, Rabbi Harold Kushner, maintains that, for children, being taken to church or synagogue, experiencing the beauty of the sacred space – the light streaming through stained glass windows – and the ritual, and taking part in the service fosters an expansion of the child’s being. They prepare the child to appreciate a level of reality that is unseen, that is not just about buying and having.
The celebration of seasonal rituals also promotes the development of this spiritual sensitivity. The predictable rhythm of these events itself is nourishment for the child’s etheric body. Even the young child will sense that something very pure and important is going on. The child’s active participation in the ritual starts to empower the nascent astral body.
When the child reaches adolescence at about the age of fourteen, the astral body or soul is now ready to experiment in the world with a greater degree of independence, to learn by trial and error, and to accept the consequences of these experiments. Teenagers still lack a fully present ego or I to guide them in an objective, balanced way. That is why they still need adults near at hand. Parents have to learn the intricate dance of moving in and out of their children’s lives, allowing a measure of freedom, and then reasserting their authority as needed – and seldom getting the timing just right. Teenagers need space, but they also need extremely vigilant parents.
It is ideal if a teenager has one or two major, wholesome interests (playing a sport, horseback riding, playing a musical instrument, repairing old automobiles, collecting stamps and the like) into which abundant adolescent energies can be channeled. A physical activity or sport is good, because it can be an efficient outlet in the moment as well as become a healthful lifelong activity. If an adolescent is unable to find a focus, the excess energy can lead to behavioral and/or emotional problems. But extracurricular activities should not be overdone. Moderation and balance between activity and relaxation is as important here as in other stages of childhood. Too many lessons, too many sports, and too many hours of part time work have their own dangers. The topic of adolescence warrants much more discussion, but we must save that for another article.
That a human being consists of four bodies (one of which is physical and three of which are spiritual) is an ancient truth that has for the most part been set aside over the past century. It is, however, a concept that can be grasped and applied in our work with children. For parents, and understanding of how these four bodies manifest I the child’s development can be a source of guidance throughout a child’s growing up.
Sheltering and promoting the unfolding of these physical and spiritual bodies in the right way requires the parent to acquire a new perspective, new sensitivities, and new ways of doing things. Life today in our highly technological, commercially oriented society is largely antagonistic to a child- and family- centered way of life. Still less does it pretend to honor anything so delicate as the unfolding of the etheric and astral bodies. Raising a child with these concerns in mind and in the midst of economic and social pressures is a daunting task. It is not possible to do a perfect job of meeting all the subtle needs of the child, and it may not be advisable even to try. Again moderation and balance are key.
Fortunately, raising a child is not an exact science. There is a built-in forgiveness factor and hence some room for flexibility. Make more time for your children, especially as they grow older. Take frequent looks at your family and its life together. Ask whether you meet your own standards of civility, of morals, of spirituality. Finally, protect your children from losing their childhood prematurely – neither you nor they will regret it.
- Thomas Poplawski