The Need to Know

(I was going to wait until after the Holy Nights were over to publish this post, but then it occurred to me that some of you may be meditating on this very subject during this time.  I hope this helps someone out there……Here goes!)

How much do our under  age 7 children need to know about things going on in the family and life?  This can be such a delicate subject because it gets at the heart of how parents talk to and relate to their children, but I believe it to be an important one.  Please do take what works within this post for you and your family and what resonates inside of you from this writing.  You know your family and children best, but I thought some of you may be curious to how Waldorf views this subject.

According to Steiner’s views of  the seven year cycles, a child under the age of 7 should be in their bodies, and in a rather dreamy state.  You would not want to do things in this period that would call the child’s attention to himself or to promote having a child think in a grown-up way.  The child should be immersed in feelings of warmth and delight by the parent, but not so many words.

How much we tell a child, how much we explain to a child,  and how we answer things can be part of what leads to premature intellectualization, premature analytical ability, and essentially putting the cart before the horse as we use discipline tools that are beyond the child’s developmental maturity level.  A three or four year old cannot reason, and they cannot put themselves in someone else’s shoes.  They need to have gentle discipline methods that reflect this reality.  They can certainly learn all the words that you say, and how to answer back “correctly” and play a very verbal game with you,  but this is NOT the same as truly being able to internalize and rationalize. The ability to do this really does not come in until the child is of age 14 or so, according to Steiner.    If you have a child who you think can do this at such any early age, I would argue that this child is 1. very verbal, but perhaps is not as advanced as you think and cannot understand the ramifications of things the way an adult does and 2. if the child is trying to do all this verbally with you, the child has been intellectualized too early and it is your job as the parent to bring this child back into balance.  More on that in just a moment.

Why do we get ourselves into this difficulty in the first place?  This is just a hard shift for many attached parents, especially with the first child.  After all, many attached children are just “always there, always around”, (and if you are co-sleeping they are even there at night!)    There is not much time without the child to work on or talk about grown-up things.  Furthermore, many attached parents have had to work so hard to surrender themselves to being an attached parent, to learning how to read an infant’s cues and how to breastfeed according to these cues, that they have difficulty not carrying this surrender over into other areas.  Breastfeeding and co-sleeping with a small child under the age of 3 is a wonderful, opening experience in which the mother and child almost seem as one.  The mother grows to feel her child is an extension and a part of her.  According to Waldorf, all small children under the age of 7 are under an extension of their mother’s etheric “Madonna Cloak” – in essence, sharing their mother’s energy and life forces, for lack of a better description.   Donna Simmons has more information about this notion here:

However, as a child heads past the age of  three, more boundaries need to be in place.  The child, at least according to Waldorf tradition, does not need to be privy to adult conversation and adult topics.  The child under the age of 7 does not need to know everything going on with you and your life.  The child under the age of 7 does not need to see how the adult decision-making process works.  They do not need all the answers to their questions in adult terms, even simple adult terms, and they certainly do not need your adult views and baggage. Let them dream and come up with their own fantastical answers!This comes up all the time within Waldorf – but children simply do not view things through the adult veil and experiences in which you view them.  Things in life can co-exist in many improbable ways for the small child that would be impossible for the adult.  This is developmentally normal, and please do not try to rush your child into adult logical thinking. Enjoy this stage with the wonder that your child has for life! 

If you have a child who has been intellectualized early, it will make integration into the Waldorf curriculum harder.  The child will have a tendency to take the fairy tales, the heart of the Waldorf kindergarten and first grade, very literally and with great difficulty.  The child will have difficulty accepting less explanation and will have difficulty coming up with their own explanation – they will be looking for the “right” answer, instead of being able to be an out of the box problem solver and imaginative person.  This will become an impeding factor in science and later for such subjects as creative writing.  But most of all, you are setting yourself up for very rocky teenaged years if you cannot let your child be a child when they are under the age of seven!

If this is what has happened to your child and you would like to change this, (and it is not too late, even for a child that is seven or eight!)  here are some suggestions:

  • Get rid of all media exposure for awhile. 
  • Do not discuss world events and household affairs in front of this child. Do not discuss the happenings of your child’s friends and their families with your child unless it is a small, happy, warm event that can be described in a sentence or two.   Your child should be in a dreamy state.  There will be plenty of time to know about these things, and about people and events.  The child should know that the world and the people in it are good.  Do your own inner work if you cannot believe this, because this is YOUR baggage, not your child’s thing to carry around.
  • Stop any back and forth bantering you do with your child.  Just. Stop. It.  These verbal games are not appropriate to play with a small child.
  • A child under the age of 7 can be told things pretty much right before they are going to happen, or you can use your daily, weekly rhythm to carry what events are going to happen.
  • This child does not need a myriad of choices when recovering from early intellectualization; they don’t need to think all the time – this is your job.
  • They do not need to have all their “why’s” answered – hum, a warm smile, a hug, a very simple statement is all that is needed – and to move on to practical work and involve them in that.  Don’t you ever remember being told when you were little, “We will talk about that when you are older?”  We vowed as parents to never do that to our children, but guess what, there was common sense in that for some situations!  Let your child tell you their own explanation for something – answer their why with “Hmm, I wonder about that too. ”  Guaranteed they will come up with something creative and wonderful and free of adult baggage and gray-ness.  They live in a world of black and white, and a world of fantasy where things co-exist; this is normal developmentally.  They should not live in gray-ness, in the land of seeing all the exceptions to the rule.
  • Use your songs and verses to announce what is going on next.
  • If your child is asking for “something to do”, get something out and start playing with it – without words!
  • This child needs to be outside in nature for hours a day without you explaining everything to the child about nature and why the leaves turn yellow and brown.  Let them be!  Let them come up with their own names of animals, and their own explanations! Joseph Cornell, in his wonderful book “Sharing Nature With Children” (and yes, this one absolutely should be on your bookshelf!) says this:

Don’t feel badly about not knowing names.  The names of plants and animals are only superficial labels for what those things really are.  Just as your own essence isn’t captured by your name, or even by your physical and personality traits, there is also much more to an oak tree, for example, than a name and a list of facts about it.  You can gain a deeper appreciation of an oak tree by watching how the tree’s mood shifts with changes in lighting at different times of day.  Observe the tree from unusual perspectives. Feel and smell its bark and leaves.  Quietly sit on or under its branches, and be aware of all the forms of life that live in and around the tree and depend on it.

This, my friends, is the heart of not only nature education at its best, but of Waldorf education and the way to relate to small children under the age of 7 who are one with everything in the world.

  • Think about the concept of warmth with this child – warm foods, warm foot baths, warm beds, candlelight, warm thoughts.
  • Provide liberal doses of oral storytelling and simple made up stories.
  • Provide lots of experiences with baking, gardening, wet on wet watercolor painting, and imaginative play all through story and song, not verbally oriented instructions.
  • If your child is doing something that you do not like, if it is at all possible, involve the child in practical work.  If it involves an item, gently take the item away without words and then  immediately involve the child in practical work!  This does not mean to IGNORE the behavior, but to have the child make restitution later with their hands or their bodies (but do not intellectualize it for them).  A simple sentence is all that is needed!
  • If your child balks at the new rhythm, the new way of doing things, so be it for right now.  This is important, and you have to be the one to carry this one.  Your child will quickly adapt and be better for it –  a better problem solver, a better imaginative thinker down the road, a more reverent and observant person, a better listener.  You do not have to explain why you  are not explaining anymore, LOL!
  • The work for you in this period is to stop talking to your child so much about everything!  Get some time with other adults for you, and stop putting your child into the adult role.  Do your own inner work and see how you can bring the joy, humor, fun and warmth back to this little being.  The other work for you is to find out about normal childhood development.  Many parents are amazed when they read books such as the Gesell Institute books ‘Your Three Year Old”, “Your Four Year Old”, how children really do typically view things such as pregnancy, death.  They realize their totally verbal child actually understands much less than they originally thought!

I know this is so hard, but if you have ever wondered why your child speaks to you like they are a grown up, if you have ever wondered why your child asks why constantly, if you have every wondered why your child takes every single story so literally, try this plan for eight weeks and see what happens.  You may have a different child on your hands at the end of eight weeks!

And lest you be worried this will somehow stunt their maturity or developmental growth, let me assure you you will only be putting them back on track, back into where they should be….And when they are seven, or even nine and closer to the age of separation of themselves from the world, the parents and the plants and animals, then you start answering all the questions.  There is a time to answer questions!  There is a time to move forward!

However, protection is developmentally appropriate and normal and right for a under 7 aged child.  They are not miniature adults with less experience. Honor that within this first seven year cycle.  If you are interested in Waldorf, you most likely are not the type of parent to let them watch 15 hours of TV straight, or eat chocolate all day long (um, except for holiday cookies? ha ha), or stay up all night.  Just as you would safeguard against those physical things, you as the parent are now learning how to safeguard their imagination, their innocence, their problem-solving ability and their future adult physical health.

Please consider trying this plan, and do let me know how it goes.  And again, please take what works for you from this post.  You may agree, you may disagree but thanks for reading!  You can leave a comment below.

Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.

25 thoughts on “The Need to Know

  1. Thanks for this post, Carrie! It helps me a lot with ideas for my three year old. I definitely over-explained things to her from a very young age… part of that being my first-time, attached mother thing, and the other being her highly verbal, always wanting to engage me personality. My second is so different – she doesn’t thrive on constant conversation/explanation the way my first did (and still does!).

    She and my husband are both very literal, and so he explains a lot to her as well. She has a high level of comprehension when it comes to vocabulary, so any conversation we have seems to be something she understands and wants to discuss with us. I am trying to recognize this and hold off on this type of “adult conversation” until she is out of the room!

    As I was pondering all this, I thought about the future, and how it may be possible that I would have both older and younger children at the same time, and how the younger children might end up hearing explanations given to the older ones… I wonder how one would work out the differences in parenting that would be given to all the children and how to keep the younger ones from getting involved in the more grown-up conversations of the older children.

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  5. Hi Carrie,
    I found this post because we have a dear relative who is living with terminal cancer. And I have been trying to find out how Steiner would have recommended talking to 3-4 year olds about death and dying. I haven’t been able to find any information in my book collection or in my online searching so far. I assume keeping it simple would be best, but I was wondering if you have any other advice. Thank you!

    • Hi there,
      I am sorry to hear of your dear relative. I guess my questions would be is this something the children are aware of, is this something that the children are going to be attending a wake or funeral, how much do the children talk about this? Most four-year-olds really do not understand what death really means. Some think of death as reversible. Some four-year-olds also have a fear of dying, or of family members dying, and need reassurance. I feel that something very simple could be explained to a three or four year old in your own words, but very simply and to answer questions your children ask but not provide too much information. Do not be surprised if either there is no emotional reaction elicited or if they just imitate and pattern off of your reaction.

      I know in the book “Healing Stories for Challenging Behavior” by Susan Perrow there are several stories to explain terminal illness, death , dying, grieving on pages 232 and typically the story ends with some sort of natural transformation (ie, a caterpillar who is gone but suddenly the child notices a cocoon and a butterfly comes out), Depending upon what your own religious beliefs are, I do know Waldorf families who have discussed their loved ones being safe in heaven, or with the angels and relate this to when the child crossed over the rainbow bridge. Many families will also light a candle and just say they are thinking of this person.

      I don’t know off hand in any of Steiner’s works a discussion of explaining death and dying to small children, although one would imagine these situations came up frequently in those days – deaths of younger siblings for example..
      I hope perhaps this at least gives you a few ideas. I think this is a very personal decision and how developmentally mature or immature your children are for their age would factor into it greatly, along with the closeness of the situation, and your own personal beliefs.

      Much peace to you in this difficult time,

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  7. carrie – i LOVE the thoughts that come from your corner of the world! I have just found an old second hand copy of joseph cornell’s ‘sharing the joy of nature’, eagerly awaiting its arrival – thank you for introducing me to this beautiful work.

    i am definitely embarking on less talk, more humming. this comes so perfectly for us at a time when DD is frequently asking ‘what this one mummy’, over and over and over, many many times a day, I know know how to address these outward thoughts and to place them back in her little head where they belong! thank you so much once again,

    oh – i have heard of a concept called wordless wednesday, heading off now to check that out, thinking we might do this in our home to focus on this less talking concept!

  8. I am interested in the issue of bantering, which you mention. I think I know what you mean, but I am not quite sure. Can you explain that a little more?

    • Dawn, Sure bantering is responding in an adult, factual way to every single thing your child says and then your child responds to you and there the two of you are going back and forth like a ping pong ball. I encourage you to try more of I Wonder, I Will Think About That, silence, humming, singing, verses, going into physical work. Many children these days talk just to talk, like a nervous habit to get your attention. Chattering I guess is a whole ‘nother subject, but really, chatterers and banterers (Ha! Making up new words here!) really need more physical work to help them.
      Does that help or clear as mud? 🙂

  9. It does clear it more for me. It seems like constant talk and chatter is pervasive. I know many people who just can’t stop talking and “be” for a few minutes. It makes sense that the habit would start (or preferably not 🙂 with parents…

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  11. hi carrie. i’m new to your site, and as soon as i found it i added it to my bookmarks bar at the top of my browser page. you have so much wonderful information gathered here, and i don’t think i’ll ever be wanting for a subject. depth and breadth. so thanks for that.
    this entry in particular was very engaging for me, because i have certainly done TOO MUCH TALKING with my 4 year old daughter (my first and as of yet only). honestly, i just didn’t know any better. my mom did the same thing to me, and i can’t say i’ve turned out the better for it. but that’s my baggage 😉
    i really appreciate your advice to keep it simple. that’s my overall philosophy for life; handmade, less is more, etc. i just haven’t had anyone say to me in a clear way, “this is a very beneficial way to guide your child.” it seems like people usually just let you bumble along, having their own personal thoughts about how you are doing as a parent, but not offering up advice.
    i’m going to try out the simple, quiet approach for awhile and see if i can ease up some tension in her little life. i especially like the “warmth” mantra you suggest.

    thanks for your hard work to bring this to us.

    • Cheryl Liz,
      Much love to you! You are doing the right thing by re-thinking about the consciousness of small children because it is completely different than adults. I really started this site because I have made so many mistakes and I felt like i was re-creating the parenting wheel when I started parenting and I didn’t want anyone to feel as clueless as I was! LOL! But, I have to say my professional background did help immensely because I did know there was something just plain wrong in the advice of the mainstream parenting books – it didn’t match the childhood development I learned about or in the children I saw as a therapist! So I guess I did have at least one clue to start me down a different path
      I am so glad you are here!
      Many blessings, there is a lot to see on this site, enjoy!

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  13. Wow !! Thank you ! Thank you ! Thank you ! I needed a reminder… since I have read the book simplicity parenting, but you’re explanation are just a most, and Yes I will do it for now on ! Thank you so much to have created this site !!

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  15. Can you please give examples of what practical work is for a child? You said if they ate doing something you don’t like, give them practical work. Sometimes my daughter doesn’t know what to do with herself and she through certain sounds and gestures and shared mischievous glances, invites him to be wild and crazy. That is an example of something I don’t like! Lol. I’d like to redirect her.
    P.S. I have over talked my daughter! :(. I am going to go on a talking faste! I am just about to read about your challenge.
    Btw, really, truly, thank you immensely for your writing AND responding! May God reward you greatly. I am very grateful !

    • Hi Mia Mom!
      Yes..I don’t know the age of your child, but if you put in “work” into the search engine on this blog, many posts should come up. THere is a good post written by Liza as a guest contributor about work and toddlers. There are also posts written about work and breaking it down by age. The best place to start is to think about de-mechanizing your home so you are doing some things by hand, then figure out what piece of the work your children can do…

      Please let me know if you cannot find the back posts, and I will try to round them up.

  16. Hi Carrie,
    Your posts are so helpful to me. The inner work I have been doing is guiding me to work on decreasing the ‘awakening’ interactions I have with my four year old. This post speaks to me a lot, but I am having trouble making much headway with redirecting behaviors and, especially, involving her in practical work.
    When my 4 yr old (April) is taking any and every toy from her 16 mo old brother, I have tried to
    – remove the toy from her hand and tried to physically move her towards my project
    – remove her physically from the room where the toy conflict is and tried to engage her in another room to sweep the floor
    I can never get to the involving her in practical work part because she starts screaming and erupts into a tantrum for 10-50 minutes as soon as I start to remove the toy or her. She will hurt her brother or snatch whatever toy he has (usually different than one caused the initial incident) if I do not restrain her and insist she stays on the bed until she has calmed down. She quite often needs a snack and her brother needs some focused attention afterwards so the practical work piece hasn’t been working out for me. Today we had 3 marathon tantrums over items being snatched away. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Dear Wendy ,
      I certainly would not snatch toys away! There has to be a better way for your little girl, and it may start with rhythm.. There could be a clean up time , a song to clean up by with everyone helping and the toys go to their special place, a snack with another song and a blessings, the clean up of snack and then the practical work. It might be just as simple as re arranging your rhythm and taking control of the beginning and ends of things…

      Also, looking at the basics….Where are the toys? What time of day is for play and what time is for work? Do you get the toys down or does she? In the Waldorf School, she would be weaving in and out of what you are doing, not finishing a task from beginning to end..The practical end piece is for you. What is your work, and what is she to be doing whilst you are doing it, and how can you get her to weave in and out?
      Having a four year old at home and only a 16 month old to hold things during play as opposed to a group found in a Waldorf Kindergarten, creates a much different dynamic that needs a watchful eye.

      So, go back and think about rhythm. Can your 16 month old be in a sling? Can they play outside with less toys as opposed to inside with more? Are there certain toys that are high conflict toys? Can your 16 month old be your helper if your four year old wants to play? Where is his turn to do things?

      Just food for thought, you will find the right answer!

  17. This is a very late reply, but I have returned to this post so often over the last 2-ish years as this issue pops up with my now-5-year-old. She is a very verbal person (started speaking clearly/large vocabulary well before 12 months–it was rare–most/many people commented on it but we were first-time parents and approached parenting from a logical, adult view (and were just trying to keep up with the learning curve of our first baby and a lot of major life changes at the time). We thought her verbal/cognitive skills were “normal”; now that we have a second, have been around many more children the last few years, and done a lot of research, I see that her level of verbal skills was not normal; not bragging, just trying to explain what type of “verbal” I mean). She is very bright and extremely sensitive (I don’t know if I accept the Highly Sensitive People – HSP -theory 100%, but she does fit exactly into that profile, as do I.) She is our first and wants to be part of every conversation in the house. She wants to be equal/on par with us and influence many decisions; this makes me kind of sad because I wonder why she has such a need for control: Did we “make” her that way by involving her too often, too early? Guilty; still slip into that when I’m not aware, but thanks to this post at least I am aware now and do it a lot less (it’s harder when I’m burned out/tired/sick of making an infinite number of decisions, it seems). Does she also have a high need for control? I think some of both. We have a fairly stable home life, marriage, “rhythm”, spend time outside, etc., though not perfect. This issue crops up more when her dad travels for work, as I would expect (off-kilter for all of us). Some of it is a control issue; some of it is just curiosity; some of it is her way of connecting to others. This post has helped me change as a parent, and every time I return to it, I see ways/things in whatever new stage we are in that I could be doing differently to help her just be a kid during these young years.

    I do want to say (maybe for the benefit of others?) that a lot of mainstream parenting material says you should “talk to your child all day long about everything”, for example, when you’re changing a diaper you should explain to the baby every step you’re doing and so on. My mom did this too and she was an English/primary educator/administrator. Yes, it does build lots of verbal skills on the child’s part and maybe that’s what mainstream resources are getting at, but, in a home where the children are already involved in the day’s work, dinner is eaten around the table every night with conversation, school = hands-on homeschool, books are read aloud, etc., maybe that approach results in too much information/talking! I am an introvert and, as a mom, it wears me out! (Though my extroverted, verbal 5yo thrives on it!) So as a fledgling parent wanting to do everything “right”, I glommed on to that kind of advice and it hasn’t served us well over the past 5 years. And children like our 5yo can “sound” like they understand everything by the way the respond (like you wrote in the post, Carrie)–all the verbal/vocab is there, but I can pose a particular question and see that the true understanding isn’t there on her part (duh, but children can be very convincing–especially with your first child!).

    Also, this blog is the first and only resource I have EVER come across (and I read obsessively/have read a ton of stuff about parenting/child development in the last 6 years) to describe a 4-year-old as still being “tiny” and very, very young. Most stuff out there advocates boxing them up by that age into a neat little package and readying to ship them off to a very adult (IMO) version of school. This blog has really shaped my thinking into looking at my little ones as just that–little humans–people–not some miniature Westernized versions of adults who can’t keep pace with the rest of the world. All that to say, that if you (like me) have read widely and a lot of mainstream–and even non-mainstream– parenting stuff, it’s no wonder we find ourselves in this position of talking too much/”the need to know” with our kids. Thanks for your wisdom and insight, Carrie, and for taking the time to pass on what you’ve learned. You are helping shape a whole new generation (actually two)!

    • To Vaughn: When you mentioned talking to babies during diaper changes I was reminded of Emmi Pikler’s work (RIE). Pikler’s approach to respectful care of infants is in line with Waldorf’s early childhood approach. In fact, Pikler’s methods are taught/modeled in infant/parent classes in Waldorf schools. It is looked at as a time to connect with the infant and out of respect for the infant as a person. Your Self-Confident Baby is an excellent resource and explains RIE more comprehensively.

  18. Hi Carrie,

    Your blog is insightful and inspiring! I discovered Waldorf before my daughter was born and fortunately came across your blog when she was a baby. She is 2 now and is thriving. I always come back to this post though because I am constantly trying to find that balance between speaking and being silent, and to be mindful of the words i’m Using. We do very well when it’s just the two of us during the day, but when my husband enters the picture it gets tricky. I go to sleep with my daughter at night so we rarely have one on one time. At dinner conversations sometimes drift to adult topics, such as his work or side work that i’m doing or household things that need done. What topics are acceptable to have at dinner with little ears around. My daughter doesn’t join in those conversations. She eats and plays with her food. She will sometimes interrupt about something different, but she isn’t immersed in our conversation.

    Also, how should I handle guests or regular visitors, such as grandparents. My mom is great with my daughter, but tends to talk incessantly and explain things in more words than I think necessary. I’ve tried talking to her about it to no avail. Should I let it go since she’s not around her constantly. I do notice my daughter gets more chatty after those visits.

    I would appreciate your advice!

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