Waldorf Education, ADHD and What the Parent of the “Normal” Child Can Learn

There  is a FABULOUS article by Eugene Schwartz on his website entitled, “Discover Waldorf Education:  ADHD, The Challenge of Our Times.”

The article is very long, but I encourage all of you out there to get a cup of tea and sit down with it when your kids are asleep.  It will make you think!

Here is the link:


Here is the ending part of the article that I think gives food for thought to ALL parents, but the article itself has so many interesting things it addresses, from Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences to communication strategies.

Here are the words of Mr. Schwartz, again from toward the ending of the article:

“A basic tenet in Steiner’s developmental picture is the understanding that whatever in our childhood acts upon us from “outside” will in adulthood be transformed into forces that work from within. A child who lacks the living example of a self-assured and guiding adult will have to struggle, in later life, to attain inner assurance and inner guidance. A youngster who is not exposed to the kind but clear precepts of outer discipline will find it difficult to attain true inner discipline as an adult. If we cannot steel ourselves so that we meet the children with certainty in our will and clarity in our intentions, we are depriving them of one of childhood’s most valuable experiences.

In the United States, which, after all, is a nation founded on the Divine right of freedom of choice, it is a mighty task indeed to overcome this dogged tendency to ask children questions! Our whole culture summons forth the interrogative voice:

Are you ready to wake up? Do you want to stay in bed awhile? Should we decide what to wear today? Would you like the Chanel sweater or the Polo sweatshirt? The Tommy Hilfinger pullover? Do you want to wear your Guess shorts or your Calvin Klein jeans? How about the DKNY pair? Gap? The relaxed fit with the button fly or the zipper fly? Ready for breakfast? What would you like — Cheerios, Corn Flakes, Wheaties, Granola? Granola with almond chunks? Granola with raisin bits?…How about strawberries? No? Blueberries? Bananas? Do you want to sweeten it with honey? Maple syrup? Sugar? White or brown?…Do you want milk? One percent? Two percent? Skim? Organic? Eden Soy with minerals or Rice Dream with calcium?…”

And these are just the first two minutes of the day! — a day that moves from question to question, with nary a word of declarative guidance on the part of parents or other adults. When a question is asked of a child, she assumes that you expect an answer, and I have heard many children answer questions like the above with witty or even downright rude answers!

Such domestic scenes are part of the dilemma of raising children in a country that rightfully calls itself “The Land of the Free,” but has lost the capacity to distinguish between the potentially independent, “free” adult and the highly dependent and “unfree” child. It may be asked, of course, how can we train our children to be free later in life if we don’t give them choices in childhood? Yet, even for adults, real freedom is a capacity which can unfold only on occasion, for life is filled with necessities that impinge upon our freedom. When we ask a child to make a choice, several things occur. First of all, we ask the child to draw upon capacities for judgment that he does not yet have. On what basis will a seven year-old make a choice? Invariably, on the basis of sympathy and antipathy. And whence does he get this sympathy and antipathy? From his astral body, that is, from a member of his being that should not be “activated” until adolescence. An analogy might prove helpful here:

We can think of the child’s astral body as “soul principal” which is being held in a “cosmic trust fund” until such time as the youngster’s lower members are developed enough to receive it, i.e., ages 13-15. As is the case with a monetary trust fund in an earthly bank, it is the trustee’s responsibility to see that the principal is not disturbed for the apportioned period, knowing that the interest that it generates provides sufficient funds for the beneficiary’s needs. If, however, the trustee proves to be irresponsible, and the youngster for whom the principal is intended gets hold of it long before he is mature enough to make wise financial decisions, the principal will be drawn upon prematurely. In the worst case, the entire trust will be depleted, leaving neither interest nor principal at a time in the young person’s life that they are most needed.

In the course of healthy development, the young child has just enough astrality apportioned to her to sustain those organic processes requiring movement and catabolism, and to support such soul phenomena as the unfolding of interest in the world. And where do ADHD children have their greatest difficulties? In developing and sustaining any interest in anything for very long! The environments that we create for our youngest children, the way we speak to our grade schoolers, and our inability to differentiate between what is appropriate for an adult and not appropriate for a child – all of these phenomena eat away at astral “interest” early in life and devour astral “principal” long before it has ripened. By the time many “normal” young people are twelve or thirteen they seem to have lost interest in learning, or even in life; they have “been there, done that,” and take on a jaded, middle-aged attitude toward their own future. The ADHD child is only an extreme reflection of soul attitudes that will be endemic to many American children at the century’s end.

The entire thrust of the childrearing methods developed by the leading lights of Generations One and Two has led to the soul bankruptcy of today’s children just as inexorably as the financial and banking policies of the first two-thirds of the century have led to the specter of the National Debt and the collapse of scores of savings and loan associations in the past decade. ADHD is not merely a phenomenon that has arisen alongside modern education and child psychology; it is the logical end product of those erroneous pictures of the human being and the methods arising from them. Children do not need choices; they need guidance.

When an adult asks a young child to make a choice, the adult relinquishes the majesty and power that should be hers by dint of experience and acquired wisdom. In that moment, child and adult become equal; over the course of many such moments of choice, this equality becomes habitual, and the sweetest children gradually turn into little tyrants who wield the power to determine the restaurants in which the family will eat, the movies that they will see, the malls in which they will shop. We don’t have to watch situation comedies on TV to experience the ubiquity of such children in modern life! The children so chillingly documented in the diaries of Thomas Gordon’s epigones (see Chapter One) were but harbingers of things to come.

Most importantly, we should realize that a child who is given too many choices will become an adult who has difficulty making decisions. While choice, according to definition, “implies broadly the freedom of choosing from a set of persons or things,” decision is defined as “the act of reaching a conclusion or making up one’s mind,” and also, interestingly, as “firmness of character or action; determination.” This is not merely a semantic matter; there is a real difference between these two acts. The power to decide, I would claim, is built upon the ability to accept the decisions of adults in one’s youth. (This assumes, of course, that one encounters adults who are themselves capable of making decisions.) Childish choosing draws on those very forces of soul and spirit that are meant to mature and become adult decisiveness. In an article on children’s rights, Federal Judge Mary Kohler emphasized “the right to be a child during childhood” and emphasized that one of the impediments to the achievement of this “inalienable” right is the “too early forcing of choices upon children.”

It is instructive to look at the generation that now leads America, the postwar “baby boomers,” who were encouraged to become “a generation of choosers.” How many among them are truly decisive people? And how many of them are notorious for their difficulties in deciding even the smallest matters, not to speak of making such major life decisions as, whom should I marry (or unmarry)? what should my vocation be? what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Or take the case of “Dr. Laura”:

In person, the woman who has tapped into America’s confused superego so successfully is an intense 49-year-old [with] the unmistakable air of someone who is sure she’s always right. When asked if she has ever given anyone the wrong advice, she does not hesitate: No, never. Which may be what makes her such an irresistible figure for these ambivalent times when, given a choice, many of us would prefer to have no choice [italics mine]. Tell me what to do, her callers ask, and I’ll do it. I’d do the right thing if I knew what the right thing was. And if the authority figure is a little mean and a little harsh, if she calls your behavior “stupid” instead of “self-defeating,” isn’t that what we all think anyway?

Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s callers and her millions of listeners are people who very likely had doting, progressive parents who wanted them to be happy and gave them as many choices as possible! The effect of such indecisiveness can be amusing, but it has its serious consequences as well. With disturbing frequency, one guru or Master after another passes through our country and charismatically draws a host of followers to his community or ashram. Some of those drawn are simple, easily-influenced souls who can barely manage their own lives. However, the media and other arbiters of conventional wisdom are inevitably surprised at how many disciples are intelligent, highly-educated “professionals,” who willingly relinquish their right to make any decisions about the rest of their lives, believing that their Master is far better able to do so. Members of the crème de la crème of the Generation of Choosers, having arrived at mature adulthood, now search for the decisive teacher that they lacked in their childhood!

&The simplicity of life in earlier days was accompanied by a lack of choices — which we would today find boring — but this in turn led to a consistency of life which we today might find healing. This is no turning back from the “freedom of choice” that we as adults expect, but we must recognize that a pre-determined and expectable course of events strengthens the etheric body of the child, and it is this which provides a healthy foundation for behavioral stability and predictability in childhood, as well as for the capacity to make important decisions in later life.

We can encompass the child with our own certainty by creating a form into which the child enters every day. For parents, this means establishing a regular rhythm of bedtimes and mealtimes, a secure and serene “time-environment” in which the child’s etheric body is free to do its work. A young child who “decides for herself” when she is ready for bedtime, or who refuses to go to sleep until her parents have turned in, as well, begins to weaken her etheric forces in early childhood. Toddlers who are free to “eat when they’re hungry,” to help themselves at the refrigerator or, on their own, “nuke their food” at the microwave oven may be nourishing their physical nature, but are not providing the rhythmical and social nurture that their etheric body requires.

Parents may contend that they give their children free reign in these two matters because “the child’s body knows best.” “I can’t crawl under her skin and know when she’s hungry or tired – she has to tell me! And she knows a lot better than I do which foods she needs,” etc. In spite of the parents’ protestations that they are leaving their children free in their interest of their psychological and physical health, a sensitive observer can usually judge by their “waif-like” appearance which children have been allowed to decide their own bedtimes and left to fend for themselves in the kitchen. Invariably, children who are “free” to make choices about these fundamental matters look unhealthy, have less physical stamina and a shorter attention span than their peers and are not much inclined to cooperate in any activity that they find antipathetic or laborious. That is to say, even at the nursery school level, we find such children manifesting behavior that fits the general description of ADHD. It is no wonder that Ritalin is now being prescribed for children at an ever-younger age.

If sleeping and eating are not guided by the certainty and clarity of their parents, even those children who come from well-to-do households and have been “given everything” nonetheless appear to be as neglected as a child raised by a dysfunctional inner city family. In my own work with New York City public school children, I’ve met youngsters who came from tragic backgrounds (a father killed or unknown, a mother heavily addicted or in jail) who despite all of this sorrow appeared healthy and lively. In every such situation, the child was being raised by the grandmother, who, untouched by the theories of contemporary child psychology, insisted on a consistent bedtime and prepared meals with care and regularity. As the psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer has observed of his young patients, “Children who are pushed into adult experience do not become precociously mature. On the contrary, they cling to childhood longer, perhaps all of their lives.”

We might turn our thoughts for a moment to Helen Keller, whose multiple disabilities make her something of a paradigm of the behavioral problems of our time. Helen’s handicaps led her to evince behavior that ran the full gamut from depression to hysteria, from autism to ADHD. And then Annie Sullivan entered Helen’s life, struggled to find the right approach to this seemingly insoluble problem, and succeeded. In a newspaper interview with Annie Sullivan, her interlocutor said, “You worked miracles with Helen because you got her to love you,” to which Annie Sullivan replied, “No; first Helen had to learn to obey me. Obedience came first, then came love.”

From a more contemporary perspective, here are the words of a mother of two schoolchildren who needed her attention during an outbreak of lice:

I realize that I love my children more for having gone through this with them. I know that nobody else could really have taken care of them with the same spirit that I did…And there is one more thing. I learned that I could do something with my children to which they are totally opposed. No amount of distraction, crying, screaming or complaining could take me off my task; I was going to do what was necessary to take care of them, and they were going to comply. There was no flexibility.

This was a big hurdle for me, but I think that my children now have a better sense of who’s in charge and why they need that, and perhaps they even love me a little more for being in charge. All this, thanks to head lice.

If what the childraising theorists cited in the previous chapter indicate is true, those children who are being born in the 1990s, who will be coming of age in the next Millennium, challenge us — and are themselves challenged — in the sphere of the will. Writers on childraising methods such as John Rosemond and Mary Sheedy Kurcinka may provide accurate descriptions of the behavior of these “spirited” or “strong-willed” children, and may also suggest helpful ways of dealing with their behavior so as to make home life harmonious (or at least bearable!) but their writings do not help us understand why it is particularly the will that is unfolding in children at this point in our century. Nor are they able to articulate just what the will is, nor, most importantly, what the relationship of human will is to what Kurcinka vaguely (and somewhat arbitrarily) characterizes as spirit.

It is here that Waldorf education may have its greatest contribution to make to the challenge of ADHD. By laying the foundation for their educational methods on the principle of the whole human being, Waldorf teachers do not stop with the static concept of “multiple intelligence.” Rather, they help an intelligent multiplicity to thrive in every child in the classroom, recognizing that every child needs to cultivate her linguistic side, her bodily-kinesthetic side, her spatial side, etc. Indeed, we can see that part of the genesis of ADHD lies in the stifling of too many facets of a child’s nature so that a one-sided “intelligence” can shine at the expense of all else. Waldorf education can not “cure” ADHD, but its theories and its practices can serve to mitigate hyperactive tendencies in young children, and can be an important part of the treatment of older children faced with this challenge of our times. Some measure of the importance of understanding the challenge may be gleaned by words spoken by Rudolf Steiner one year after the first Waldorf school had been opened:

External earthly life, insofar as it is a product of earlier times, will pass away — and it is an entirely vain hope to believe that the old habits of thought and will can continue. What must arise is a new kind of knowledge, a new kind of willing in all domains. We must familiarize ourselves with the thought of the vanishing of a civilization; but we must look into the human heart, into the spirit dwelling in man; we must have faith in the heart and spirit of man in order that through all we are able to do within the wreckage of the old civilization, new forms may arise, forms that are truly new…”

(End of article by Eugene Schwartz).

Again, please go read this article in its entirety. It has everything to do with the way we parent our children, no matter what challenges they face.  You will learn a lot about yourself as a parent in reading this article, and a lot about your child.

Thank you, Mr. Schwartz, for making me think today.  There are many wonderful articles on the Millennial Child website available at this link:  http://www.millennialchild.com/ and the experience and perspective of a Master Waldorf Teacher such as Eugene Schwartz is well-worth listening to and thinking about!

His grades CD’s are also truly invaluable in lesson planning, so if you have not checked those out, have a look!

Have a thinking day,


8 thoughts on “Waldorf Education, ADHD and What the Parent of the “Normal” Child Can Learn

  1. The other day sitting in my Doctor’s waiting room, I picked up a “Parenting” magazine. After reading two or three articles I had to put it down. All the article I read touted the benefits of letting children choose, have a voice, give their input, etc.

    I sat there and thought, goodness do any of these “experts” actually have kids? It’s no wonder I so often see mom’s bargaining to the point of exhaustion with their kids. I see it all the time at the park, the grocery store, everywhere.

    I just want to tell everyone I see struggling, you know it really is so much easier to set rythyms and make decisions.

  2. Pingback: A Waldorf Parenting Perspective: Won’t Choices Strengthen My Child’s Will? « The Parenting Passageway

  3. This makes so much sense to me NOW!!! But what if you’ve given 50 million choices to your child before you realized this was not helpful for them? What can I do to help set things right? My oldest boy is about to turn 8 and I am literally cringing as I recall the millions of examples of this in my own mothering! Eeek!!!

    • We all do the best we can do with what we know at the time! No guilt, and no worries, eight year olds can handle a bit more now 🙂
      Thanks for reading, Carrie

  4. Pingback: Back To Basics: The Parenting Challenge Of The Week « The Parenting Passageway

  5. I believe there is a delicate balance between being a guide and being a dictator. One of the aspects that drew me to Waldorf methods is the respect of the child and the notion that we are to usher them into the world, not own them. I feel there are certainly some pieces of the more “progressive parenting” that push limits for me, such as allowing children to choose bedtime, etc…but I do feel that a child with a voice should be allowed to have that voice. Perhaps, these spirited children have an awakened voice, over others? Perhaps, there is something going on all sides of this equation. I have come to reject obedience in parenting and have replaced it with respect. I do not believe that they are the same and my experience shows me that respect comes when a child feels loved, heard and respected, not bossed around. Again, there is a delicate balance here, to be sure. I don’t think I’ve read anything that has it “right”, because children are unique and each child may need adjustments depending on their temperament and emotional needs. I am reading up on ADHD, as I was diagnosed as a child and feel sure my first born will be as well. Waldorf has been an amazing source of help and salvation for me, but I do see some differences in what Steiner said and what is often interpreted. Just some of my thoughts…

  6. Gosh, I see so much here that rings true in the mind of example, mentoring, and a strong, reliable, and predictable presence as a guide for our little ones. However, from personal experience, both in family and in working with children, across the spectrum of childhood (age, temperament, socio-economic class, etc.), I cannot agree with the sentiments that this portion of the article expresses related to “giving a child too many choices renders them ineffective/indecisive adults”. Nor can I support what seems a negative opinion of children and adults holding an equal value and leverage when it comes to many aspects of daily life (what/where we eat, activities, etc.. ). While there are times when a child’s preferences cannot prevail, there are also times when an adult’s preferences cannot prevail, yet both remain equally valuable.

    In our home, requests can be granted and/or denied by both adult and child. Demands are made in two instances, one of safety related necessary compliance and two, when a need is so great and going unmet that intervention is necessary to prevent harm to one/other person/living creature. Otherwise, we all live with the results of being willing to request and to grant, or being unwilling to have requests denied and/or deny them. This ‘approach’ to equality of consideration, with a strong undertone of nonviolence and need meeting, has resulted in well balanced children and teens/young adults who make conscious choices in their actions and reactions, and has generated a connectedness between us that I don’t often see or hear of in our circle of friends and acquaintances. It does not create tyrants, little or big.

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