A changing childhood or changing children?

By Elke Rüpke, May 2017

Children change along with the society in which they grow up. This becomes very apparent when you compare the children of today with the children of previous generations. But what do these changes consist of? Elke Rüpke from the Waldorf preschool teacher training seminar in Stuttgart summarises the observations of teachers at various Waldorf Schools.

Photo: © southnorthernlights/photocase.de


Little individualists

Many children are today less at rest in themselves, have less perseverance, and are more physically unrestrained. When sitting in a circle with other children they start to slide off of their chairs, start to lean back, or want to lie on the teacher’s lap. Increasingly, children do not make use of their hands, for example when taking off their shoes in the cloakroom; shoes and boots are simply shaken off. When engaging in physical activities with them, it is noticeable that the children’s abilities to imitate tend to have become a lot weaker than before. Finger games, songs and round dance gestures are less spontaneously and naturally copied, many children would rather stay watching from the sidelines. In addition, more children now find it a lot  more difficult engaging in free play.

In a supervised activity they are often unable to stay focused for long and quickly demand new stimulus. At the same time they have become more sensitive and delicate, both as regards their own body and in terms of psychological and the social aspects. Some show signs of sudden mood swings and seek psychological support from their teacher. Some even seem to be in a continuous state of sadness. Intellectually, on the other hand, most seem to be extremely sharp, almost to the point of precociousness. They show more self-will in comparison to children of earlier generations and express themselves to their parents in a much more clearly disrespectful manner. Children show themselves to be individualists from an early age.

Waldorf education understands the human being within an overall context of body, soul and spirit which manifests itself in the interaction of four “constitutional elements”: the visible body (“physical body”) is penetrated by the vital forces (“etheric body”), and both of them by the bearer of the emotions (“astral body”) and the respective individuality (“I”). From this perspective there is a trend for change in all four human constitutional elements visible in the observed phenomena: a lesser anchoring in the physical body, less strength in the etheric body, a greater sense of openness and sensitivity in the psychological aspects and the sense of perception, and a marked manifestation of individuality which appears at an earlier age.

Societal changes

When we consider the developments that have occurred in our society since the 1960s, these changes do not come as a surprise. To name just a few various aspects:

• Due to the encroachment of technical devices into almost all areas of our lives, we hardly have to be physically active anymore and we do not have to move much to be able to deal with the challenges that we face in our everyday lives. The stable anchoring of individuality in the body through physical activity and independent movement, which was made possible for previous generations due to their living conditions, is no longer automatically given.

• Almost all goods that are deemed necessary in our lives are manufactured or processed mechanically. In addition to this, the burdens of organising our free time are often taken off our shoulders by machines in the form of technical media. Similarly much of the knowledge and information we consume come to us after being processed through the media. As a result, so-called primary experiences, that is diverse sensory experiences in natural contexts, occur more rarely. Experiences through the sensations of sight and sound have become much more accessible through the entertainment and information media, but they must also be processed more quickly due to the large number of them made available to us and are not experienced deeply by the whole body because fewer senses are involved in their perception. The qualitative differences between the perception of first-hand impressions, such those experienced during a walk in the woods, and artificially generated impressions, for example through watching a nature documentary, are quite obvious.

In everyday experience, for instance, there is no longer a natural understanding that there is a linkage and interaction between an action and its perception as is the case in many areas of life, such as cooking, baking, washing and cleaning by hand, hiking, making music or swapping news.

• Family life has changed in many cases in the course of the last few of years. The changing role of women in the workplace, as well as the increasing financial pressures in professional life in connection with the high costs of living, mean that mothers return to work early after giving birth or, in some cases, don’t stop working at all. For more and more children this means the early onset, also often continuing after the start of school, of all-day care outside the family along with changing key carers. Within these changing settings of their care, they have to be much more strongly dependent upon themselves than they would have to be in constant and stable circumstances. They thereby necessarily become much more alert to the distinctness of each person.

• The pressure of work now has a clear effect on the organisation of a family’s time. Dependable rhythmical cycles in family life, which strengthen the life forces, are far more difficult to achieve in these circumstances than they were previously.

• A more free society has lead to much more diverse family structures. At the same time, however, the expectations of responsible parenthood have also increased. Parents today know much more about pedagogical contexts, which has led to a change in educational goals and styles. The child’s own initiative now receives much more recognition and many parents are more concerned with supporting the personality rather than forming it, as was the case, for example, with the rules of politeness for previous generations. However, the growing awareness of various pedagogical contexts has also led to a greater level of uncertainty about education for many parents. The parents of previous generations who were able to orientate themselves according to tradition clearly had it much easier in this respect.

• It is not only in schools that the increasing encroachment of competitive pressures as well as the pressure to perform in more uncertain economic circumstances has been felt. Often already at a young age, children are made to take advantage of individual advancement programmes and provisions for leisure time development. This in turn limits the time that is still available to children for their own individual free play: even younger children are forced to experience the dictatorship of the schedule of activities.

Feelings become central

In addition, more and more children at kindergarten age show changed behavioural and reaction patterns which are less noticeable; they are sometimes shown by the children only to a sensitive, observant and appreciative observer. They are often in the background of “disruptive behaviour” or show themselves directly as a strength. This includes the ability to perceive the psychological condition of their counterpart, to feel, as well as to express, emotions or possible tensions, or the capability to articulate their own feelings.

In practical activities this is seen in the case of individual children who at an age of often only three years old demonstrate this during their acclimatisation at nursery through the hidden wisdom and loving consideration with which they signal to their mothers that they need not worry and can leave, if they seem to have any doubts about leaving their child on their own. Now and then it is possible in situations like this to get the impression that the children are almost taking responsibility for their parents in this regard. Increased empathy is accompanied by a more sophisticated ability to deal with conflicts, as well as better methods to resolve disputes between children in a much more independent and considerate manner. In general, the capacity for love appears to be a lot more intensive than it was previously.

On the other hand, some children now possess a better ability to protect themselves from excessive demands being placed on them, for example when a child seeks a quiet, safe haven for themselves in kindergarten that they can retreat to when exposed to too much noise and turmoil. In the way that the child and teacher deal with one another it can be seen that the children look for an individual relationship with the caregiver and seek “one to one” contact with them. However, if educational authority is exercised in by virtue of the “office”, some children become almost frightened and shy away. The questions and thoughts expressed by the children spontaneously in everyday life often show a greater depth of thought. Their sense of justice and truth are also much more highly developed. Injustices are more clearly perceived and called out, and truthfulness is more clearly demanded.

Many children show a great deal of willingness within the context of their day to day experiences at kindergarten to act in an independent and competent manner, for example in taking over responsibility for various small tasks, and often also possess the ability to do so. Regarding the need to adapt to new circumstances, they often show greater flexibility than many children of previous generations. If these observations stripped down to the question of exactly what needs the children are expressing through this behaviour, we can say that what they are looking for is:

• Sensitive interactions with one another

• Conscious encounters, a sense of being appreciated, as well as individual recognition

• Authentic, honest and fair role models

• The opportunity also to be able ask about deeper, immaterial contexts

• Enough free space to be left to exert their own self-will and take actions for which they themselves are responsible.

These aspects are less related to the abnormal behaviour in the physical and etheric sphere with regard to the phenomena mentioned earlier, but rather to the sphere of the soul and spirit. It is striking that these phenomena can be viewed in an intensified form as being typical of adolescence: an increasing depth of thought, a sensitivity to justice and honesty, an aversion to officially exercised authority, and a search to find their own form of self-determination. If we ask about possible reasons for this, these observations can also be explained as being a result of the changes in social conditions: in a world that has become much more individualised, a child’s individuality might also start to show itself earlier and in a much more self-aware manner.

If families give space for empathy towards the needs of the child, then there is a greater possibility that the child themselves will develop the predisposition towards empathy.  This is one area where we can observe the well known principles of role models and imitation. However, this explanation is not enough. This is because when a child experiences frequently changing conditions at an early age as a result receiving care outside the family, they do not necessarily become more flexible in dealing with these changes: as attachment research has shown, the experience of unstable primary attachments does not lead to a sovereign handling of changes and a greater level of social emotional competence but, on the contrary, to increased and prolonged uncertainty and destabilisation of the personality in all of their behaviour.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the abilities which were mentioned above require to a large extent – if they are not “precocious” or appear insincere or in some way “put on” – a certain sense of psychological and spiritual maturity that child has developed itself, and which does not solely depend on or derive from the social and family conditions in which they have grown up. Could it perhaps be the case that today the structure of the constitutional elements of the human being is starting to develop in a different way in children? And if so, what consequences could this have if the soul and spiritual developments can no longer successively build on a stable anchoring in the physical body and in the life force, but rather already begin to develop at a much earlier point in the child’s development? 

From craft to art

These aspects that have been mentioned are not something new. My conclusion from these reflections is a conviction that the children challenge us with their behaviour to take further steps in our own development. In order to do justice to the children, we should at the latest at this point move from Waldorf education which is practiced like a craft according to firm rules which need only be learnt once to Waldorf education as an art of education:  on the foundation of basic educational principles, applying and further developing the latter with presence of mind and in creative collaboration between everyone involved in the given situation as we judge to be correct at the time. Let us understand the challenges posed by day to day educational situations as an opportunity for our own development!


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