Thursday, June 28, 2012

waldorf, quakers, and us

My head hurts. Funny - I thought this blog was done, but here I am in the middle of my stuff. It seems just posting after a month unlocked the door, and now I've got a couple of posts halfway done, a couple more in my brain. I thought I didn't have anything to say, and now I've got plenty. For the moment, anyway.

How do we make decisions for our children? How much latitude do we give them to make decisions? At what age? Research (and common sense) tell us the brain isn't fully developed for a loooooonnng time after they seem pretty functional (like age 21 or something) and the young brain's judgement simply isn't able to distinguish blue from yellow.

When my son was two I sent him to a lovely Jewish preschool nearby - the same place Frances had been for her three-year-old year. I love this place; it's very sweet and warm and caring and it has a lot of integrity. I love that my kids learned a Hebrew prayer for before meals. I love that they brought coins and dropped them into a tzadaka box to give to those who have less.

We are not Jewish. I am a Quaker, and by extension my children are Quakers. (Super Cliff Note Description: derived from Christianity but only loosely connected now, Quakers have no ministers, no songs or readings. We sit in silence for an hour, believe strongly in "that of god in everyone," in the power of silence, and are probably most well known for our political stance on nonviolence. Here's more.) Mitch agrees with all the basic Quaker philosophy but can't get on board with the quiet, and he uses Sunday mornings to work. (He's chasing tenure - sneaks in hours at the office whenever he can find them. Ugh ugh ugh.)

Mitch and I had no problem sending our kids to a preschool of a faith different than our own. We liked that it opened up the conversation with the kids about how different people believe different things, and Hebrew is a pretty cool language to learn.

The school wasn't a perfect fit, however - I posted about some of that here - and while Frances was there I started looking around. What I discovered was Waldorf education, about which I am known to rave endlessly but won't this minute. So Frances was only at the Jewish school one year. When she turned four she started at the Waldorf kindergarten.

** I guess I need to pause here for some Waldorf details, to catch you up in case you're unfamiliar. Really, this should point to another post where I wax on, but I don't have one already written, so what you get are random details to give you some sense of the landscape. In no particular order.

  1. At the Waldorf kindergarten the kids make bread every Tuesday: grind the grain, kneed, grease pans, churn butter, chop apples for apple sauce. And that's what they have for snack that day. 
  2. They spend a half an hour outside first thing, and then go out later for an hour and a half every day - rain, snow - and let me remind you that last year we had 120 inches of the latter. We parents just make sure the kids are in appropriate clothing.
  3. There are chickens in the back yard. 
  4. They don't play on playground equipment, but take walks to the woods, or to a nearby park that's hilly and good for sledding or rolling down hills. 
  5. The children aren't allowed to wear characters on their clothes or lunch boxes or whatever. A generic cartoon princess is fine, but a Disney one is not. 
  6. Frances is often returned to me covered in mud. 

I always assumed Clark would go to the Waldorf kindergarten, RiverNorth, as soon as he was old enough. But this year he wasn't, so he enjoyed himself very much at the Jewish preschool.

In addition to the kindergarten, this past year RiverNorth did an afternoon program once a week. The kindergarten ended at 12:30 and the afternoon program started at the same time and began with lunch the kids had brought from home. On those days Frances also stayed for lunch (There was no way she could have been a part of the afternoon program - that would have meant she would be there 8:30-4:30 and whoa that would have done her in.) When Clark and I came in to pick her up on those days he got to play some with the afternoon kids who were already done with their lunch. One day as we were getting ready to leave Clark asked if he could stay for the afternoon program. I knew a slot had opened up, and the question made me pause. He was now old enough for the program - had turned 4 a month earlier. I thought it might set him up well for school next year, get him used to the space, maybe a small feeling of ownership of it, and the transition in the fall would be smoother. It sounded like a good idea.


It was a good idea in theory. In practice it was a disaster. Afternoons in general are hard for him - he's just so tired. His allergies are terrible and I'm sure exhausting, plus he's in that stage where he really needs his nap, but if he has one he stays up til 10pm. After his first day he said he didn't like it. Among other things, he said he sat in the loft by himself and didn't play with anyone, which wasn't at all true; when I talked to the teacher she said he played the entire time, seemed completely engaged, was seeking out other kids, and they were seeking him out too. But clearly he felt lonely. I get that. He was walking into a social group that was already established, friendships already made. What was I thinking?

In any case, his three afternoons there left him with a bit of a bad taste in his mouth. And at the end of this school year Clark said outright that he didn't want to go to RiverNorth, that he doesn't like it there, that he wanted to stay at the Jewish preschool, that his (adorable, sweet) friends were important to him and that he likes it better there anyway.

For a couple of days I was all twisted around, thinking that maybe temperamentally the Jewish preschool is better for him, and wondering if the gain keeping his friendships outweighed my reasons for wanting him at RiverNorth. Besides, was I just trying to fit him into my view of what's important to me? Was I trying to make him someone he might not be? (And yet, let's not forget that he is FOUR. Who is to say who he will become?)

In my confusion I wondered if Waldorf early childhood education is geared a little more toward the strengths that are girls', that maybe he really wouldn't thrive in that atmosphere. I talked with the moms of the boys in Frances's school and I thought hard about the activities they do. Things like dying silk capes and finger knitting definitely lend themselves to Frances's temperament more than Clark's. But there's so much large muscle movement - big heavy wooden blocks that they use to build walls for their imaginative play, rocking boards, logs to heave and move, wheelbarrows and shovels and push brooms, and all the outdoor play, which around way up here in the snowbelt  means a lot of sledding and snowball throwing. He would love that. I have no question.

Then I tried to think about my role as a parent. What I came to is that what is important to me is not beside the point, but is perhaps exactly the point. My role is indeed to shape the glass through which my children view the world. To show them the world's Truth as best as I am able. The issue is not where he will be more comfortable, but what experiences do I want him to have, not just for enjoyment's sake or attachments's sake (though both have their place), but because each experience influences the person he is to become. Turns out it is my job to make those choices for him at this age.

Of course.

And THEN it dawned on me - all at once in a rather dramatic and comedic realization - that we're not Jewish. Oh right! In fact, we are Quaker, and the Waldorf approach jives completely with Quaker beliefs, with the core of what I believe to be True. Why would I not send him there? In addition, because Waldorf aligns itself so well with Quaker values, I can use Quaker language to talk to him about why I want him there. This is who we are as a family, as a people. It is my job to frame that for him. When he's grown, he's free to convert to Judiasm, but for now this will be the view out his window.


I haven't wavered a bit since that moment of clarity. And now that I've got it straightened out within myself, Clark seems to be settling into it as well. Although I know his adjustment this fall may be hard, and he may not like it at first, coping with change is a good skill for kids to learn. He will be fine.

The blessing Clark learned at the Jewish preschool is in Hebrew, and is beautiful. But the one that Frances says at RiverNorth is

Earth who gives to us this food
Sun who makes it ripe and good
Dearest Earth, and Dearest Sun
by you we live
our loving thanks to you we give.
Blessings on the meal

This is who we are. This is the world I will offer to him. 

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