In our childhood we learn, test out and experience more than in the whole of the rest of our life put together. In this time we learn to live our first relationships, we are socialised and introduced to the traditions as well as the morals and ideals of our society. In this sensitive period of our life, everything leaves a lasting impression on an open, curious and inquisitive person. But what do the children of today discover?
Meaningful relationships have become rare
Children, first and foremost, need meaningful relationships to other people, the experience of stable connections with people who are a constant presence, who carry them, protect them, like to have them around, love them and who give them the opportunity and space to develop their own individual potential.
Growing up in an atmosphere of security and acceptance offers the child support and safety. With a support base like this, a young child is able to take their own tentative, first steps out in to the world.
Children need solid structures, around which they can orient themselves: a rhythmical daily routine, reasonable, understandable rules, which encourage mutual cooperation. They need boundaries, which they should experience, push against and, of course, on occasion cross, but which provide a clear framework for family life and social communities such as a nursery group.
Rituals, which give a sense of orientation, reliability and support, are of course important as well as the opportunity to experience things for oneself, in addition to the freedom to experience and create. Values such as respect, consideration and compassion are important factors that should accompany a child on its way in life, which should be learnt to be cherished, and which, of course, create a healthy environment in which a positive attitude to the self can be developed.
All of this contributes to a background against which a child can experience healthy emotional, physical, spiritual and social development and which leads to the development of corresponding skills.
Society invests in cars instead of children
We live in a society that has trouble defining its values. More money is invested in the automotive industry than in the provision of children’s services, equality of opportunity or educational opportunities for children. It is a society in which the scope of development and experience for children is almost non-existent, in which open spaces for children to play have almost completely disappeared but in which wider streets and more parking spaces for cars are being continually built, in which there is inadequate investment in families so that work has to become the priority in both parents’ lives and interpersonal relationships are replaced by digital networks.
Phrases such as individualisation, emancipation, both parents working, mobility, consumerist behaviour, flexibility, work and unemployment, a lack of role models for young people, the failure of children by the education system, medialisation, and globalisation are the catchwords that can be used to characterise these changes in society. Cooperation within a community, perhaps even over multiple generations, has become rare, child-friendly areas are disappearing and reflection on the question of what constitutes a healthy development for a child has become more than necessary.
Many parents are uncertain
With the changes in society in recent years has also come a change in the way in which the child is regarded. Today we see a lot of uncertain parents who are finding it difficult to orient themselves around questions of parenting. Never before have there been so many educational self-help books on the shelves in book shops. After the upheaval of the 1970s, the development of a laissez-faire attitude towards parenting and the relaxation of boundaries, instruction and prohibition, an uncertainty has become visible which has allowed parenting classes and self-help guides to spring up out of the ground like mushrooms.
Parents are meeting their children on an equal footing. Children are treated as equal participants in questions concerning the household, leisure activities, holiday destinations and the consumption of the family – predominantly to include them in the day-to-day running of a household and to develop their understanding of democracy. But through doing this, they are entrusted with a role which they are not equipped to deal with and which overextends their capabilities. At this age, decisions should still be left to the parents. It is too early to start meeting children on an equal footing while they are still young.
This should rather be left until as older teenagers they have left the crisis of puberty behind and need to practice and gain firsthand experience of democratic decision-making in everyday family life and dealing with their own contemporaries as equal partners.
Role models are a necessity
Children need, as they always have, parents, educators and role models by whom they can orient themselves and on whom they can model themselves, who they can emulate and gain experience from, a process through which they can gain the skills and facilities needed to make them "capable" of becoming a functioning member of society.
In a world that is every increasing in pace, children need orientation, security and support more than ever, all of which they can only receive through reliable, stable relationships and a regular daily routine. It is this which allows them to find their own sense of self and development. They need role models, whom they can emulate, they need rhythm and repetition, they need firsthand experience of domestic, handicraft and creative activities and the opportunity to develop their senses through practise, not just theory.
This applies as equally to nursery as it does to the family environment. It is important that children have the ability to immerse themselves in stories and pictures, that they eat together, and that they have the time and space for role playing through which they can engage their imagination.
Childhood should be viewed as a safe space and giving children the opportunity to be children should be treated as paramount in every child raising partnership. With this in mind, teachers should advise parents on questions of upbringing and should use their resources to work with and support them.
What teachers and parents need to learn
Today, more than in the past, we need to look at what is individual in each child. Children should not just be able to "function", they need to be allowed to develop. There is a wide field in which this can be practiced by parents and teachers. It is more important to discern, encourage and support the individual abilities, the social skills and facilities of a child than it is to ensure the trouble-free course of day-to-day life.
About the author: Barbara Leineweber is a qualified (Diplom) educator and Waldorf pre-school teacher in Gladbeck.