Helicopters, tigers and doers?

Henning Kullak-Ublick

“Can you imagine marrying a guy who was breastfed until he was six?”, author Tracey Morrissey asks in a blog and adds: “… and then having to deal with [his mom’s] domineering bullshit at Thanksgiving?” A year ago, a cover of the US magazine Time featuring a breastfeeding mother caused a stir. Because her son was standing upright on a little chair while he was suckling – he was approaching his fourth birthday. “Are you mom enough?” the magazine asked its readers and reported about the growing number of parents who no longer release their children out of their protective envelope at all and want to shield them against all frustration and danger at every moment of their lives.

A year previously, the law professor Amy Chua achieved fame with precisely the opposite approach: in her bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother she describes how she brought up her children with radical strictness and discipline in order to give them a head start in the cosseted western culture of upbringing.

“Helicopter parents” or “tiger mothers” – who is right? Both extremes are not about the needs of the children but about the expectations and fears of adults torn in a confusing world between being overprotective and drilling their children to hold their own in an anticipated struggle for survival. I do not write “parents” but “adults” because this contradiction recurs just as much in a completely overhyped world of consumption for and brutal performance expectations of children.

A completely different approach was described by the historian and Waldorf teacher Christoph Lindenberg as long ago as 1975 in his bestseller Angstfrei lernen - selbstbewusst handeln (Learning without fear – acting with self-confidence), which popularised the “practice of a misunderstood school model” and played a significant part in the rapid spread of the Waldorf schools. He wrote about a performance concept based on individual effort of will, a developing interest in the world and the experience of one’s own success. Learning requires neither heliports nor cages for beasts of prey. If we want to use such images at all, the picture of a farm would be a good one, because that is where people plough, sow, cultivate, harvest – and celebrate! Everything that happens has a meaning which arises out of the circumstances of life on the farm itself. There is work on a farm for every age, for every skill, for the individual and the community – we call it sustainable agriculture.

Education should not be guided by anxiety but by the potential which slumbers in every person. Our Waldorf stand at this year’s Didacta, the world’s largest and Germany’s most important trade fair for education, enjoyed great popularity because people could directly experience how inclusion can work. Not only did the associations of the Waldorf and curative education schools work together, but the pupils from the integrative Michaeli School in Cologne gave visitors a direct experience of the path which avoids both helicopters and tigers: “Every child can do”.

Henning Kullak-Ublick, class teacher from 1984 -2010 at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School; board member of the German Association of Waldorf schools and the Friends of Waldorf Education as well as Aktion mündige Schule (www.freie-schule.de)