Puberty: the greatest crisis in life

Oscar Scholz

Puberty is the time in which the education consultant goes to his or her own self-help books and desperately search through the pages for an answer as to how to respond to his or her daughter who is freaking out. One mother described to me how her pubescent daughter regularly succeeded in keeping the whole family – mother, father, brother – on the go for hours with her unmanageable homework until in the end everyone was a nervous wreck. On the other hand, a father told me simultaneously how it had never been so lovely in the family with his daughter, that it was possible to have real adult conversations during the evening meal and everything was so harmonious ... My only thought was: I hope that mother and father don’t meet right now!

It is, indeed, incredibly difficult not to be drawn into the emotional intensity. We repeatedly fail in that because the adolescent ambushes us – metaphorically speaking – without warning. The other danger is that we identify too little with the adolescent, fail to take him or her seriously. That reinforces the emotional intensity, the aggression, the experience of being alone. It is merely provocative if we say: “You’re just behaving like a typical adolescent, it’ll pass, you aren’t in control of your actions, your hormones are running wild.” We should not even begin to think like that. Puberty is described by developmental psychologists as the greatest crisis in the biography of a person, the greatest shock to self-awareness, the greatest insecurity.

Why is that so? Brain researchers have meanwhile discovered that the brain is completely restructured in this period. Old structures dissolve and new ones are formed. For the adolescent it means a time of disorientation. The world is perceived differently. It can sometimes be incomprehensible and unbearable how unreasonable the young person going through puberty can be. But we have to see it in the light of the changing structures mentioned above. The untidy room is not perceived as a mess. That is not necessarily the result of a provocative attitude but of physiology!

Human beings are born several times

These fundamental physical changes – the development of the body, sexual  maturity, the restructuring of the brain and the major changes in the emotions and behaviour of the adolescent – must be seen in a larger context. Twelve years before the establishment of the Waldorf school, Rudolf Steiner described human beings as consisting of four components, as possessing various components which are by no means yet developed and evolved at the time of birth. When human beings are physically born, these additional higher components of their being are still hidden just like the child is still enveloped by the mother during the embryonic period. They develop and have effects but they emerge from their envelope only after a long period of development. And Rudolf Steiner calls this process of emergence a “birth”. He refers to the three births of the human being – although this would have to be extended by additional births if we take the further development of the adult into consideration.

Such a “birth of the human component elements” has to be understood as a metamorphosis of forces. The basic idea is that school children learn with the same forces which initially caused them to grow. The forces of learning are transformed forces of growth. The forces which have built the body and formed its organs conclude that activity at a certain point and are released to take on other tasks: they become forces of learning, forces of memory. Rudolf Steiner calls them formative forces or life forces and, since they form a unity, he refers to the body of formative forces or life body. So the second birth of the human being is the birth of the life body.

And in the same way we have to imagine that another human component element develops in concealment over a longer period of time and is only born, released from its envelope at puberty. Rudolf Steiner calls this component the “sentient body” – which means our personal soul life. Puberty is the birth process of the soul, the birth of thinking, feeling and will which are personal to ourselves. This means that the feeling life changes fundamentally alongside the many different processes of physical maturation. Our feelings now become personal to ourselves, are experienced inwardly. Grief and fondness take on a quite different character. Beliefs and ideas can now be grasped with inner passion and are transformed into ideals; an idealism develops which provides fuel for the soul.

Why is this such a dramatic occurrence, why is the adolescent in the grip of his or her emotional life as if it were a hurricane? Because the life of the soul still lacks the control of an independent I. The I is only born at a much later stage and can then act on the emotional life as an ordering force. And until that happens, the adult must put such an ordering force at the disposal of the adolescent. We thus have a being before us in the child and adolescent throughout their time at school which only gradually reveals itself, whose elements are initially concealed and are born one by one. And what does a newborn being need? It needs protection and care. The envelope it has lost must, to begin with, be replaced by the surroundings. That applies in equal measure to the newborn life body and sentient body.

That is what the fundamental attitude of the adult towards the adolescent should be: we are dealing with newborns in adolescents who need protection and help. The newborn personality must learn to stand upright and walk, must learn to talk and think anew. That is why young people during puberty “hang about”, why their language diminishes, sometimes almost to the point of silence – part of a process with many failed attempts and setbacks. The young person in puberty requires the same consideration, concern and encouragement as the small child learning to walk. The newborn soul is just as delicate and sensitive and awkward as the newborn physical body and the touch of the adult can lead to a severe jolt.

Kriemhild in the tower

There are a number of motifs suggested by Rudolf Steiner which can be used for guidance in upper school: “developing an interest in the world”, “developing judgement”, “responding to the latent questions of the young person”. The latter are questions of which her or she is not initially aware and which slumber under the surface. One way of responding to them is for the adolescent to encounter his or her own set of problems in the form of images. The Song of the Nibelungs is dealt with in German lessons in class 10. One of the main figures is Kriemhild, a king’s daughter, the most beautiful woman far and wide, who has a dream of looming disaster which is interpreted for her in such a way that she decides never to fall in love – something which does, nevertheless, happen. She conceals herself in a tower and looks at the world from a distance through the window. She avoids any encounter with the world and completely closes herself off for fear of suffering hurt. Even when Siegfried arrives at court and she has actually already fallen in love with him as she sees him riding through the gateway, she remains in her tower for another year and observes him from a distance. What type of gesture is that? Fear of uniting with the world, fear of growing up, not leaving one’s own chamber and thus making oneself vulnerable, retaining control over everything – that is a well-known yearning in this period of adolescence which can escalate as far as anorexia.

And then various extremes clash irreconcilably in The Song of the Nibelungs and everything ends in disaster. In abbreviated form we could say: the old and the new clash and there can be no mediation between them; or also: the inner world, what arises in me, and the outer world, what comes towards me. The conflict between these two things exactly describes the basic situation in class 10: the conflict between inner and outer; it is not resolved.

Parzival and the birth of the I

The situation is completely different in class 11. The tension between inner and outer is no longer experienced and suffered, it has generally calmed down, but now the inner space is truly filled. The class 11 pupil is more circumspect, pensive, and something quite individual is much more noticeable. The individuality gradually begins to emerge. And thus the main motifs for German and history lessons in this class are internalisation and the formation and development of an inner space. In history we deal with the period from the end of antiquity to the start of the modern period. That is, the Middle Ages, their origin and conclusion. It is a time of greatest development and at the same time internalisation. When we look at the legacy of antiquity, then this includes, among other things, Greek philosophy. And here a discussion of Socrates’ so called daimonion suggests itself, an inner voice which he follows, perhaps our conscience in modern terms.

In Plato we have the allegory of the cave. Human beings are actually in a cave and only see the shadows of things. They have to ascend to an actual experience of reality by a difficult path. And the motif of the cave keeps recurring – without of course referring the pupils directly to it. Cave, inner space: Christianity develops in concealment in the catacombs of Rome. The monks later withdraw into the seclusion of the monasteries. Everything indicates an inner development, the formation of an inner space. And the cave also appears in a key passage in Parzival, to which a whole German main lesson is devoted. After a long and difficult path, Parzival is instructed about the meaning of his life in a cave by the hermit Trevrizent. We practice understanding these things with the pupils on a pictorial level.

In Parzival we have a dual biography, the two contrasting biographies of the knights Parzival and Gawan. They are contrasting in the sense that Gawan succeeds in everything on his path whereas Parzival constantly fails. But in doing so Parzival nevertheless keeps focused on his goal and Gawan constantly allows himself to be distracted, goes from one thing to the next and never reaches his goal. In the end we see that the actual ideal lies in combining both qualities. And in this way certain motifs in the human biography are revealed which are then taken up in other German main lessons.

Development and internalisation: those are the issues here, too. How can I myself take a hold of my life and shape it? How can I make my life my own? I don’t want things just to happen to me! These are the biographical questions of this period – sometimes still somewhat concealed – up to and including the question of what conscious inner development might look like. And these questions are not approached and discussed with the pupils directly but they are given an objective form, they are offered, we might say, to the pupils as something coming from outside.

About the author: Oscar Scholz is an upper school teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School in Stuttgart.

Note: The remarks about German lessons are based on suggestions from my colleague Andre Bartoniczek.