The youngest in the kindergarten: a political football?

Wolfgang Saßmannshausen

Basically I can count myself lucky as a father to have to engage in this battle every morning. After all, it says: “I have trust in you. With you I can explore new territory; I feel secure with you.” All too many parents will know the classic words from mother-in-law: “He doesn’t do that with me.” Indeed, he does not that with her, but with Mummy, the guarantor of security, reliability and loving attention. In this deeply trusting relationship the small child can experience itself and develop its self-awareness through defiance. The instrument which helps to survive that battle is humour. Children do not want to experience the adult as giving in to their “demands”, but neither do they want the adult to break them. Dealing playfully with the child’s provocation is the appropriate response. Now the ideas in developmental psychology and education regarding this first phase of defiance are not new. Neither is the observation and knowledge new that children at this age love to be in sustained communication with one person to engage in this “game”. 

Developmentally we refer to a dual relationship mode of the child, which means that the child is not (yet) in a position to establish relationships in which it enters into an encounter with more than one person at a time. The relationship is always with one person. The person may change quite quickly but there is no relationship with a group, it always remains a dual relationship. If five-year-old children can all enter into a game together, the two-year-old sibling who wants to join in will remain a disruptive factor because he or she will want the full attention of one person.

Even if certain things in child development are changing and speeding up, the fact remains that the child in the first years of life lives in such dual relationships and as a rule only becomes capable of entering into group relationships at age four. But one thing has changed markedly in recent years. If we question whether it is really in the best interest of children to send them to crèche or to go to playgroup with them at age two, where the parents then gradually remove themselves, the reaction of most mothers and playgroup leaders or nursery nurses shows how “outdated” they consider such a question.

The institutional upbringing and support of toddlers is today seen as an expression of respecting the need of our smallest children to give them the best educational opportunities and not to disadvantage them from the beginning. Of course there are established approaches in developmental psychology, the anthroposophical understanding of the human being and teaching methodology as to how adults can and must prepare themselves to be in any position at all to deal in an appropriate way with our little ones before kindergarten. We can quote here the impulses of Emmi Piklers who has done sterling work at her institute in Hungary; but also the Waldorf kindergarten movement in which the adults need to be specially qualified for their work to be recognised as constituting Waldorf education.

Small children unable to cope

A number of colleagues who are qualified in Waldorf education to work with small children and are experienced in working with children under three are quite clear that they would not put their own children into such care – after all, they experience on a daily basis the way that such children are unable to cope. These kind of views are not expressed publicly but can be increasingly heard among colleagues. Such things may not be said aloud, after all it runs counter to the kindergarten as an enterprise. The funding for kindergartens, including Waldorf ones, by the public authorities is highest for children under three. Furthermore, it can be difficult in many regions today to recruit children for kindergarten when they are three or four because many parents have already tied themselves to an establishment when the children are at crèche-age. Thus there is understandable (from a business perspective) pressure from the boards of such establishments to take as many children as possible already under the age of three. Can this fact still be reconciled with Rudolf Steiner’s basic statement: “The things to be taught and educated should only be taken from a knowledge of the developing human being and his or her individual aptitudes. The basis of education should be ... true anthropology.”?

The crèche offensive of the business lobby

In his essay “Die dunkle Seite der Kindheit” (The dark side of childhood) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper of 4 April 2012, the paediatrician Rainer Böhm, director of the Bielefeld-Bethel Centre for Social Paediatrics, writes about the huge expansion of the institutional care of small children: “The German crèche offensive essentially goes back to the massive political and media lobbying by business associations which, in view of the demographic developments, have been trying to mobilise labour reserves among young parents.” The economic benefit for the care sector and “suppliers” such as publishers, who are among the recipients of public funding, is determining the way that public opinion is formed. Terms such as “efficiency” and “human capital” – relatively new in the context of education and upbringing – allow us to see the origin of the new political and sometimes also “scientific” insights. In this process it is claimed as a self-evident fact that the modern family is only conceivable if both parents are earning, particularly as almost all of them want to do that.

Young mothers-to-be or mothers who have just given birth see themselves as completely “outdated” if they do not think and act in the same way. But if one starts to talk to young parents it becomes clear that many of them actually want to live differently and want to experience their small children throughout the whole day in their first years before sending them to an institution. When before long large supermarket chains are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – as already happens in many countries – and it becomes useful in terms of labour market policy to have children cared for institutionally also at night, parents will be given “information” that it is beneficial for the development of their children to be “allowed” to have these “night-time” experiences. What all social and education policy fails to take into account is its actual clients, the children!

Thus it is always the children who suffer in the end. Böhm refers to longitudinal studies from the USA which highlight the potential risks associated with institutional care in early childhood.

One result from these wide-ranging studies gives particular cause for thought: the listed disorders in the development of socio-emotional competences were found in all children who experienced institutionalised instead of parental care in early childhood, irrespective of the quality of the educational work of the institutions.

It became clear that “the conduct of the parents in bringing up children exercised a significantly stronger influence than that of the care institution.” Böhm does not mince his words: the frequent reality of “chronic stress in childhood is the biological signature of abuse. Exposing young children to permanent stress is unethical, is a violation of their human rights, causes acute and chronic illness.”

Many parents of small children today are obliged through their circumstances to find the corresponding infant care for their children. Of course it is our task in this reality of life to offer parents institutional partnership. In this task quality has to be of the highest order. But we must not forget a task which has been neglected in the more recent past, also in the Waldorf movement: if in the important first years of life, with their sometimes tragically sustained effects, we want to help children to make themselves at home in their life, their destiny, their body, we have to start a new offensive directed at parents. The “standard parental type” of earlier times is increasingly making way for the “elective parental type”. This means that less and less of the way children are brought up is traditionally passed on from the grandparents to the young generation of parents. The need for subjectively-motivated freedom – conscious or unconscious – increasingly determines the conduct in bringing up children. As a more than clear example we can quote the case of a single mother who intensively studied the developmental situation of her two-year-old child, read all the current popular literature on this subject, but then still said she intended to go with the child to a rock concert in a football stadium  because she did not want to miss it.

Parents today have consciously to learn to feel the appropriate joy as they watch the small child develop and to see it as an opportunity for their own growth and development. Enabling such a learning process for those who want it is one of the key tasks of the Waldorf movement in the third millennium.

And back to little Rebekka: she is deeply satisfied if someone – mostly her mother or father – engages in the humorous game around her defiance. Her will is not broken, but neither is it lost in an unresistant void. In the encounter a game free of stress arises which creates quality of life – a profound preparation for the whole of life. What a refreshment and satisfaction it can be for the mother or father who participate in the game when they happily engage in this “defiance game”! The daily activity of bringing up children can thus turn into an artistic process which is not (only) experienced as a duty but as a liberation. That can be learnt and it is the task facing us today.

About the author: Dr. Wolfgang Saßmannshausen, 4 children, works with the Association of Waldorf Kindergartens above all on questions of training and advanced training at home and abroad.