In the Waldorf curriculum, 3rd grade is a year-long metaphor. Ask almost any Waldorf student to name their favorite grade, and they will say 3rd. 3rd graders learn to spin wool – transforming a chaotic net of fibers into orderly strands of yarn. 3rd graders learn construction – building shelters, symbolic defenses against the storms of change. They build a project for the school as well, an effort that channels their emerging, conflicted individual energies into a force for good –they provide. They learn to cook – creating a whole from disparate parts. And they garden – they become miniature farmers, tending the land, producing something from a kernel of nothingness, nurturing change rather than fighting it. Through each of these tasks, they grow stronger, more confident, and more independent.
That last trait is the killer for parents. Waldorf pedagogy references the “Nine Year Change.” This developmental stage that often begins near the end of second grade, as a child turns eight (entering the 9th year of life), reveals the awakening of the child as an individual. Think back, when were you first aware of yourself as a distinct person – separate from parents, siblings, and friends? When did the world of make-believe fade into the cold reality that tells each of us, “Guess what? You’re on your own.” This is the rough part of the Nine Year Change, that uncertainty as the child begins to perceive his or her own isolation. For parents, the pain is intense – few things are harder than watching one’s child hurt or frightened and knowing that we can no longer kiss it away. It is terrifying to wake up one morning and find that the sunny, wide-eyed, free-spirit in the next bedroom has become moody, rebellious, and downright insolent. It’s hard to tell ourselves that the acting out is a quest for stability, that the boundaries they push are the very boundaries they are desperately seeking. Our kids sense it, even if we have forgotten; those boundaries, the rules against which they chafe, are keeping them back from the abyss.
“The most important thing for you to remember is that in order to grow healthy crops, you need healthy soil.” Our class just returned from 3 days and 2 nights at the wonderful Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley. The farm trip is integral to the 3rd grade. On the surface, the trip reinforces the lessons in gardening begun during the school year. However, more importantly, it serves as a rite of passage. For many of these children, the overnight trips of 3rd grade represent their first experiences away from home. And they work. On the farm, the children play hard, running amok in the orchard, climbing trees and playing endless games of tag. But they also work hard, harvesting produce that they eat with their meals, tending trees too small to defend themselves from choking weeds, caring for young animals, and packing the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes that represent part of the livelihood of “their” farm.
Each of these tasks reinforces the positive and necessary part of the Nine Year Change – independence and (if we nurture it right) responsibility. Tending their gardens, cooking for their class and others in the school, spinning wool into yarn, building their snail bread oven, and building their shelter projects: each of these pieces of the curriculum have been small steps toward that independence. And here, on the farm, they begin to see the connections between discipline and independence. Throughout the year, 3rd graders in Waldorf schools study the Old Testament, not as a religious text, but as a set of stories. And each story reinforces the same lesson. Without discipline, you cannot have freedom. Moses (the subject of this class’s play) led the Israelites from Egypt, but their freedom was not without consequence and rule – Ten Commandments, anyone? Lot’s wife lost her freedom, and became a giant salt block how? By breaking the rules. In the Old Testament, freedom comes with responsibility, boundaries exist and are challenged, but the willful ignorance or destruction of those boundaries has consequences.
Testing of boundaries reinforces security – is the fence still there? The children learned at the farm that fences work two ways. Yes, a fence keeps animals inside, confined to a specific pasture, yet the fence also keeps predators out. On the trip, it was easy to watch the children test their own “fences.” How strong is the fence? How high? Is the electricity turned on? How far can I push without breaking through? We could see this testing in the grin of a boy as his hand reached toward a forbidden knife. “Is anyone watching?” the bright eyes said. Yet, more importantly, the eyes were asking, “Is anyone going to stop me before I go too far?” The need for boundaries was readily apparent on the face of a child “talking back” to an adult. Beneath the defiance invariably lay a look of pleading, a look that said “I’m really not sure how to handle this, someone catch me, please. Don’t let me get away with this.”
This is the delicate balance of parenting 3rd graders – the imperceptible line between hand-holding and keeping arms outstretched to catch them when they fall. They will fall. They need to fall. They need the black eyes, sprained limbs, burnt fingers, and bruised hearts. The terrifying thing for adults is the realization that our children will be hurt, and that they need to be. The non-fatal injuries show us our boundaries, and help shield us from future disaster. If we never get into trouble, we never learn how to get out of it.
I sometimes joke, but truly believe, that parents undergo a Nine Year Change as well. I think we must. It is impossible to be present with these rapidly metamorphosing beings, to watch them push their way to the surface, to fight frost and sun, to blossom and wilt, and bear fruit without undergoing a transformation ourselves. We must provide the healthy soil. But, what we sometimes forget is that composting is a combustive, smelly process. We have to let many of our old traditions lie fallow – our child may no longer want that goodbye kiss in the morning. We have to churn our notions of protection and nurturing back into the soil – our kids no longer need us to hold their hands crossing the street, they need us to remind them to stop and watch for traffic. We have to prune away the deadwood of our parenting – we cannot mend their squabbles for them anymore, we can only give them the tools to relate to others themselves. And we have to constantly amend the soil, finding our own strengths and reevaluating our own independence.
By a fluke of scheduling, none of the other chaperones on the Full Belly Farm Trip were parents with whom I have spent a lot of time. By default, as parents we tend to socialize most with the families of our children’s close friends – at least in the early years. Now, as anyone who has read this blog should know, I am not by nature an extrovert. Getting to know new people is not inherently joyful to me; it is exhausting. But I learned something in that spring grass, around the “kitchen” set up beneath the walnut trees and in our rambles about the farm. Regardless of our backgrounds, career trajectories, marital status, or lifestyle, many of us were on the same journey. Perhaps it is age-related – maybe adults undergo some sort of sea-change in the years surrounding the dreaded 4-0. Or perhaps it relates to the ages of our children, the glimpsed possibility that, as our children come into themselves, we will not forever be known as “so-and-so’s Mommy or Daddy.” Whatever the reason, there seemed to be a common thread to our conversations, one of self-challenge and discovery, yet still tied into the underlying fears of parenting – how do I do this? Am I doing it right?
Farming relies upon an intricate web of factors: skill, knowledge, discipline, work, and luck. For every factor that the farmer can control -- soil amendments, crop rotation, time of planting – there are factors that are beyond control – weather, disease, market preferences. Farmers know inherently something that is often forgotten by those of us tethered to our sidewalks and municipal plumbing: much of life is outside our control. But, the most important thing we can provide is good soil.