Bringing Our Children to Rest
As Waldorf home-schooling parents, we strive to bring our children a calm, rhythmic home life. Many of our young children are screen-free, get ample sleep and spend much of their days engaged in song, stories, crafts, cooking and nature. So our children must surely be relaxed and joyful, right?
Not necessarily. One element that may be missing from a Waldorf home is rest from “Proximity Work” (termed by developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld).
According to Neufeld, children are in constant need of attachment and proximity to those whom they are primarily attached. It is the default setting for children. Though we as parents cannot reduce the need, we can provide rest from the incessant pursuit, the Proximity Work.
Children who fear a break in their attachment are forever busy working to retain (or regain) the attachment, forever busy with this Proximity Work. These children feel a higher level of alarm and insecurity – signs include being overly “good” (without creative energy), clingy, anxious, irritable, restless, aggressive, detached, or even peer-oriented (discussed at length in Neufeld’s book, “Hold on to Your Kids”). Obvious breaks in attachment come from separations like time-outs, shaming or ignoring. Subtle breaks in attachment also cause preoccupation with Proximity Work, particularly for sensitive children.
It is only when children are free from this draining Proximity Work that they can feel truly rested, and can begin to do their work as children – to play, to grow, to explore.
So how do we ensure that our children get this much-needed rest? Put simply, we must take charge of the Proximity Work. We must take full responsibility for the relationship.
In practical terms, what can we do?
Allow Our Children to Depend on Us
We can invite dependence by doing things for our children that they are physically capable of doing for themselves – bigger things like preparing and laying out food (versus asking children who are “old enough” to get food for themselves out of the refrigerator), and smaller things like leaving pajamas neatly folded on the child’s bed. There is no need to worry that our children will never become independent – if we put our trust in the attachment process, our kids will grow up beautifully and will eventually be more independent than their peers who were pushed into early independence. It is worthwhile to note that inviting dependence in no way precludes the important meaningful and purposeful work that we do WITH our children such as cooking soup, chopping wood, or folding laundry – these are attachment activities as they are done together with our children.
Take Responsibility for All Breaks in Connection
If a parent-child interaction leads to a child feeling hurt (crying, sulking, feeling embarrassed, anxious), the parent is responsible for doing the work of reconnection. I’ve seen parent-child interactions in which the child storms away at the end and the parent says he doesn’t have reason to apologize because the child was somehow at fault or needs to learn a lesson. The fact that the child was visibly hurt is evidence of a break in the relationship, which leads to alarm and anxiety in our children. The details don’t matter. We as parents must take responsibility for these breaks and we must act quickly to mend the relationship. Even if the child isn’t visibly hurt, but you said or did something in a moment of frustration that was meant to be hurtful, the responsibility is still yours to own up to your mistake and to reconnect with your child.
How to apologize? I simply say, “My frustration got the better of me. It wasn’t meant for you. I can handle it. I love you.” You want to convey that the relationship is forever and is strong enough to survive temporary breaks. You also want to convey that the responsibility for your feelings lies squarely with you – children are not meant to handle our feelings.
To further settle any fears of a prolonged disconnection, you can add a reference to a previously planned attachment activity (e.g., “I’m still looking forward to playing cards with you after lunch.”)
Practice Unconditional Parenting
One of the surest ways to help a child feel loved is to love him when he feels unworthy of love – love him when he breaks an expensive vase, or gets a low grade on his report card, or spills his milk. If he thinks it is his effort (good grades, keeping his room clean, etc.) that earns your love, he will be forever insecure because of the tenuous nature of the relationship. We do not need to worry about “teaching values” – our children learn our values by living in our home, by seeing how we live. What they do not always know is that even when they don’t measure up to our values, we still love them.
Many parents say things to children like, “I can’t handle this/you right now!” or “I need a break from you!” Comments like this make children feel insecure. We must always communicate that the relationship IS strong enough to take the child’s weight. When the child is being “difficult” and you are at the end of your proverbial rope, try to find the inner strength to say, “Yes, I’m feeling overwhelmed, but it’s okay. I can handle this.” Even if you are not feeling so strong, sometimes hearing the words from your own mouth will actually give you the strength you need, and, if not, at least the child hears your intention and your job is to get through the incident without damaging the relationship.
Give More than is Being Requested
This is a little-known way to fill our children’s emotional tanks:
If a child asks for a kiss, we give one on each cheek.
If a child gives us a hug, we give a big bear hug.
If a child says, “I love you,” we say, “I love you to the moon and back.”
The idea here is always to trump a child’s love for us. This same theory applies to adults as well, and perhaps is easiest to understand in that context. If a woman asks her husband if she looks pretty or if he loves her and he says yes, what has she gained emotionally? Nothing – he simply answered the question. But if he says she looks stunning or that he loves her more now than when he first met her, then she feels that the words are true and meaningful because she got more than she expected.
This is particularly problematic in today’s world of go-go parenting. Parents tend to be so busy with work and domestic chores that they “parent on demand.” They are barely able to meet the specific demands of the child, much less to get a step ahead. Giving more than is requested is not necessarily more time-consuming – a bigger hug, two kisses rather than one – these things require only nominally more effort but the result is so much greater: more relaxed, more secure, and, somewhat ironically, less demanding children.
It is my sincere hope that I’ve opened your eyes to the struggles associated with Proximity Work and that you can help your rest-LESS children become rest-FUL.
Emily Milikow lives in Israel with her husband and two young boys (4- and 7-years-old). She has a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT. When she had her first son, she felt the strong need to slow down and focus on her family. She is now Waldorf home-educating her children and is training under the developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld (“Hold On To Your Kids”) to be a parenting coach via the Neufeld Institute. Emily shares about her days at Flowing With My Ducklings.
What a great resource this article is! Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’m especially struck by the idea of giving more than is being requested. As you wrote, such a simple idea and yet I can see how it could really revolutionize relationships. I’m eager to put this into practice.
Thank you so much for these wise words! I’ll be coming back to them again and again. The proactive advice and gentle resolutions are much appreciated.
Great advice! I should have followed it on my kids when they were young and impressionable.
I am especially delighted with this article!
I have wondered at my parenting, with my son who has Down Syndrome.
I have always felt that any delays are simply delays, not an indication that he will never learn to do for himself what I have readily done for him since infancy. As he was aging, I often continued ‘inviting dependence’ because I enjoyed the process (he did, too) and because it was quicker for me that way! Imagine my pride when I saw that he was able to complete himself most of the preparations I enjoy doing for him, when he initiated his own tasks!
As one grandmother exclaimed already when he was only a couple years old: he’s very well adjusted!
We were very fortunate to have had all seven years of early childhood in much company with some strong Waldorf community settings and activities. Even with my bouts of impatience or other reasons for a break in connection, even with his speech delays, I have always marveled at his social savvy and ability to ‘read between the lines;’ I remember more than one occasion when I simply spoke what was so for myself, and he was calmed, and we were able to proceed calmly.
I can’t say enough about the wealth of information and ongoing inquiry and research and discovery that goes on, when one undertakes ‘a Waldorf education.’ I especially appreciate that the work is the basis for Camphill settings around the world, and I feel whole heartedly: what’s good for the one with ‘special needs’ is also good for you and me.
What a lovely article full of practical advice. Thank you so much for sharing this.
Thanx Emily! Great article. Cant wait to try out your suggestions :)
I stumbled upon this article at the right time. I have noticed a pattern in our life – the more fatigued I become, the more I ‘push’ my children away, the more I want them to be independent of me (just for a little while! Mommy needs a break), the more they cling to me, the more they need me.
On the other hand, the more I give, the more comfortable and relaxed they become, and less ‘clingy, needy’. It is so clear now, reading your article. Ultimately, my giving more makes us all feel better.
You have opened my eyes. I could not see that because I “need alone time” as an introvert, that makes no sense, nor should it to my daughter.
Recently, I have been sick with the stomach flu and have kept my children from seeing me so sick in the bathroom. Last night, as I was headed to throw up, my daughter said, “I know, go away.” I was horrified that was her feeling, but after reading your article I see how I let this happen, and how I can own my own feelings and give to her at the same time.
I followed your link to this from the Waldorf Early Childhood group, and found it very helpful, especially the part about giving more than requested. I have started doing this, and am appreciating the beautiful smiles I am getting in return. Sort of like “turn the other cheek” but in a more positive sense.
thank y o u !
[…] the idea of “proximity work“. Like all two year olds Owen wants my attention constantly. I of course have stuff I […]
this article has really opened my eyes. I wish I had read it 6 years ago before my daughter was born. Thank you for sharing your very wise words.
Hello Emily, I was very interested in finding out how to become a home school Waldorf teacher, did you do a Waldorf course, or did you read books about ir? I ask you because I’m a brazilian mother and where I live there are no Waldorf schools. If you have any suggestions, I’d really appreciate! Thank you
[…] whom they are primarily attached. It is the default setting for children. Go check out Bringing Our Children To Rest to get a better understanding. This post actually opened my eyes quite a […]