Polarities and choices in early childhood
Towards the end of the year, many of our children are well into a different phase of the early childhood journey. At this time, we witness different changes in their behaviour within themselves and with each other. Sometimes, parents are alerted by this change and find themselves wondering what has happened and why their child acts in a way they haven’t experienced before.
To help us understand these childhood phases and find ways to smooth the transition between them we need to understand a few fundamental forces that influence our young children’s growth and behaviours.
Rudolf Steiner has helped us see how it is the will which must develop first and be the anchor. Without the integration of thinking and feeling with action and deed, a truly moral and responsive adult cannot emerge.
The definition of will is:
“(n) impulse to act; conscious adoption of a line of action”. It can be both unconscious and conscious. The definition of impulse is a “sudden strong urge to action; tendency to act at once without deliberation”, quite the opposite of a conscious line of action which is defined as ‘knowing and aware’.
Early childhood is a time where fundamental polarity of the will can be strongly evident.
You can understand the concept using the following image. The Little Self is the basic, instinctive pole of self-focus, self- protection and reaction that we all begin with (the ‘Lower Self’, the animal/nature pole) and the Big Self is the evolved, uniquely human, conscious, mindful, higher intelligence (The Higher Self, the spiritual form of will) which has self-control and is able to selflessly act for the good of the whole.
A Little Self is primarily urge and action plus desire.
Let’s look at the urge or drive which is unstoppable from the moment the children wake till the moment they go to sleep. It is unconscious and learns only through experience. The body builds its knowledge through imitation and repetition of the actions and responses of others. Its job is simply to go, either towards something that is attractive (in sympathy) or away from something that is repulsive (in antipathy). It is connected to the primitive reflexes of the hindbrain, the fight-or-flight reactions of the cerebellum. The body does not do complex reasoning. It ‘reads’ the experience perfectly, without words, and adjusts. It learns to recognise what is safe and unsafe. It can act on its own in emergencies to get the child to safety or it can be directed by the feelings or thinking.
The urge to act is a power you can imagine as a horse that needs a rider. In early childhood there is no rider yet. The ‘true child’ is coming slowly and arriving bit by bit. Current brain research shows that the brain is not adult (Big Self) until after the age of 21, as Steiner described.
Desire is unconscious, self-focused and self-serving. Its job is to never be satisfied. It simply wants (out of sympathy) or doesn’t want (out of antipathy) and it cares about nothing but itself. Because its nature is to never be satisfied. The child whose desires are always indulged is often discontented.
With the development of each of the three abilities of action, feeling and thinking there is always first a stage of ‘making it one’s own’. This is the ‘me’ phase and is most strong about 2 years into each 7-year cycle of development, after which the child begins to gradually accommodate others. The 2 year-old is the classic Little Self. The 9 year-old is the 2 year-old of the emotional development phase (7-14 years) and the adolescent is the 2 year-old of the thinking development phase (14-21 years).
Each of these ‘me’ nodes are crisis and transition points with the behaviour being classically Little Self each time.
Little Self is very reactive and cannot put others before itself. It says ‘you hit me… I hit you back’. Big Self on the other hand is fully conscious and aware of its actions. It can discern weigh, judge, defer, give and share. It has self-control, overview (the big picture) and its thinking, emotions and actions are all communicating to each other and are integrated. Big Self says ‘you hit me… but I choose to not hit you back’
Only around the age of 3.5 years we can see the appearance of reasoning. As the child grows and the ‘true child’ or ‘baby adult’ tries to arrive and ride the horse, there is always a struggle between these two ‘self ‘.
What we see often at this time of the year is the polarities struggle. One minute the friends will fight and another minute they will happily play together.
How can we help? What position do we need to take to support the emerging ‘Big Self’?
We need to put emphasis on positive reinforcement when we see cooperation, sharing, turn taking, including, stopping aggressive reaction and verbally expressing feelings. We need to encourage by saying “I know you can stop your hands from hitting. Next time you will do it”, “What else could you do?” We need to show compassion for the victim and much less attention to the offender. We can be close enough but hold back from reacting ourselves. It might be solved between them alone.
In kindy we are witness to beautiful acts of friendship and also acts of the ‘Little Self’ and we navigate and guide the children gently through them.