Loving Authority

Barbara Bedingfield
Suncoast Waldorf Kinderhaus

We are very grateful to the Tampa Bay New Times for granting us permission to reprint "Loving Authority." It is an outstanding presentation of the role of loving discipline in the healthy development of our children. We thank Barbara Bedingfield for giving us all this rock-solid guidepost to parenting and understanding the true needs of children.

Bob and Nancy

A provocative talk given recently by Dr. Ted Machler of Clearwater lamented "the near death of civility" as evidenced, among other things, by the decline of courtesy, loyalty, service, competence, volunteerism, community, quality and charitable giving. He critiqued institutions from the church to the IRS and noted that we've become a world of technicians, rather than humans, seeking entitlements, power, affluence and status. Dr. Machler lay the blame on a modern-day pride and prejudice -- a pervasive egotism that centers on one's self and lacks care and consideration for the other.

Babies are the absolute centers of their world. They want what they want, when they want it, and they have the lung power to send parents scurrying around to satisfy their every desire. No one would argue that we must attend to the needs of these helpless and beautiful little beings but, gradually, parents must assume the role of helping a child to become less self-centered. When parents fail to do this, a child will naturally continue to make demands and seek instant gratification, qualities that are perfectly acceptable in babies, but out of place and unbecoming in the young child.

Modern parents are hesitant to accept the difficult role of "loving authority." Fearful that they may break the child's spirit, they give in rather than holding the child to what is right. This non-authoritarian style of child-rearing makes for weak children and, according to John Gardner in Reflections on Discipline, "leaves them prey to unworthy cravings and fears that weaken their moral fiber." "Those who always get their way, whose whims are always catered to, will later on be cowed by the smallest challenge," states Dr. Albert Soesman in The Twelve Senses.

When the child asks a question, parents feel compelled to answer in the moment, never allowing the "painful" experience of waiting to occur. Thus, a child may interrupt any conversation and gain attention right away. Should the child want a treat, it gets one immediately. If the child does not want to wear a jacket on a cold day, parents give in, assuming the child knows best. Bedtimes, which should be as regular as the setting sun, occur when the child is ready. A bedtime ritual which should be short and sweet turns into a marathon of book reading at the child's insistence. Very particular and often very peculiar eating habits are developed. Children need to feel the boundaries of their existence and they unconsciously yearn for predictability but, instead, are given far too many choices, far too early in life: "Are you ready to go?" "Are you sleepy?" "What do you want to wear today?" "Shall we take a bath?" "What story do you want?"

In my kindergarten class I help guide the children away from their self-centeredness in ways that are to them unconscious, but are simply part of the natural flow of the day. There are no mirrors. We want the children looking out into their small world, not focusing on themselves as individuals. We refrain from talking about the children in their presence. We don't put them on parade. Their innocence and their unselfconsciousness is guarded for as long as possible.

When the children paint, no emphasis is placed on the end product, but rather on the enjoyment of the clear, shining colors of the watercolor paints and their qualities: "Blue is sad and loves to be alone." "Red is so strong!" "Yellow makes everyone happy." We don't display the pictures, but collect them to give to the parents several times a year.

We don't heap artificial praise on the children, but rather lead them to do meaningful work -- sewing, cleaning up, working with wood, setting the table -- that gives them a strong sense of accomplishment and builds genuine self esteem.

We gently hold them to what is right with simple, but firm words: "We sit at the table until everyone has finished." "We all listen to the story." The sense of being part of a social group that is carried by the predictable routines of the day in a rhythmical way is a very strong force for the children. They happily accept this.

The children learn that they will not always get what they want in the moment -- their favorite colored ribbon around the maypole, the chance to play the kinderharp at rest time, the freedom to chat while the story is being told, the teacher's immediate attention. From this they grow strongly into selfless individuals who can wait their turn, listen to others and do what is expected.

We strive to foster a sense of gratitude in the children, not by talking to the children about this inner quality, but by nurturing it in ourselves. Children imitate not only our adult actions, but our feelings and thoughts as well. When I enter the classroom, grateful to be with the children who have come to me, this sense of gratitude permeates all that I do from the lighting of a candle, to the telling of a story, to the singing of a song, to the baking of bread. I can smile inwardly at each of their different temperaments, thoroughly enjoying this one's boisterousness, that one's quiet shyness, this one's flightiness. Yet I know that I must rouse myself to "bring them up in the way that they must go."

The world today is filled with egotism, a characteristic that produces greed, selfishness, vanity, pride, ill manners, and a lack of consideration for others. We can work against this egotism by first recognizing it in ourselves and then by gathering the courage and will to steer our children away from its influence with our "loving strictness."


Barbara Bedingfield holds a Master's degree in early childhood education and has had special training in Waldorf methods. Working with the non-profit Suncoast Waldorf Association for the past seven years, she is kindergarten teacher for the Suncoast Waldorf Kinderhaus in Clearwater, Florida (which opened in September 1998). (727) 532-0696