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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Housework from the Heart

This week, I've been continuing my research into Waldorf education. I've been reading Rahima Baldwin Dancy's You Are Your Child's First Teacher, which was recommended by my friend Cara at Green Bean Boutique. (Cara has experience as a Waldorf teacher, and she makes wonderful Waldorf toys. Her dolls are particularly charming. I finally got around to ordering a customized doll for BB from her shop, and I can't wait to see her in person!)

Some of Dancy's book has had a fairly high skim-factor -- I find I don't have a lot of patience for the anthroposophic aspects of Waldorf thinking; in particular, the convictions about spirituality and biology don't ring entirely true to me. But I've been quite interested in what she has to say about housework, and the relationship between housework and play. As a feminist and a women's studies major, I'm intrigued by how she ultimately spins a new sense of importance around so-called "women's work."

An oft-repeated theme in her book (and in Waldorf as a whole, I find) is how the context of our modern world has resulted in less than ideal situations for childrearing. Dancy finds much to regret about the contemporary situation: the pernicious influence of television, the tendency to spend too much time indoors, the sharply curtailed influence of extended family.... She also believes that, once upon a time, raising a child was much easier.

"One of the reasons raising children used to be simpler was that parents were doing work that involved movement -- washing the clothes by hand, making butter, working in the fields. Toddlers played nearby or were watched by an older sibling or relative, and began to imitate and help as soon as they were able. The idea of a thirty-seven-year-old professional being home all day with nothing but a baby to put her energy into is a uniquely modern situation. Our children do need us for the heart connection, but they don't need constant adult input and intellectual stimulation. Allowing children to be children today means recognizing their need to be in movement, their need to imitate actions, and their need for creative play, which is the work of childhood." (p. 156)

"One of the reasons that children [today] can't play [as well as they used to] is that they don't very often see the adults around them engaged in meaningful activity. Why is this? There are two main reasons. The first is that frequently the adult is spending all her time relating directly to the child....The other part of the problem is that most of the 'work' we do around the house these days more often involves pushing a button than rhythmically moving. The dishes need washing? We push the button on the dishwasher. The clothes need washing? We push the button on the washing machine.... Because young children involved in movement, they discount all these activities as meaningless." (p. 183-184)

According to Dancy, imitation is hugely important in play. Without clear, repeated, rhythmic movement to imitate (which traditional, labor-intensive housework would naturally provide) children today are left to act out scenes from television or movies. Imagination is stunted, and by implication so is the child's development. But the significance of housework goes even deeper, it seems:

"Because rhythmical activity speaks so strongly to children, it is helpful to bring conscious gestures into our household tasks such as folding clothes, sweeping floors....The children will watch, join in to help, or simply take it all in as they go about their work of playing. As busy parents, we need to realize the value of the things we do in the home and do them as conscious activities around the young child -- this could involve something as simple as peeling an apple for the child down on her little table instead of up on the counter....

Are you beginning to get a feeling for what I'm saying? It sounds like we're back at the same old stuff -- housework -- but there are two differences. One is we're doing these activities with awareness of how we move, with awareness of their beneficial effect on the young child, and with caring. The other is that we might be doing things we wouldn't ordinarily do, like sweeping, washing placemats on a scrub board, ironing, grinding grain with a hand mill.... It may sound 'quaint' but let me assure you that it beats having a whiny two-year-old or plugging another kid vid into the VCR to get her out of your hair. It's kind of like the Zen saying of "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water." By becoming conscious of our own activities, by regulating our daily lives in a harmonious, rhythmical way -- by valuing what we do around our children -- we are....helping their physical bodies to develop in as healthy a way as possible. In return, our children give us the gift of slowing down, of becoming aware of our movements and our emotions, and of appreciating the uniqueness of each moment." (p. 185)

I think there is a real danger in romanticizing the world of the past -- glorifying idyllic images of women doing things like hanging the laundry out to dry, grinding grain, making bread from scratch, or what have you. Such scenes tend to ignore the physical difficulties and realities of this work. The woman's sore back. The baby who cries longer than one would like because the task at hand could not be left unattended once begun.

Even so, Dancy has a point. I find myself thinking of when I was in college and got a notion that I should learn how to bake bread. Soon thereafter, I bought a bread machine. The bread was yummy, but it was ultimately unsatisfying to dump everything in and push a button. I wanted to know how to do it by hand, how to knead, how to judge when the mass of dough had been adequately worked, how to recognize the springy feel it develops. It was extraordinary to experience the satisfaction of punching down the dough after it rises. No machine could match it.

And yet, nice as all this sounds, no way on earth am I going to attempt making bread from scratch right now. Not while watching both the kids. BB would end up eating the cat food on the kitchen floor, BJ would be coated in flour from his enthusiastic attempts to "help," and I'd be a frazzled mess. Maybe in a few years.

I feel like a lot of the reading I've been doing lately is going to come in handy at this unspecified point in the future, this time when life as a parent of two children (who are 22 months apart) will become less crazy. Everybody I talk to about this assures me that it all gets easier after the first year. Well, we have three months left to go. I just hope they're right.


Cara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cara said...

I deleted my above comment because I needed to add part to it :P

I agree :) I skimmed a lot too, and don't like the anthrosopical (sp?) part at all. I think she may forget that there are some people who easily can work with their kids in tow... and some that just don't do it well, and either way is okay. I personally don't mind letting the babe play in flour, whereas it would make my mom totally frazzled, as you said. I like the reminder to slow down and let the kids see the process of housework.

I like how you tied it to plugging kids into the VCR because they don't have anything meaningful to imitate, and about making bread by hand.

One thing I'm much more aware of is how 'leaving my house' by ways of computer (right now!), phone, TV, or anything else negatively affects my child. I want her to play 'kitchen' and 'baby' and not crawl up to the computer chair and pretend to type ;)

Also (I'm almost done, lol) I'm glad you brought up that it's not a good idea to romanticize the times when everything was I believe that because there was less to be had, in general people were more content and we can learn from that, but not only would baby be crying for longer than necessary, but there were a lot of childhood injuries and deaths due to mom not being able to keep her eye on everyone at the same time. I'm thankful that I *can* use pre-ground flour and an electric oven to put my pizza in so that I have time to toddle after my child as she explores the outdoors.


Julie said...

I don't know that the appeal of housework (to toddlers) is all about rhythmic movement. I think it's as much a chance to be involved in the household. My son LOVES to put clothes into the dryer, or take them out. He likes to sweep, play like he's cleaning. Or sometimes put the silverware away.

My husband recently told him that picking up his toys is his job in the house. He liked this idea quite a bit.

And of course he likes it because it involves movement, but I don't think that's it entirely. He likes being part. And it is a reminder that I don't have to wait until my DH comes to do some stuff that needs to get done. (Just because it's easier that way.)

I can let him help, even if it takes longer to do.

Jen said...

It's interesting to me that sweeping the floor has come up as an example so many times... several times in Dancy's book, in another conversation with a friend about this, and now in Julie's comment. Maybe it's the proximity to Halloween and all the witches' brooms, but there really does seem to be something archetypal about the work of sweeping the floor. And of course it is a classic example of rhythmic movement.

I think it's the element of movement itself, not necessarily the rhythmical nature, that really struck me about all this. Sure, that's not all that's going on here, but every time I've successfully involved BJ in work around the house, it's because I've found something specific and *active* for him to do as a way to take part. And if it's repetitive (rhythmic) that seems to work even better.

You're absolutely right, Julie, that they love being part, and I think that's really important too.

Personally, I like the idea of trying to do housework with intentionality, rather than just rushing or drudging through it. The link to a Zen approach is quite appropriate, to my way of thinking.

Cara, I really like your point about ways in which one can virtually 'leave the house' and the impact that can have. Though I have to say, I don't have too much of an issue with letting BJ type at the computer. I count it as screen time, so he doesn't do lots of it, but he gets a real kick out of doing the alphabet by typing it out in a word processing program. And sometimes Mommy just needs those 10 minutes of quiet, ya know ;-)

Cara said...

Oh yeah, I hear ya :) But for Hannah, who's 13 months, she doesn't need to be typing at the computer. And she needs to see me doing things other than 'screen time'. I struggle with self control on the computer if you can't tell ;)

Have you considered making a felt/flannel board for BJ? I'm making one for Hannah and last night as I was cutting out my vowels I thought that he'd just love one :D Hannah's young, but we're having a good time anyway.


Jen said...

Oooh, I hear that -- struggling to keep off the computer. I mean, seriously, how many times must one check email in a day????

You read my mind about the felt board! I'm planning on making one for a christmas gift for the boy. Haven't done it before, but I'm thinking it's something I could handle. Do you have any tips?

Cara said...

I'll post on my blog as I go along. Not really any tips yet. Seems fairly straightforward :) You have impulse control... I never wait for holidays to give gifts :o)

Julie B said...

Jen- My girls are 17 months apart..I sooo understand the craziness! It did get easier after the first year in many ways, but I am honestly still waiting for the craziness to die down :)
I have been enjoying your posts on Waldorf, as I am currently trying to research it as well!