This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, May 2004
How do we regard illness in our families? Do we respond with an arsenal of medicines and potions, moving quickly to get rid of whatever it is that is making our child ill, or do we view illness as a time to take stock, to slow down and to trust the healing process?
I’m not saying don’t do anything when your child’s ill. What I am suggesting is that we each take a moment to scrutinize our attitude toward ill health and to ascertain whether we regard it as basically a negative thing or a positive thing. Is illness a failure of wellness, or is an opportunity for wellness to be enhanced, strengthened?
Once upon a time, children were expected to have a range of illnesses in the course of growing up and time was allowed for the healing process. One spoke of bed rest, of convalescence, of slowly regaining health. Of course, in days past, many children died during their early years - but let’s recognize that the majority of those deaths were in families stricken by poverty, overcrowding, poor nutrition and hygiene. And, of course, there were those children with conditions easily addressed nowadays, whether by conventional or alternative medicine, who were considered ‘incurable’ in earlier times.
My point is: that illness was regarded as a basic part of childhood and that there was a recognition that once health was regained, the child was stronger and healthier than he had been before he was ill. It is this point that I wish to focus on because I feel that it has been largely lost in our society.
Now, whether one thinks that vaccinations are all bad, all good, somewhere in between; and whether one stands on one side or the other on a similar spectrum with regard to antibiotics, the fact is that there is a tendency in modern pediatric medicine toward more vaccinations and increased use of antibiotics. Only in very, very recent years has mainstream medicine begun to reluctantly acknowledge the dangers of overuse of antibiotics. But no such disquiet regarding the every-increasing cocktail of vaccinations or the unknown result of vaccines plus antibiotics plus environmental toxins exists.
What is the empirical data? What can we laypeople observe in terms of the general health of children in countries such as the United States? Do the legions of overweight, attention-disordered, allergy-ridden children assure us that we’re generally on the right track? I don’t think so.
We live in a quick fix society. We want our children healthy and we want it NOW! Got a sore throat? Take some antibiotics - zip!! It’s gone. Parents don’t have time to deal with chicken pox? Here’s a new shot - zip!! No chicken pox. Child’s restless, having problems at school? Here have a bottle of pills.
But what if repeated use of antibiotics causes other problems? What if doctors don’t know yet all there is to know about the effects of chicken pox vaccines? (and what if some do? ) What if Ritalin and other drugs - Prozac seems to be getting pretty popular amongst schoolchildren (supplied by the legit drug pushers, not necessarily the illegal ones) - cause addictions and severe problems such as an increased risk of suicide.
Raising a child takes time. There are no shortcuts. Children need time to be children and, in order to be children, they need uninterrupted time to play, create, explore, daydream - to just be. They also need time to sleep and they need time to heal when they are ill. When parents are stressed, overworked and rushed these ‘child needs’ are, at best, an inconvenience. At worst, they are problems that need fixing.
Important things happen to a child when she is ill. One way of understanding this is appreciating that the child’s immune system gets a workout. If fevers and infections, for instance, are always suppressed, then the immune system doesn’t get a chance to go into action, to be strengthened.
This doesn’t mean don’t do anything! It means don’t suppress illness. It means find gentle ways to support the child’s healing process and to help strengthen him. And, above all, it means to make time for children to be ill and to heal.
One of the greatest gifts that Waldorf education gives to us parents is an understanding of children which is, in essence, a health-enhancing one. Waldorf education is concerned with the child’s health, whether it be physical, emotional or mental. The gentle unfolding of the young child and the insistence that children not be rushed through childhood is or prime importance. Especially in the early years, before the child turns seven, the emphasis is on strengthening and enhancing the child’s growth: this is why early intellectualism is frowned upon. By turning attention to intellectual development, energy which should be going into a healthy physical development is diverted. The result is a weakening of the child, though this may not be apparent until later in adult life.
Having said that, I can appear to slide into a ‘well, it’s too late now’ approach, one which I actually reject. It’s never too late and one can take the time to remediate a child’s early intellectualism in later years. Artistic activity, free creative play, rhythmic body movement (such as traditional children’s games) are all helpful. Key is the phrase taking the time, for it’s all too easy to rush children through their childhoods, gearing them up for the rat race which our society calls normal.
While considering this aspect of time, let us remember the rhythmic quality which is essential to a healthy relationship to time. Breathing in, breathing out, now active, now receptive - a healthy rhythm sustains us. All living things on this Earth have their own rhythms and one of our greatest tasks is to create a rhythm which nourishes our family life. As Rahima Baldwin, in You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, puts it: “One of our main tasks as parents is to bring our children into rhythm”. Patterns of sleep and wakefulness, of outer activity and inner activity, of mealtimes, chore times, and of larger, seasonal and festive rhythms create meaningful and, ultimately, healthy forms for our children.
For those interested in creating healthy rhythms in their families, especially those with younger children, I recommend Rahima Baldwin’s book as well as Shea Darien’s Seven Times the Sun. In addition, Bons Voors and Gudrun Davy have edited a wonderful book called Lifeways: Working with Family Questions. This book has many helpful chapters about creating healthy family lives and the chapters on anthroposophical ways of working with the Christian festivals will be of interest to some people.