Parenting in a Time of Dengvaxia

The other day, a friend of mine who is a mother of two just like me told me that she visited a chartered public school located in her district in Northern California. She was on the lookout for an alternative school for her five-year-old in case he didn’t win the lottery to get into their local Waldorf school. This chartered school was supposed to be more enlightened than other public schools.

She sat in on a class for six-year-olds. As the class settled down to begin the day, the teacher said, “Take out your iPads/tablets and we will do some exercises.”

My friend’s heart sank. As she watched the children turn their tablets on, she felt as though something inside her died. “Is this where most of the world is heading?”, she thought to herself. Luckily, her son was accepted in the Waldorf school they applied to.

In a nutshell, Waldorf education is “an education for the head, heart and hands.” I’ve slowly been learning about it because my four-year-old son is enrolled in the Early childhood program of Baguio’s only Waldorf school, Balay Sofia. Here, the thrust of education isn’t about academics alone, or merely to ensure your child become “successful” in the world. Instead, the child and his or her capacities are the focus, and so aside from academics, children develop their innate gifts and learn about values in an experiential way that respects their stage of development. As a result, my son not only gets a lot of playtime with his classmates, but he also has a sense of the rhythm of life. He knows how to chop carrots, knead bread, climb a tree. Give his classmates and him a garden, or a few sticks and stones, and they can create hours of imaginative, creative play.

Through storytelling and songs, he also has a sense of life’s meaningful nature. One evening only a few months ago, he cut a lot of white and green paper into very small pieces, like confetti. He then proceeded to tell me a story about the changing of the seasons, illustrated by the falling of leaves. He told the story and scattered the confetti leaves with a sense of total calm and quiet confidence. The story may not even have taken a minute, but I was deeply touched by it.

At Waldorf schools, parents are encouraged not to give their children screen time or gadgets until they are 12 years old. Why? So that the children are allowed to unfold as their unique selves. Not to conform to society, but to contribute something new to it. This poses a gargantuan challenge to the modern parent.

When I was a kid, things were much simpler. We had a TV in our house, a massive wooden affair with sliding doors that covered the screen and could be locked shut. With the doors shut, the TV looked like another piece of furniture, a deeper than usual sidetable on which you could place books, pictures, a potted plant. When my father discovered that my nanny allowed me to watch noontime shows with her when I got home from kindergarten, he handed down a directive that stayed in place until I moved out of the house at the age of 21: the children of the household were not allowed to watch any TV from Monday to Friday. We could only watch on the weekends. Our weekends were usually devoted to ballet class, football practice, homework, and other extra curricular activities, so the most we could watch was Saturday Fun Machine or the Earnest Angeley Hour. (Yes, we were that desperate. No offense to Rev. Angeley’s fans.) My father was no Waldorf dad, but he knew in his gut that TV didn’t earn the moniker “idiot box” for nothing.

Not watching TV during the weekdays was something we quickly got used to. Aside from school, I devoted my time to after school clubs and hobbies such as drawing, baking, and singing. I was a total bookworm and during my lunchbreak I was usually found in the school library. I enjoyed spending hours just lying on my bed, staring into space, and daydreaming. In high school, I was devoted to the cheerleading team. In college, I was into musical theater. I could never win a trivia quiz devoted to local pop culture, but I had the chance to discover my voice and express my creativity.

My mom kept a radical maxim taped to her mirror during my entire childhood: “Find out what you love to do, and someone will pay you to do it.” This was radical because most of my friends were being forced into careers like Law or Medicine by their parents. My parents were not “hippie dippy”, but they practiced their own brand of progressiveness, or what we might call today conscious parenting. Aside from the TV rule, many things were not allowed to cross the threshold of our home: bacon, food that contained food coloring, additives and preservatives, soft drinks, junk food (except ice cream). Mom made her own corned beef. Our nanny baked bread and cakes and was a divine cook. (On the other hand, I was allowed to devour all of the books in my dad’s shelves.) Perhaps you could say we grew up in a pretty wholesome household. Added to which, we were given the conditions and impetus to unfold and develop as naturally as possible, within the parameters of what my parents knew to be true.

Parents today face a much greater challenge. There are hundreds of cable channels on TV, and most of them are on for 24 hours. With smartphones, we carry screens in our pockets, with the whole worldwide range of what is healthy and unhealthy made available to us with one click. Add to the mix Netflix, social media and a gazillion apps for every need or want. I am not anti-technology, but the ease at which the world becomes available to us, if not properly monitored or moderated, could be a veritable Pandora’s box of dis-ease.

Recently I noticed my own dependence on the smart phone, and I decided to do something about it. No, I did not quit Facebook. At night, after putting the kids to sleep, I would put my phone away and pick up a book. Holding a real book in my hand calmed me down in a way reading a book on my Kindle never could. With book in hand I entered another zone, another vibration. My imagination awakened once more, and it became a salve to an unnamed discontent I felt in my heart. In a dark room, a candle was lit.

Now it is summertime and we are visiting relatives. I do not forbid my children from watching Netflix on my brother’s phone, nor complain when I see my son playing video games on his cousin’s iPad. But I look forward to returning to Baguio tomorrow, back to our home and our rules of no video games, and TV time only on weekends. I am glad that I find myself in between book projects, for I plan to fill our days with nature walks, ballet and karate classes, baking, cooking, arts and crafts, running aimlessly across Camp John Hay’s soccer field.

I also want my kids to experience being bored. Maybe I’ll lie on the carpet with them and we can stare at the ceiling together and make up stories. I want my kids to experience who they are without the external noise and impositions of TV shows and video games, to nurture the brilliant, shining lights that they are. Panjee Tapales, a veteran Waldorf mom, told a group of Baguio parents and me that, “Conscious parenting is an act of constant striving.” There is no such thing as a perfect parent, but as we walk the learning curve of parenthood we must remember that we have the power of choice, and that we have the power to change. With all the love in our hearts, we learn to say “no” to the things that do not serve the good of our children, and say “yes!” to the things that will allow them to blossom into their authentic selves. Perhaps, with a little luck and a whole lot of love, they will feel free to be who they truly are, and create a better world than we could ever have imagined.