Less is More, by Joya Birns & Cindy Brooks

Less Is More

by Joya Birns and Cindy Brooks

The wonder of young children is that they can be happy with what looks to an adult like doing “nothing!”  They innately find interest in the most common things, which we adults often bypass.  When taking a walk, a young child is not trying to “get to” a destination.  She is taking each step, enjoying everything on the way with a sense of wonder and delight.[1]  A snail slowly crawling on a leaf, an anthill buzzing with activity, a flitting butterfly or a shiny stone can each bring the utmost joy.  To adults, more invested in thoughts and ideas or in achieving goals and results, the child’s process can seem like wasting time.  Yet the child is engaged in the profoundly important task of discovering all there is to know of life on earth!

It is very healthy for the child when a parent allows time and space for these endless-seeming, “tiny” discoveries, and when the adult’s responses to a child’s meanderings are valuing and encouraging.  The child’s capacity for wonder and discovery is an internal directive to take in the great big world gradually, in child-sized bites.  Just as the bones, muscles, organs, and nervous, rhythmic/circulatory and digestive systems take many years to fully develop, so is it with making our way into the vast world of creatures, plants, objects and people.  

Patience is a virtue, as the old adage goes.  It may be the most-needed virtue for parents and caregivers of young children!  Since a young child lives from her internal directive to explore the world, she needs safe, healthy, child-friendly spaces where she can explore to her heart’s content, with little (if any) interruption.  Babies explore their bodily parts right from the start, beginning with their eyes, as they learn to track movement, and with their hands, as they discover opening and closing, and eventually through their whole body, as they gradually relax into full extension.  Early reflexes and primal movements help the infant learn to inhabit the body and to discover its many possibilities!  These are crucial milestones.  These simple experiences take much time and are interrupted or derailed when well-intentioned but uninformed adults interfere by placing toys in the baby’s hand or rolling the baby over, rather than allowing the child’s movement experiences to come from his or her own innate wisdom.[2]

As children learn to speak, the questions come fast and furious!  However, what the child is usually asking for underneath the stream of questions is: “Do you love me?”  “Am I important to you?”  “Am I safe?”  Young children need love and warm interest far more than information.  They have the need for our intimate attention….presence…more than anything else!  Our attuned attention gives them a sense of security and the feeling of being loved, which help them develop a healthy sense of self. 

Too many words are confusing to the young child.  Children’s minds are certainly growing, but their thinking is still primitive and imaginative, not abstract and logical like ours.  Since the modus operandum of early childhood is imitation, what – who – and how we adults are carries more influence than any object or fact we might offer them.  If we can give them loving attention and interest, repeatedly, much of the time when they are seeking it, we can help them settle into knowing that they are safe and the world is good.  This is the most significant learning that a young child can achieve.  If a young child learns this, she will have the strongest possible foundation for life![3]

Another internal directive is movement.  Young children are constantly in movement, not because they are restless, nervous or distressed, but because the young child’s body is in a constant state of growing.  Growth of the physical body and sensory-motor integration are the tasks of the young child, and these processes keep young children incessantly active!  Learning to walk, for example, is a necessary milestone which arises as the brain’s two hemispheres begin to align and work together.  The sense of balance is forming, centered in the inner ear, supporting the child’s oscillations towards uprightness.  The bones are growing larger and finding balance on left and right sides.  There is such complexity in the physical development of the young child, and it requires a lot of movement!  Allowing young children the space and freedom to move is as important to their growth as breastmilk, nutritious food, physical and emotional warmth, fresh air and pure water!

Movement is also necessary for young children because they learn really only (and always) through imitation and doing.  A parent’s actions are real influences for the young child.  Relating to your child primarily through doing is like speaking his language: it helps the child feel that he belongs on earth, that life on earth makes sense and that the world of earth is good.  Here again less is more!  Relating through doing might involve letting the child join in the household tasks (sweeping, mopping, setting the table, bringing dishes to the sink, cutting flowers for the table) or providing child-sized implements so that the child can imitate the parent’s movements as housework is accomplished.  Relating through doing can also include playing together inside or outside, entering and enjoying the child’s fantasy play world, taking a walk at the child’s pace, playing together in water, playing movement games appropriate to the child’s age (such as body geography games, peek-a-boo, or pat-a-cake), or walking rhythmically and saying nursery rhymes together.

The period of early childhood is so important!  All our patterns of sensory-motor life, our sense of self, our picture of relationships, and the structure of our inner world (our core beliefs, feelings and behavioral patterns—what in psychology are called the “complexes”) are being established at this time.  It is the modeling of parents, caregivers and teachers, as well as the environment surrounding the child, which form the physical, emotional, mental and relational patterns of a lifetime.  This is why these years are called the formative years.  

There are two essential goals for parenting in these early years:

            (1) To surround the child with goodness

            This gives the child his first encounter with your values and your guidance for his moral development.  You can do this in many ways, including how you think about the child, how you move, your voice tone, your touch, and also by providing frequent experiences of wonder, reverence and awe. 

            (2) To instill healthy habits of doing

            Instilling healthy habits of doing by modeling and through loving authority is the means by which you can teach all the important habits and moral values that young children need to learn: patience, tolerating frustration, sharing, empathy and caring for others, self-regulation, creative problem-solving, self-mastery and self-responsibility.

Less is more also applies as we consider how to surround the young child with goodness and instill healthy habits of doing.  To do this doesn’t require expensive toys or outings—and, in fact, such things may interfere with what we seek.  Less is more helps in parenting young children because the key to healthy development is to focus on who you are, how you move and speak, what you think and feel, and above all on self-regulation, rather than on providing innumerable and sophisticated toys or all the latest technological gadgets to entertain the child.  Instead, give the young child a wooden spoon, some sand and water and sit down to play!

Less is more here again because another internal directive for the young child comes in the form of imagination. When allowed free rein as the child is discovering the world, imagination helps develop plasticity in the brain and maneuverability in the body, as well as richness in the child’s inner world and creativity in problem-solving and social relationships.  A child’s ability to transform a spoon into a bird or a pile of beach sand into a castle is what becomes flexible thinking, resourcefulness, openness and tolerance in relating, and creativity–in childhood and far ahead into adulthood.  A young child’s capacity for free imaginative play becomes the power of the adult to think outside the box, to overcome challenges, to sort things out and move through life with confidence and positivity.  So give your child the gift of a lifetime: slow down, tune in, be present, and discover the magic of the early years!  To do this will very likely be a boon to your stress-filled soul, and it will surely lay the strongest possible foundation for your child’s future life![4]


Cindy Brooks is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC33496) and graduate of the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training.  She combines the insights of Anthroposophy with those of depth psychology and neuroscience in her work as a therapist and parent educator.  She has been working as a therapist with children and families for more than 20 years.                                                Joya Birns is a Waldorf educator and mentor with fifteen years’ experience as a Waldorf kindergarten and handwork teacher.  She has been facilitating parent groups in Waldorf communities for 30 years.  Together they are the authors of Parenting with Spirit: A Path of Loving Authority and Discovering Joy in Parenting: The First Seven Years.   For more information see www.inspiredfamilylife.com.

[1] Unless, of course, the child is distressed and reacting out of inner needs and wants.

[2] See Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect.

[3] Neuroscientists have discovered that attuned caregiving of young children “hardwires” the right hemisphere of the brain in the first years of life, and that this vertical integration of the right hemisphere establishes the foundation for a lifetime of physical and psychological health.  (See the authors’ Discovering Joy in Parenting: The First Seven Years.)

[4] For further support in parenting young children, see the authors’ Discovering Joy in Parenting: The First Seven Years, available from LifeWays or Inspired Family Life.