Unfolding Childhoods Magic
An Interview with Joseph Chilton Pearce
Issue: Fall 2004, HEALTH IN THE WORKPLACE - Issue #38
Joseph Chilton Pearce is a renowned educator and author. His third book, Magical Child, has been in print continuously since 1977. Altogether, he has written seven books, co-authored an eighth, and produced a number of articles. All but his second book are still in print. The most recent is The Biology of Transcendence.
The interview was conducted by Polly Giantonio. Polly was introduced to Chilton Pearce as a young mother when she read Magical Child. The book strongly influenced her decision to homeschool her two children, ages 13 and 16.
LILIPOH: What got you interested in child development and education?
JCP: In Magical Child I wrote about that—how my very young pre-school son learned to play the piano quickly and easily, sitting in my lap—to the point that by age five he was considered quite precocious and was studying with an excellent pianist. His mother, however, was concerned that he would become “one-sided” if he went on being completely absorbed in music and insisted that he attend school and learn to read and write. We put him in a small private school, and within a few months his freely-expressed musical facility began to falter. Little by little his coordination between the hands was not as good, nor his sight reading. Even his perfect pitch declined, and by age seven he had lost much of that original spontaneous capacity. To find out why this happened was one stimulus that led me to an in-depth study of children’s development.
LILIPOH: And you learned something about the current education system, as well, I would guess?
JCP: Yes. Although individual teachers are working wonders in spite of all the insanity, by and large the system is in shambles. Preparing children for the work force kills the spirit and doesn’t meet any matrix-model needs. Research clearly shows that the state in which a learning is presented is what is learned, primarily. Subject matter comes later, if at all. If a learning state is one of anxiety, what will be learned first and foremost is the anxiety. Below our awareness, our system will be reluctant to retrieve whatever other learning takes place.
LILIPOH: Could you explain matrix-model needs?
JCP: The notion of matrix is central. Our lifelong development is a series of matrices through which we move. The prime matrix is the mother, of course, and if the growing child is provided a corresponding matrix at each stage of development, you can’t keep that child’s brain from learning, growing, expanding. In the safe-space of a true matrix a child can use all its life energy for the subjects at hand, easily absorbing and learning that which is appropriate to his or her age.But if there is no assurance of safety, the child must use a good portion of its energy in defense mechanisms, which divides the mind, splits attention. So first and foremost, Waldorf education aims at providing children with a safe space where they know they belong and are welcomed, wanted, and safe—the ideal learning situation.
At each new stage of development, the child’s brain-mind is prepared for and ready to absorb the new potentials appropriate to that stage of growth, and if appropriate models for those potentials are given in a safe space, learning is automatic, spontaneous and natural.
LILIPOH: Could you say a bit more about the stages?
JCP: Life begins with three critical matrix periods: the nine months in the womb, the nine months in what is called the “in-arms period” following birth; and the ninth to eighteenth month we refer to as the “toddler period.” In these three periods nature establishes the foundation on which all future life is built. The quality, character, and nature of the first two matrices are determined by the mother, and the third by family and cultural influences. Together these matrix-models determine the quality, character and nature of the infant brain-mind that emerges and life that follows.
LILIPOH: How does this connect with education?
JCP: The larger seven-year cycles, as outlined by both Rudolph Steiner and Jean Piaget connect very importantly. In the first seven-year stage the child has one foot in the ethereal world, as Steiner calls it, and one in the physical. Piaget referred to the “child of the dream.” Given a safe space and potentials appropriate to that ethereal-dreaming child, a proper foundation for all life unfolds. However, a tremendous shift occurs in brain-mind and body between the sixth and seventh year, and the matrix and models must shift accordingly.
Steiner speaks of the six-to-seven- year-old child “coming down fully” into the physical world and body. Piaget spoke of this period as a time of “concrete operational logic,” the capacity to enter fully into the material world, build appropriate mental “structures of knowledge” of that world, and play with and in it. The potentials change but the need of appropriate matrix remains.
LILIPOH: And are the schools providing that?
JCP: That’s what Waldorf schools do provide at this critical six-seven-year shift and on into maturity: the safe space, and appropriate models and environment to express the unlimited potential’s unfolding. It’s in the very structure of the Waldorf curriculum because Steiner realized the nature of matrices in development.
LILIPOH: And the key difference between this approach and the conventional?
JCP: Steiner insisted we should leave abstract learning until children are older because they need hand, heart, and mind involved in concrete, actual, living processes, such as music, in the early years, and even more so from around age seven to eleven. Steiner and Piaget both insisted that we let those capacities unfold freely.
LILIPOH: As you were doing with your son?
JCP: Yes. To force abstract numbers and letters on children prematurely, as our culture has been intent on doing, doesn’t work and carries a tremendous social and individual price; the child may lose those gifts and talents designed to unfold in that early period. Forcing children into a learning situation outside or beyond the developmental period they are actually going through makes those new capacities threatening to them. We say, “Oh, it’s a challenge.” But there is a great difference between a challenge and a threat. When a new possibility is within the child’s stage and grasp, but demands the utmost from them, a full output of effort and persistence, that is a challenge. Demanding they respond to an abstract subject when they are still in the concrete stage of physical doing, such learning can be a genuine threat. They aren’t “wired for it” yet. If you honor the child’s development stage, as Steiner insisted and Waldorf does, learning is a spontaneous, joyful, and happy experience. It is play.
LILIPOH: In Magical Child, you spoke often of the intelligence of the heart. You gave examples of mothers who were seldom separated from their infants and pointed to the unspoken communication between them and to the benefits for the developing infant/child.
JCP: If I had known, when I wrote Magical Child, what I know now, I would have expanded on this a great deal. Rudolph Steiner prophesied that the greatest discovery of 20th century science would be that the heart is not just a pump, but profoundly more than that, and that the great challenge of our species following this discovery would be to allow the heart to teach us to think in a new way. He said the heart would lead us into a new form of thought, a new dimension of mind, and to achieve life’s next level of evolution in so doing.
LILIPOH: To what extent is it accepted that the heart is more than a pump?
JCP: Today, the field of neuro-cardiology is exploring the neural component or “brain” in the heart. Its work, along with the discovery of important endocrine functions of the heart, is well recognized. Less well accepted, but even more exciting and profound in its implications, is the discovery that the heart is a powerful electromagnetic generator, producing a threefold hierarchy of electromagnetic fields connected to our physical, emotional and universal nature.
LILIPOH: Could you say more about the last of those, and about this idea in general?
JCP: The work of cellular biologist Bruce Lipton, combined with research at The Institute of Heart Math, as well as the earlier work of Whittleston at the University of Adelaide, has shown that among many factors the close association of the infant in the womb with the mother’s heart is the primary means by which the genetic system of the new embryo gets its instructions for the preliminary structures it must make, such as forming the fetus’ body and brain, and its own heart. The mother’s heart and its electromagnetic field is critical to all aspects of the womb as matrix.
Now we find that following birth, the infant must have continual reinforcement of its own heart from the mother’s heart, one of the major justifications for the “in-arms” period that characterizes those first nine months after birth. The stabilizing influence of her electromagnetic field, as well as her heart’s sound waves and other heart signals, are as critical to the infant’s development as all the better known stimuli we can easily observe following birth.
LILIPOH: Breastfeeding keeps the child within this field then, doesn’t it?
JCP: Indeed it does. The English Nobel laureate in ethology, Nicolas Tinbergen, was puzzled why, among all the mammals, the human was designed to feed about every 20 minutes in the early weeks after birth, and with gradually diminishing frequency throughout at least the first nine months. We know now that nurturing involves far more than just food. In laboratories, with brain- and heart-wave monitors on both infant and mother, when infant and mother are in immediate proximity, their heart-brain frequencies go into entrainment, into sync. There’s a single matched-frequency phase, a harmonious, tranquil state. When separated for a time, both mother and infant go into a state of stress, wherein their heart-brain frequencies go into an incoherent mode detrimental to the infant’s neural and emotional growth, and the mother’s emotional state—and if prolonged, even her health. This raises the issue of the critical need the child has for frequent physical touch and interaction.
Recently, an article appeared about an English primary school where the students had all been instructed in physical massage. When they spent a few minutes each day massaging each other’s shoulders, neck and arms, not only did learning improve dramatically, but violence, teasing and such disappeared. Other schools in England are now picking up this practice.
LILIPOH: These effects have been demonstrated in the lab, as well, haven’t they?
JCP: Researchers at HeartMath Institute have made graphs of heart-brain frequencies when someone is touched by another in a friendly gesture, such as holding hands. Specific wave-form changes take place and the two go into heart-brain patterns that synchronize, just as in the mother-infant example.
LILIPOH: So two hearts beating as one isn’t just poetry, then?
JCP: No, it isn’t. Ashley Montague wrote his classic book, Touching, concerning this critical need for touch that we all have, at all ages. More recently, Marianna Caplan published an excellent book, Untouched, about our strange epidemic of the “touch-starved” American child. In Waldorf schools, every teacher touches each student every day with a hand on the shoulder, a handshake, or hug, both as they come into school and as they leave. This establishes the bond, or what HeartMath might refer to as a heart “lock-in.” Again we see how deeply Steiner understood the child’s developmental needs. Unfortunately, in our beleaguered public schools, the children (and teachers) all but have their hands tied behind their backs. Part II of this interview with Joseph Chilton Pearce will continue in our Spring issue.