“Holding the question.” It’s a phrase we recently learned from a Waldorf teacher. And we love the idea behind it.
It’s about waiting to answer the question: who is this person? We ask and answer this question all the time — when we meet a new friend, when we thank a barista for our coffee, and when we gather as a family. We are constantly scanning the world around us and answering the question: who are all these people in and around my life?
In Waldorf schools, “holding the question” is especially important because the same homeroom teacher stays with a group of students from 1st through 8th grade. It’s tempting for that teacher to answer the question — “who is this student of mine?” — in the first few weeks of first grade.
If you think back to your own school days, you know that kids are usually identified quickly. “She’s the smart one.” “He’s the artist.” “She’s the know-it-all.” “He’s the class clown.” “She’s the troublemaker.” “He’s the athlete.”
The concern is, when a teacher answers the question “who is this person” too soon, that teacher limits the student-teacher relationship. Once defined, it’s difficult for the child to shake his or her label, and it’s difficult for the teacher to see that child with fresh eyes.
And that’s why I love the idea of holding the question. It’s about allowing the child to show his parents, his teachers, his family, and his friends exactly who he is becoming, slowly and over time. It’s about being patient and resisting the urge — however good-intentioned — to define a child too soon.
We know that, with our own kids, the temptation to answer the question is strong. We want to know: who is this precious child of ours? What makes him tick? Who will she grow into? All of our hopes and dreams are mashed up into this one question: who are you?
But, perhaps, we can give our children a great gift: holding the question. Perhaps we can let them show us who they are. Perhaps we can give them the space needed to emerge as their own unique individuals.
That doesn’t mean that we aren’t involved in our children’s lives. Far from it, we’re always present to love, embrace, and guide our children. We just don’t have to define them so quickly. They are who they are, nothing more, nothing less. And that’s what we love about them.
Take an activity like finger-painting. Our little boy likes to mash his hands on his paint immediately, smearing all the colors together, and rubbing them onto his paper with his palms. Our little girl picks one color at a time, gently painting with her finger tips instead of her entire hand like her brother.
But what does that say about our kids? Does it have to say anything? We try to hold the question. They are both expressing themselves in their own ways. Their means of expression may change over time, but we hope their curiosity remains. We don’t want to define their artwork and unwittingly limit who we see them as and what they can become.
In a way, our children are the artists of their own lives. We can’t predict what they’ll paint. We’ll let them create something beautiful. And we’ll be there to share in the joy of their own unique journeys.