My Waldorf-Student Son Believes in Gnomes—and That's Fine With Me

It's not a bad thing for kids to grow up thinking differently than their parents do.


I have arguments with my nine-year-old son about gnomes. They go more or less like my arguments with him about Santa Claus.

"They don't exist!" I tell him.

"They do too!" he tells me. "Don't mess with them! They'll get you!" Then he looks at me with wide eyes and tries not to start giggling.

Gnomes -- or, technically, earth-spirits -- are big at Waldorf schools, especially in early grades. My son knitted a super-cute one when he was in preschool. Now that he's in third grade at Urban Prairie Waldorf School, they've faded into the background behind arithmetic and Chinese and building models of wikiups and so forth. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if they came up occasionally. As Emily Chertoff noted last November, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf movement, was a moon-eyed German hippie whose philosophy was a mish-mash of Christianity, paganism, theosophy, various child development theories, and a passionate dislike of media (a friend of mine summed Waldorf up as "Gnomes good! Television bad!").

Urban Prairie does frequent outreach to teach parents more about Steiner's thought, and I just as frequently refuse to pay any attention, because ... well, gnomes. I don't want to hear about them, and, like my son, the Waldorf folks don't want to hear what I have to say about them. For that matter, I don't think they really want to hear what my son's pop-culture-critic dad has to say about television either -- though thankfully Urban Prairie's anti-media stance is quite low-key and non-intrusive.

No doubt some parents (or more likely, people who aren't parents) will find this mystifying. How can I entrust my child to a school that does not accord with my own religious and spiritual beliefs? How can I expose my boy to an ideology that I believe is largely nonsense? What, in short, is wrong with me?

In response I would say, first, that while I'm not on board with all of Waldorf philosophy, I am absolutely on board with parts of it -- and those, are I think, the most important parts. I would rather have my nine-year-old learn about gnomes, by a long shot, than spend his school days preparing for a multiple-choice test designed by some distant bureaucrat. I love that recess and flopping about in the mud in all weather and movement (that's Waldorf for "gym") are considered not discardable extras, but central parts of learning. And I really love that his gym teacher is not encouraging him -- as my public school gym teacher encouraged me -- to pick on the kids in the class who were weaker, or, in one case, on the kid who had to wear braces on his legs.

And there are plenty of other examples. I love the arts education -- my son, in third grade, can really and truly draw in a way that I still can't, because no one cared to teach me. I love that he knows how to knit. I love that his school took him on a camping trip where he learned to tap maple trees and went ice fishing. I love that when he gets sick, he cries because he can't go to school. I love that, if he is ever having any problem in class or with other students, I call his teacher, and the teacher listens carefully -- and then she fixes it.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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