Head & Heart Ch. 4: The 5 Stages of a Child’s Development

by Living Wisdom School staff member George Beinhorn


I don’t read the papers much, but I came across an article in the Sacramento Bee some years ago that fairly begged to be disbelieved. Here’s an excerpt:

In a Journal of Medical Ethics article titled “A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder,” Liverpool University psychologist Richard P. Bentall argues that the so‑called syndrome of happiness is a diagnosable mood disturbance that should be included in standard taxonomies of mental illness such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Happiness, as Bentall states in his abstract, is “statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system.” (In this regard, as Bentall later notes, happiness resembles other psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.)

The author of the Bee article, Maggie Scarf, a New Republic contributing editor, related Dr. Bentall’s suggestion “that the term ‘happiness’ be removed from future editions of the major diagnostic manuals, to be replaced by the formal description ‘major affective disorder, pleasant type.’”

The Practice of Happiness

When I read the article aloud to a friend, she promptly doubled over with major affective disorder. “That’s such amazing cock‑a‑doo!” she howled. “It’s so carefully reasoned – yet it’s completely incredible!”

It is nutty-cakes. And yet, is there anything actually wrong with using scientific methods to study happiness? After all, it’s what the spiritual explorers of all ages have done – they’ve studied happiness in the laboratory of their own bodies, hearts, and minds, and kept tidy notes on what worked and what didn’t.

For most of us, happiness isn’t a “mood disturbance” to be resolved by taking a pill; it’s the answer that we’re all seeking. And if we can get a bit more happiness with the help of scientific orderliness and method, so much the better.

The spiritual researchers of all cultures and times realized that the single underlying desire that drives our actions is a longing to experience greater happiness, and to escape from sorrow.

Albert Einstein, ever a perceptive observer of the human scene, confirmed this truth:

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves. (From the essay, “Cosmic Religious Feeling.”)

Because the world’s spiritual traditions have made a study of happiness, what they say may be worth hearing, in these times of pandemic discontent.

After all, their approach is practical. They tell us, for example, that we’ve been given five instruments through which we can experience happiness: body, heart, will, mind, and soul. And they explain that as we grow into adulthood, we pass through five six-year stages, during which each of the happiness “tools,” in the order listed, becomes the primary developmental focus.

Happiness, they say, increases when we learn to use these tools “expansively.” (More on expansion later.) Thus, the most important time of our lives for learning how to be happy is when we’re growing up, passing through the six-year stages.

From birth to age 6, an infant’s primary developmental focus is on becoming familiar with its body and senses.

From 6 to 12, the child’s feelings come to the fore – these are the elementary school years, when children are particularly receptive to learning through the arts – the “media of feeling,” including stories, music, theater, art, and dance.

From 12 to 18, teenagers embrace challenges to their will power, in preparation for independent adult life. And at around 18, young people become fascinated with the life of the mind, engaging in long discussions of politics, science, the arts, and philosophy.

Finally, at about age 24, many people experience life events that may herald a spiritual awakening.

As each tool takes center stage, the others don’t simply fade away. Thus, while a toddler is primarily concerned with its body and senses, it will not hesitate to express its feelings – with the volume turned up! Nor do the stages begin precisely on our 6th, 12th, 18th, and 24th birthdays. The transitions are gradual.

Why did nature decide upon this particular scheme? In his insightful book, Education for Life, J. Donald Walters explains how each stage prepares the child for the ones that follow. Thus, feeling comes before will power, because feeling is the faculty that enables us to tell right from wrong. Before we can use our will power appropriately, with awareness of others’ realities, we need to develop the ability to feel their realities. Walters laments the ruinous consequences of cramming children’s minds with facts, as is common in schools today, at the expense of developing their capacity to feel.

Similarly, each stage fulfills the preceding one. Thus, feeling motivates us to action, and will power provides the energy and focus to act upon our feelings. Unless we want something strongly enough, we will not exert the energy to achieve it. And refined feelings tell us which actions will lead to happiness, and which will only bring us suffering.

Will power, in turn, finds its fulfillment in wisdom, which helps us understand how to use our will power efficiently and appropriately. And wisdom is fulfilled in Spirit. In Self-realization, we realize that wisdom and joy come from a higher Source that we can discover within.

The history of education reveals that in ancient Greece and Rome, and throughout the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, the six-year stages were recognized as natural phases of a child’s growth. Thus appropriate teaching methods were devised for each stage, and schools were roughly divided into the equivalents of our modern elementary school (ages 6-12), junior and senior high (12‑18), and college (18-24)..

Expanding Awareness Equals Joy

As I hinted earlier, the spiritual teachings of the ages tell us that our happiness increases as we learn to use our five human tools “expansively.”

Like most abstractions, “expansion” is best understood with examples.

Let’s look at what happens when we begin an exercise program.

After the first two or three weeks, we find that we’re feeling happier and more alive. Why? Because the exercising body has begun to generate more energy, which spills over to nourish our feelings, will, and mind, expanding their range and force. By expanding our awareness through one “tool,” the body, we’ve beneficially influenced all of the others. Positive actions spread their effects – as do negative ones.

People tend to specialize in one, or perhaps two, of the “tools of expansion.” Thus, some people go more by feeling, while others tend to “lead” with their will power or mind. The spiritual teachings encourage us to go with our strengths, while working to correct any imbalances. During our school years, we can learn most effectively if our teachers are given the freedom to adapt the curriculum to accommodate our particular learning “style.”

In many natural processes, the “tools of happiness” tend to appear in the same sequence as a child’s development. When we fall in love, for example, the first attraction is often, though not invariably, physical. We see a person across the room whose appearance attracts us, and our feelings become aroused. We form a volition to act on our feelings, and we walk over and strike up a conversation. The mind probes for information: Is she married? Does he like children? And if we’re wise, we’ll consult a higher guidance before venturing upon this important life venture. We’ve passed through the five “tools” in order: body, feeling, will, mind, soul.

Similarly, in starting a new business, the first stage is for the “body” – acquiring capital, and setting up a physical plant. Once the business is up and running, our enthusiasm provides the energy and motivation to make it succeed. Will power helps us overcome obstacles and stay the course; and wisdom helps us make astute decisions that will keep the business on the right track and preserve it from danger. Finally, an expansive, spiritual vision will persuade us that the greatest success and happiness come by including others’ happiness in our own.

In school, wise teachers understand that each child is a whole being, with needs that go far beyond simply educating the mind. If we can bring the whole child – body, heart, will, mind, and soul – into the learning process, we find that learning can become a series of wonderful success experiences, and a source of happiness for the child. Just as when we start a fitness program, our body, feelings, and will feed the mind with energy, expanding its scope and force.

The System Is Rigged

It all sounds so simple and straightforward – just use the tools expansively, and happiness will be ours, rather like remembering to brush our teeth in the morning. But in real life, cultivating expansive attitudes turns out to be a challenge. That’s because, as I mentioned earlier, the urge to contract our awareness competes for our attention.

Life places essentially the same choice continually before us: will we use our bodies wisely, or self-destructively? Our hearts, to love or to hate? Our minds, to be wise or merely clever? Our spiritual instincts, to aspire to the heights, or to succumb to narrow attitudes of religious exclusivity and prejudice? History, ours and the world’s, is the story of the eternal struggle between these opposing forces in human nature.

Also, the theory is simple, but the details are not. We’ve been given all of the tools we need to achieve happiness and success, or so it seems. The trouble is, relying exclusively on our purely human toolbox, we find ourselves sooner or later bumping against its limitations.

The five tools of expansion embody wonderful expertise, yet their very specialization can trip us. When this happens, we can find answers by looking beyond the tools. Happily, we can use the same instruments to commune with a higher awareness that is fathomlessly wise and loving, and that has our best interests at heart.

This is what expansive education is about: educating the whole child, and fine-tuning the children’s environment and activities to teach them how to find the greatest success and joy.