Saturday, April 20, 2024
  The Forgotten Language of Childhood     Source
About this book

In the sixties, a woman with a two-year-old daughter makes a U-turn in her life as single mother in New York City

As her peers choose India as a destination, Lillian Firestone meets the Gurdjieff Work, stays in America, and allows her daughter’s development and education to become a living backdrop and stage upon which her own spiritual development unfolds.

This important book has many beautiful things to show-and-tell, not the least of which is a mother’s love for her child reflected through her own wish to work.

A mother who today has the commonsensical good judgment to use a child’s drawing of an elephant as the dominant cover image for her impeccably designed book.

More than a record of Gurdjieff and his Teaching’s love for children-being-allowed-to-choose-their-fullest-potential by adults who Work and care for them, The Forgotten Language of Children represents a new contribution to the literature of spiritual education and spiritual search.


That year we spent a whole winter in the drafty pottery barn at the Children’s House in Armonk, kneading wet clay, rolling and cutting our hexagonal tiles, painting them, firing them.

Each was designed by one of the children and no two were alike. There were flowers, geometric patterns and animals, a rich and subtle feast when they were all laid out together, over three hundred in all.

The little pool was excavated and we poured the concrete. The children moved the tiles around endlessly until the arrangement was just right.

We waited for the spring to come so we could activate the machinery. Water would flow from rock to rock; glazing the tiles and making them shimmer. But when spring came and we brushed aside the carpet of dead leaves we discovered that the freezing and thawing of snow and rain had turned our tiles into a carpet of glazed rubble. As a ceramic expert confirmed, our firing temperature had been too low, and the clay had not been frost-resistant.

That morning we gathered the few surviving tiles and swept up the rest. A whole year of effort had produced only a garbage can of shattered fragments.

“I’m sorry the fountain project is over,” I announced to the children at lunch. There was a long silence. I made no attempt to lighten the atmosphere: there was nothing in me that felt hopeful.

“Why don’t we just make new tiles?” one of the children asked. “We can do it all again.”

There was a general nodding of heads, a consensus among them appearing in looks and smiles. It was decided. Eugene who didn’t like to knead all the air bubbles out, Seymour who ran away from the tedium of glazing, Kate who wanted to sculpt animals, not make tiles – they were all ready to start again. They put into practice the idea George Gurdjieff had so often spoken of: to love work for its own sake and not for its gain. This time it was the children who reminded the adults.

child and hammer

If you wish your children well, you must first wish yourself well. For if you change, your children, too, will change. — George I. Gurdjieff

While in the children’s work, I learned how to hammer a nail, plaster a wall, saw, plumb, use electric tools, drill, listen, sit quietly, watch, hear, see, climb, carry, build fires out of anything. I learned I could write, that I didn’t have to be the fool, that I had something to say, that there were many different sides to me, that it rains out of nowhere in Arizona, that the mountains in Montana have to be one of the most beautiful sights on earth, that I didn’t know America until I’d seen it – and the same goes for myself. — Chris, one of the children

Encourage the children to think for themselves, and not to be afraid. — Jeanne de Salzmann

Only efforts in life count. — George I. Gurdjieff


When he appeared in the West in 1912, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff brought a body of teaching gleaned from decades of search among the ancient and sometimes hidden spiritual traditions of the East. A circle gradually formed around him, including many of the prominent intellectuals and artists of the day, who gave his ideas wider currency. These ideas had a perceptible influence in fields as diverse as physics, music, mathematics, theatre and film. Gurdjieff’s view that man was not a finished being – that evolution of his consciousness is not only necessary but also attainable – spawned the human potential movement of the ’60s.

Children were particularly important to Gurdjieff. They were always around him, and he devoted endless energy to their growth, presenting them with challenges and gifts. Most striking was his unconditional respect for their inner lives, for who they were and who they could become. Gurdjieff understood a child’s need to be challenged.

At the same time he forbade his pupils from indoctrinating their children with the ideas of his teaching. He wanted to awaken the children’s own questioning and allow them the freedom to grow into adults able to pursue their own aims, their own search. Children were not allowed into the readings, discussions and meditations; those were for adults, whose personalities were already formed and who had joined his circle for their own reasons. Gurdjieff said, “I have no groups for children, because people must have enough experience, they must first try different things and must be disappointed in them.” (PMPE, p. 90)

Instead, Gurdjieff prepared special activities suited to children to develop their physical and emotional sides as well as their reason. That they become their own person, directed from within and able to distinguish reality from the world of images and dreams in which everyone lives, was his aim for them.

Gurdjieff taught indirectly. He would tell a story that subtly related to the question at hand, or he would direct an answer meant for one person to someone else. He used tales to convey his meanings, stories about people facing quandaries, stories with comical, heroic or unexpected solutions.

Presenting new ideas indirectly though stories gave the children time to “try on” various meanings. Good impulses the children could imitate were embedded in his tales – kindness to animals, humor, courage, resourcefulness, indifference to hunger and cold. Under the guise of amusement some stories raised much bigger questions. The hero in myths and fairy tales asks, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”

In front of such questions the ordinary mind knows it cannot answer and grows quiet – in that silence a new understanding can appear. As we worked with the children, we were shown again and again that it was the questions, not the answers, that helped understanding to deepen. How not to answer, but to draw the answer from the questioner himself? What prompted the question? What did the child already believe?

Sometimes it could be quite simple. A child might ask, “Why is the grass green?”

Rejecting the impulse to launch into an explanation of chlorophyll, the adult might counter with another question that might allow an exchange to take place – for example, “Is it always?” Of course the tone was most important. It could not be a test, but a conversation. Whatever the child answered, whether logical, half-understood or whimsical, had to be allowed its space, for that was the state of the child’s reason at that moment. The adult’s responsibility was not to set the record straight about the color of grass, but to help the child see that there are many ways to understand a question. Sometimes the grass was not green – it could appear as differing colors depending on the light and the time of day; the insects who live in it – what color is it to them? Exploring any question can lead to any subject in the universe, if one resists the temptation to immediately provide the “right answer” and instead enable the child to see the world in its interconnectedness and multiplicity, starting from his own point of view.

Instead of triggering automatic thought and reaction, ideas presented indirectly allow time for real thought.

Children and Gurdjieff

Libraries abound with books about spiritual search. Much less is known about the form a spiritual search may take in children or how to raise them with the intention of helping them to discover their own inner qualities and the courage to live by them.

Gurdjieff demonstrated that relating to children can be both idealistic and practical. These principles are embedded in his books, particularly Meetings with Remarkable Men and the trilogy, All and Everything.

Gurdjieff’s particular genius was to reconfigure the issue of human potentiality, freeing it from religious imagery. Man the machine is also endowed with the capacity to overcome his mechanicality and awaken. A harmonious development of all parts, thinking, emotion and body, prepares man for contact with his authentic nature. This search for self through awareness is a necessary condition if mankind is to continue evolving – an evolution not of phylogeny but of consciousness.

But how can Gurdjieff’s ideas be applied to raising children? The reader trying to discriminate among the welter of conflicting practices and theories of present-day education is advised to take nothing on faith but to verify what Gurdjieff proposes for oneself, through  personal experience, personal effort.

Beside his body of writing Gurdjieff transmitted his ideas by example. His pupils witnessed how he created special impressions and challenges for children that enabled them to call on capacities they did not know they had. Respect for young people was central: raising children to be free and capable enough to search for the sense and significance of their lives, on their own path.

Gurdjieff believed that contemporary education, which largely aimed at developing children’s intellectual capacity, lacked the broad scope that would help them develop with some measure of inner freedom.

For this a supplementary education was needed – one that would foster common sense, conscience and high ideals, in preparation for their becoming responsible adults. This result could come only from the children’s own personal experiencing of real-life events.

Jeanne De Salzmann and the Children’s Work

When Madame Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s senior pupil, who was entrusted to carry on his Work after his death, proposed working with a small group of children to see if these aims could be actualized, we eagerly responded to the challenge. It was left up to us, the adult team, to create the special conditions that would serve the educational aims Gurdjieff envisioned.

Although Gurdjieff placed a great importance on this additional education, he set strict limits. The children were not to be turned into followers of his teaching. Instead, we tried to create an environment in which children could come into direct contact with real experience, be it sawing a piece of wood, casting a pot or pitching a tent. This “additional” education would perhaps better prepare children to live in the real world also through having real-world skills. To use tools, cook, fix things, live outdoors, earn money as needed, paint, play music, travel, welcome new circumstances – this was the agenda for them – to think for themselves and not to be afraid. We wished to impart ideals in action, without doctrinal philosophizing to muddy their experience. At the same time, contact with adults who were striving for a level of sincerity in their inner and outer lives was part of the equation.

We struggled together to find activities suitable for varied age groups, and to find the right inner impulse in ourselves that would convey our aims without outwardly teaching or preaching. Since this activity would be totally voluntary for the children, they would have to feel attracted only by the challenge of becoming more self-sufficient, more grown up. There were no outer pressures or rewards. It was to be a work for its own sake and not for gain.

Efforts should be rewarded, but not the results. The child can produce a poor product through great effort, while another can produce something very lovely without trying very hard. The parents should not praise or reward according to the end product of the work but according to the effort involved.

Madame de Salzmann guided every major step of our work with children, and without her understanding it would not have been possible. She never gave us any program to follow; she might propose an idea and then leave it up to us to figure out how to make it real.

What impressions did the children need? What special conditions did this transmission demand? How could we know if we were providing the means for the children’s inner growth? Madame de Salzmann helped us discover how to create conditions in which the children could begin to see for themselves the real world and their place in it.

When young people outgrew the Children’s Work, they were not shuttled into adult groups. It was not a recruitment system. The Children’s Work was meant to be a sui generis experience.


Although the principles may be listed and discussed as if they have a fixed form, the actual process of discerning them came from our struggles along the lines Jeanne de Salzmann indicated.

  • Affirm the being of the child, Madame de Salzmann told us.
  • Bring a challenge to the children that they can try for themselves. What others do doesn’t matter, results don’t matter – only the trying matters.
  • Give nothing ready-made. Everything must come from the child.
  • Create large events.
  • Remember what it felt like to be a child.
  • Be honest with the children.
  • Be intentionally generous.
  • Sense your own presence while with the children.
  • Work “as if” you were already conscious. What would a conscious person do?
  • Present high ideals.
  • Join the children in their efforts.
  • To love work for work’s sake and not for its gain. (MWRM, p. 39)
  • And also:
  • To be outwardly courteous to all without distinctions, whether they be rich or poor, friends or enemies, power-possessors or slaves, and to whatever religion they may belong, but inwardly to remain free and never put much trust in anyone or anything. (MWRM, p. 2)

It was only to the extent that the adult team was able to generate a degree of consciousness, a degree of self-awareness, that the work with the children became vibrant.

We tried many things that could create special conditions, including, but not limited to, carpentry and construction, crafts of all kinds, music and singing, cooking, theatre and trips to distant places. But ultimately we realized that the adult team members were the special conditions that brought these activities to an inner intensity that called the children. Otherwise, it remained well-meaning and ordinary, on a par with many organized activities for children.

The team members learned we had to enter wholeheartedly into the activities, to include ourselves in the challenge, to help children find and feel “I can.” Overcoming difficulties suitable to their age and abilities was a reliable source of affirmation for the children and brought with it a confidence based on their own experience.

Working in the kitchen was an ideal activity, requiring new practical skills, teamwork and a chance to serve the whole group. Creating a meal required all the children’s capacities and often had the effect of transforming ordinary effort into a labor of love.

Crafts posed a challenge: was it possible for children to meet a high standard of work without pressure from adults, but instead, with interest in, and love of, the process? Behind every craft project was the belief that it was possible for children to work really well and to experience the deep satisfaction that followed: driving a nail clean with one blow, sawing a straight line, throwing a pot, repairing a broken appliance, baking and icing a cake. The skills the children learned did not merely turn them into good craftsmen, it left them with a certainty that they could master whatever life required of them, that they were able, even in the face of adverse circumstance, to find their own footing. We could see for ourselves how the children grew in self-respect and confidence from year to year.


Encouraging the children to use the power of their imagination and creativity in expressing their feelings was the unspoken aim of our art projects. The imagination of a child set free could produce unusual harmony and beauty that was often reflected in their paintings, sculpture, tile work and weaving.


Singing, chanting and spontaneous “orchestras” in which every child had a part were a regular feature of our work with the children. Usually held at the end of a day after vigorous activity, these circles of clapping hands, with percussion instruments improvised from any found object including a pot or pan, created melodic and percussive lines that blended into improvised jamming sessions. The starting point could be a folk song, a spiritual or simply a rhythm.


Putting on plays was a regular part of the Children’s Work. The contents ranged from completely improvised pieces developed by the children to staging scripted works based on folktales or legends, such as the Chinese folk novel Monkey, the Hindu 22 Goblins, the Egyptian Her Bak, and the Persian Art of Asha. Being on stage, bathing in the concentrated attention of the audience and exploring how it felt to “be someone else” were all growing experiences for the children, all of whom were always included in each production. To step onto the stage and be natural and oneself while playing the role of a prince, a pig or Buddha, left an indelible impression on the young actors. Theatrical productions were some of the larger events that showed what was possible when many worked together.


Travel to distant places was hugely popular with the children. Unexpected destinations, meetings with unusual people, the hardships of hiking, living and working outdoors – the spirit of adventure coupled with an emphasis on self-sufficiency drew the children whenever a trip was offered. Trips to the Far West to see Native American Indian dances, to archaeological sites in Mexico, long backpacks on the Appalachian Trail, and shorter expeditions in the Northeast – these trips and many others served our aim for the children in an unusually concentrated way. On the road, the adults seldom needed to invent challenges and difficulties. The rigors of travel, of keeping a caravan of many children and vehicles in motion over thousands of miles, was challenge enough. The children loved the trips both for the chance to face the unexpected together, and they met the challenges of this rugged form of travel with élan.

The Role of the Adults

Although the primary aim of the Children’s Work was to bring new impressions to the children, the adults also benefited. How the adults held up their end of the common search determined the outcome for everyone.  The struggle to create special conditions produced something which made the adults want to continue this demanding form of work.

The open, unsentimental presence of the children was like a searchlight illuminating sides of ourselves that remain hidden in easier circumstances. This intensity gave us contact with our own reality, and, for some, who unstintingly devoted their time and energy, the growth of understanding was palpable. We learned from the children: much self-deception disintegrated in the face of their candor; and when we made mistakes, the children’s quick forgiveness reminded us that it was possible to live more freely and carry less baggage.

However, there was also something about the presence of the children that exacerbated the normal tensions generated by any group trying to work together. It was much harder to work with other members of the team than with the children. We were more exposed. We felt that we were seen – the unspoken agreement to ignore each other’s failings was inoperative in this context – and like the soccer dad who runs onto the field to argue with the coach, we often felt compelled to correct each other as we would not do under other circumstances. Why the children roused such passion in us to appear to be right remained a mystery. We knew only that some primal feelings were roused that refused to abide by our adult understanding. And it sometimes brought us into conflict of over trivial things.

But, as one of us noted, “The children are always willing.”

In our work together the children verified for us the validity of Gurdjieff’s ideas about education. They were often able to tackle large projects and make difficult choices with discernment far beyond their years. When the children made mistakes, as was inevitable, the principle of facing the consequences of their actions fueled a powerful inner growth, the foundation of courage, conscience and will. Time passed. We saw the children grow in understanding and capability. They were beginning to see.

Everything in this book happened – but memory is elusive. Others who lived these events may recall them differently. All mistakes are my own.

For those who have an instinctive capability for working with children, many of these ideas will be familiar. For those who are trying to find what can be useful in present day conditions, these stories offer material.

Before attempting to present the work with children in its many aspects, I offer a few words about how I found my way to it.


Gurdjieff International Review June 2006 published “Children and Money” excerpts from Chapter 7 “Money”.

Armenia Gurdjieff Conference 2006 – Portions of the introduction were read at a paper at the Armenia Gurdjieff Conference and will be published with the proceedings of the Conference.

Photos courtesy of The Children’s Work Archive and Dushka Howarth

ISBN No: 0939-100 4-3



Chapter 1 — The First Day

Chapter 2 — Houses of Work

Chapter 3 — Methods

Chapter 4 — In the Kitchen

Chapter 5 — Listening … Speaking  

Chapter 6 — Choices

Chapter 7 — Money

Chapter 8 — On the Road

Chapter 9 — Discipline

Chapter 10 — Impressions

Chapter 11 — Games People Play

Chapter 12 — Difficulties

Chapter 13 — Remorse

Chapter 14 — Dawn



















About the Author  [LINK]

lillian firestone

Lillian Firestone was born and received her early education in China, where her family's travels nurtured her lifelong interest in Asian philosophy and culture. She met the ideas of George Gurdjieff in New York City, and has studied them for many years with a succession of teachers including Jeanne de Salzmann, Michel de Salzmann, Henri Tracol and Christopher Feeemantle. With their guidance she applied the ideas to the education of children in a special practical work on which this book is based.

Ms. Firestone is the founder and publisher of Indications Press. She is the editor of On Attention: Talks, essays and letters of Christopher Feeemantle; On A Single Breath: A lost interpretation of the Lord's Praye, and others. She is the author of The Forgotten Language of Children: Discovering Courage, Creativity, and Consciousness and of the forthcoming The Last Jew in China & Other Stories. She is active in the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City, where she lives.

Lillian Firestone, Parabola's editor-at-large. (Author: Lillian Firestone at Parabola)


WORKING SECRETS: The Forgotten Language of Childhood
Based on the Ideas of George Gurdjieff

by Lillian Firestone

Copyright 2007 by Lillian Firestone
All rights reserved