This blog is one I’ve been looking forward to writing for some time! Over the years many of my coaching clients who learn about themselves through the Enneagram often ask me – “How can I use the wisdom of the Enneagram with my children?” To which I often respond to these questions, with follow up questions, about why the parent wants their child to learn about the Enneagram? This ultimately explores many of the mostly unconscious and well-intentioned projections we as parents have about what we want for our children, which are often more about our own desires, fears and lack. And whilst these questions facilitate deeper self-awareness for my clients (the purpose of coaching), they do not answer the question “How do I use the wisdom of the Enneagram with my children?”
So, this blog is my attempt to stand on the shoulders of many giants in the fields of child developmental psychology and the Enneagram to unpack some of the key areas of contemplation around using the Enneagram with our children. But first, let’s consider the cognitive development of our children, as this is a crucial determinant and informs when and how we should use the Enneagram. If you are unfamiliar with the Enneagram you can read our blog What is the Enneagram of Personality.
Cognitive Development in Children
The work of the famous child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and his associates provides a key to the appropriate age for typing and its use with children. Piaget defined four stages of cognitive development:
Of relevance here are the latter two periods. While Piaget did not work primarily with emotional development (or the nature of reciprocal influence), he indicated emotional intelligence requires the same continuing process of adaptations as cognitive development. In addition, I would mention here that there are numerous complementary and conflicting theories and research on child development. For instance, attachment theory and the role of the limbic system in personal development also play important roles.
During the Concrete Operations Period of ages 7-11, children gradually develop a separate self, object constancy, a stability of world view, ability to see from the perspective of other, capacity to shift from self to other in communications, sharing of goals and recognition of mutual responsibilities, and greater understanding of cause and effect. Certainly, during the latter part of this period, ages 10-11, children can be introduced to the Enneagram and typology in general. They are developing the capacity to grasp concepts, form boundaries, see others’ points of view, as well as their own, and make distinctions from a separate self. Piaget also considered that the capacity for empathy developed during the Period of Concrete Operations (age 7-11).
However, it is not until what Piaget called the Formal Operations Period of ages 11-15 that children develop abstraction qualities and abilities for meta thinking, characterized by recognizing gaps in understanding things, forming hypotheses, understanding proportionality, “operating on operations,” grasping relationships among things, realizing levels or order of things, and understanding others in the analysis of own thinking. All of these are subtle qualities, necessary for using and understanding the profound and powerful issues and implications of Enneagram type. It is at this level of potential comprehension or grasp that the Enneagram can be employed for both psychological and spiritual life development.
A few guiding principles on typing ourselves and others using the Enneagram
The ability to parent well depends on accurate observation. The Enneagram can help parents to see their children more in alignment with how their children experience themselves. Whilst the Enneagram is a highly valuable tool for understanding ourselves, we must understand some general principles when using this tool with our children.
Firstly, I believe it’s worth highlighting that categorising and putting things into types is a universal, necessary bi-product of the great cerebral mantel or cortex in the human species. We need to be able to categorise and organise the vast amounts of information of which the brain is capable. If we didn’t do this, it would be chaos. So, the idea that some people may have that typing is inherently “bad” seems flawed. Categorising is necessary for humans, even if our categorisations are not always sufficient. And often it is not the categorisation that is the problem, it is the way we use that categorisation that makes the difference.
I also think it is worth addressing the age-old nature vs nurture argument which I believe is black and white and limited in its assumption. It is not that type is determined by nature OR nurture, rather, that nature and nurture are working together. We are all products of the inherent characteristics we come into the world with, AND the collection of our experiences as we grow and develop in our environments. I believe if we can overcome the lure to take sides, we can appreciate the beauty and complexity of our human personalities and remain curious about the part both nature and nurture play in the overall development of our type.
Whilst the Enneagram offers us to “Type” ourselves, this is not the end game. If we stop at finding our type, we have missed the point of the Enneagram. The wisdom of the Enneagram is in understanding that once we have found our type, we can then ask the question “How can I become healthy in my type?” This is more important than type in the course of human events and relationships. We do not use the Enneagram to explain or justify our way of being in the world, when we know our type, we can use that information to transcend our own limitations.
The Enneagram is also extremely valuable in assisting us to develop our higher qualities or gifts so we can build more productive and fulfilling personal and spiritual lives. It is easy to focus on the negative aspects of type so we can overcome them, however, a gift of the Enneagram is that it tells us what’s right about us. Even those so-called negative aspects have an innate intelligence to them. They’ve served us in some contexts of our lives. We can appreciate and even thank these parts of ourselves. It is important to recognise that all types have both their delight and disaster, and often this is related to our level of psychological health. I love the way Russ Hudson explains it… Our level of health is in direct proportion to how much presence we can tolerate in our lives. How present we can be to ourselves supports our overall level of psychological health.
Developing receptive awareness of simply being grounded and present with a healthy and steadfast self-observer represents the single most important factor in the grasping of type. The role of receptive awareness is the single most important factor in preventing stereo-typing and misuse of the Enneagram in general. Other factors in preventing misuse are the principles of “apply to self-first” and “we do not type others”. When learning about the Enneagram it is best practice to apply the learning to yourself first, so you can have a felt and embodied experience of the wisdom in this framework. This then facilitates an attitude of respect and honour for others on the journey; it is important that we do not rip people off from their own experience of unfolding.
Lastly, the Enneagram provides an understanding of the fundamental structure of personality that includes the basic propositions of the types, our core motivations and beliefs or frames of reference, the habituated patterns of attention, the connection of psychological and spiritual aspects of life and their integration and the path of development that releases us from the personality “box” that we are in or at the very least, helps us enlarge the limiting confines of the “box” we are in. The gift of the Enneagram is that it is so universal that it underlies racial, religious, and cultural differences.
Cautions in Typing Children
All typologies tend to devolve into stereotyping. This is because human beings are involved. The best prevention is bringing our conscious awareness of our tendency to type and to build our inner knowing and self-awareness. Because children are credulous, malleable, inexperienced, and naturally dependant, they are subject to greater influence. This demands caution on behalf of the adults. We can inadvertently type children and end up stereotyping them. We can also mistype children and influence them adversely in the process.
One example is the famous study by Robert Rosenthal, where primary grade children were randomized into two groups: the “smart” group and the “average” group. The teachers were informed one group was “smart” and the other “average.” At the end of the school year, the “smart” group had gained more than twice the IQ points than that of the “average” group (27 points verses 13 points).
Clearly, results tend to conform to the experimenter’s/person’s expectations or bias. Perspectives and life itself become limited through seeing equalling believing. It is true “believing is seeing” more than “seeing is believing.” In believing what we see/feel, we can further limit perceptions and life. Incorrect and premature typing of children can lead to these kinds of constrictions. Then type can be misused, either as an excuse for our behaviour or to blame us for our behaviour. I would caution anyone wanting to type young children before abstract thinking is in place at age 11-15 as the natural tendency of parents and others to unwittingly, non-consciously stereotype children is limiting and potentially harmful.
Typing can also inadvertently dishonour a child’s boundaries. All of us need to have our boundaries respected and be encouraged to respect our own boundaries. Children especially need this respect, this honour, as they are inexperienced and just developing.
And finally, typing from the OUTSIDE violates the self-discovery principle of the Enneagram. Even if we could accurately type from external behaviours (which we cannot), this violates the fundamental principle of self-discovery and self-development based upon self-discovery. Children need the “space” to determine their type through the process of building their inner observer for their own self-discovery.
What can the Enneagram teach Children?
Of course, the wisdom of the Enneagram seems limitless the more we dive into our own self-inquiry. But what can the Enneagram specifically highlight to children? Here are a few self-reported observations and areas of learning from children / teens who are learning about the Enneagram…
- 1I learn more about my friends, family, teachers and myself.
- 2I now understand other children who are different from me.
- 3I can appreciate that no type is “better” or “worse” than another
- 4I have a greater sense of confidence and well-being by understanding how to draw on the assets of all nine types.
- 5I am able to discern and appreciate my own and others’ gifts and superpowers.
Ultimately being introduced to the Enneagram as a child can encourage a lifelong compassionate inquiry into understanding oneself. This is the very foundation of emotional intelligence, learning how to access the wisdom of all our three centres of intelligence – the head, the heart and the gut. But like most tools, it’s the how we use it that makes all the difference. So, it is important as adults / parents that we use it with care, compassion, and curiosity, guiding our children to trust in their own inquiry, as they discover the magic of who they are.
So how can parents / adults use the Enneagram with Children?
Given our knowledge of child development, and understanding of the fundamental principles of the Enneagram, these are the factors, I believe, parents/adults must be willing to embrace in order to use the Enneagram responsibly with children.
Foster healthy development
While this may seem obvious and even redundant, it is our primary task with children to foster development of healthy relationships characterized by respect and positive regard, self-acceptance, appreciation of differences, loving kindness, and good personal boundaries.
Help to build receptive awareness
Helping to build receptive awareness with a good self-observer. No single skill is more important as a development tool than the skill of self-observation. Self-observation can be taught in early education before the introduction of the Enneagram, during what Piaget called the Preoperational Period of age 2-7. Self-observation provides a foundation for the later stages of development and is crucial to using the Enneagram constructively.
Be age appropriate
Since all the intelligences – head, heart, and body – develop in concert, it is vital children be age ready to participate actively in using the Enneagram for self-discovery and self-development purposes. Thus, a minimum age of about 10 is required before utilizing type for personal and relationship development from the inside out.
Affirm positive qualities
We often focus on the negative and distressing aspects of type. This focus is natural since these aspects have energy in them, often point to a growth edge, and have the core issues of type embedded in them. Hence with children, we must comment on and support the positive qualities, the strengths, of type. This helps in building a child’s competence, as well as self-esteem. This is vital.
Aid in decision making and conflict resolution
Using the Enneagram in family dynamics can support the entire decision making process – in exploring alternative solutions to problems, in planning activities, in determining who does what, and in resolving conflicts. This usage of the Enneagram depends upon the last three of the parent/adult responsibilities that follow.
Lead with appropriate self-disclosure
As adults we must provide a model that affirms our own strengths and reveals our own inner workings of type. In the psychological jargon this is the issue of ownership, of taking responsibility for our own actions and disclosing our meanings and motivations, appropriately. Here we need to watch for excuse making, rationalization, and blame of both self and others.
In utilizing the Enneagram with children, we adults must be open and receptive to feedback and literally encourage it with an open heart and mind. This makes the focus of interaction bi-directional, helping to level the playing field. We must remember children are dependent, inexperienced, and just unfolding. In the absence of encouraging feedback, the entire process of working with children unravels.
Walk the talk
This encompasses all of the responsibilities stated above. Walking the talk means making action congruent with our ideals and values, doing what we think/feel and say, embodying compassion and care, and working on the integration of our own psychological and spiritual development
I really hope that this blog opens up further discussion about using the Enneagram with children and facilitates continued sharing and learning among the parents and adults wanting to introduce the Enneagram to their children. If you would like to access further resources regarding the Enneagram and Children, here are a few books written by Elizabeth Wagele which I would recommend…
At modo we also provide workshops on The Enneagram and Parenting. We'd love for you to join us.
I have referenced the work of David Daniels throughout this blog, someone whose work I greatly admire. David Daniels, M.D. (August 30, 1934 to May 26, 2017) was a world-renowned Enneagram teacher, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, a leading developer of the Enneagram system of nine personality styles, the lead-author of the bestseller, The Essential Enneagram.