For better or worse, the adult you are today is a function of your work and the time you were given (or took) to do it. All along the way, much of that work was likely misunderstood and even unnoticed by just about everyone -including you. Those who did notice probably wouldn’t have called it “work” anyway. But make no mistake, you worked. Hard. Now it is your child’s turn. Will you recognize the work when you see it?
Most of us have a clear opinion of what constitutes work and progress. As parents, this informs our view of what education should be. Collectively shared, this view has lead to a general mistrusting of children’s ability to take charge of their own learning -academic and otherwise. By our own choosing, this responsibility now lies with us. So we define, separate, rank and grade work based almost entirely on our adult point of view. The amount of time and effort we expect devoted to each area varies commensurately with our priority.
Given all of the variables that exist in humanity, the definition of work will always be subjective. The difficulty comes when we try to further define work based upon its result. Like that big idea that came to you this morning in the shower -seemingly out of the blue. More than likely, it was not solely the result of your efforts in that moment. It was the confluence of many little thoughts and actions, both conscious and unconscious, that got you there. Going back and picking out each of those moments is virtually impossible, but they happened none the less. In fact, it is probable that part of your big idea came about while you were sleeping. We know that the brain organizes thoughts and memories and essentially cleans itself while we sleep. That is extremely important work. However, because we can’t see it -and probably aren’t looking for it, we are unlikely to realize its true value. This is precisely the type of work we overlook in our children, because the end result may be too indirect or distant to connect the dots.
Our ideas of work are deeply ingrained and often limited to measurable results, so seeing things differently is no easy task. Keep in mind that to us, work is just a part of life. However, to children, work IS life. So perhaps the answer is to view every moment in a child’s life as “work” and proceed from there. This is actually a pretty reasonable assumption when you think about it. In a world where so much is unknown, children encounter new challenges everyday. They must meet these challenges whether they are prepared or not. This requires work on a level long forgotten by adults. So even when that work is right there in front of us, we have difficulty seeing it. Is the child who sits at a table staring blankly across the room “not working?” Or the child who wants to be the boss in every situation and spends his time pursuing that end. Is he learning? What about the child who, instead of focusing on his spelling work sits listening to another child exuberantly describe his favorite video game? Are they both wasting time? Too often in cases like this, the response is to direct children back to their “real work” when what is happening inside at that moment may be just as important as the lesson in front of them. In fact, in traditional education, the goal is to avoid these kinds of interactions entirely. If we are truly to support our children without getting in their way, we must look deeper.
With good reason, adults attach value to time. We decide what our patience is worth and we distribute it accordingly. Interestingly, just about all parents are willing to offer more patience and understanding to a child learning academic lessons. I have no study to support this claim, only my own empirical evidence in 15 years of early childhood education. In that experience I have seen that the child working on a new math lesson is expected to struggle. Mistakes are generally encouraged and parents accept that mastery will take time. However, replace that math lesson with a social or emotional challenge and things change. We are no longer willing to allow the extra time. Suddenly, experimentation, so important in academic learning, has no place in the work process. Mistakes are often penalized or misjudged while success may not be noticed at all. The ultimate goal gets lost. In theory, everyone agrees that children need to develop social skills, but in practice, this notion becomes an afterthought.
We are all social, cultural beings. Relating to our world and the people in it is our primary job. It is a nearly constant pursuit. A worthwhile education must take this into consideration. Before we can expect academic mastery, we must allow for and encourage social mastery. Whether we are able to recognize their work or not, the most precious gifts we can give our children are trust, time and freedom to learn. In a child’s world where these things are in short supply, Montessori is an oasis in the dessert. It offers a place for the social being side-by-side with academic learning. Here, students know that they are trusted and they are empowered by that knowledge. By choosing Montessori, you have selected an environment that specifically encourages children to interact with others and their environment through trial and error. We focus on the process over anything else. By design the method allows for disruption and distraction, experimentation and mistakes, time to think and freedom to choose. This is a place where children learn who they are and how they fit into their world. They may not know that this is their most important work, but we do. In the end our goal is that they will, too.
The simple fact is that the person with the greatest opportunity to understand your child is you. Right now, you have the most influence. You have the capacity to see or ignore. You have the power to encourage or restrict. This is stuff we all know. But there are also things that we have forgotten; that when you were a child, time seemed to stand still -especially when things got tough. That at times it seemed nobody understood what you were thinking and there were decisions too difficult to get right on the first try. That something can be so confusing that you can’t even figure out which questions to ask. There was a time when all you wanted was to be a grown up and somehow you would magically know all the things you didn’t know then. Well, now here you are, with the opportunity to put that knowledge to use in the most meaningful way possible for your own child. You can do it. It won’t be easy, but if you are up for the challenge, I guarantee your child will be, too.