A wonderful mentor told me on more than one occasion that no matter how many times you return to Dr. Montessori’s words, you will find inspiration along with something you may never have considered before. I don’t do it nearly enough, but my mentor’s advice was confirmed once again after reading just a few pages of “The Montessori Method” By Maria Montessori, first published in 1912.
This time, I actually wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Maybe something to discuss at our next faculty meeting. I chose a book from our library and scanned the table of contents. A chapter entitled “Discipline” caught my eye. There is always something to learn when considering this surprisingly complex idea. For example, when parents ask about the Montessori method of discipline, they are usually interested most in the techniques used by the teacher to correct behavior. However, it is equally important to understand discipline as an internal skill, not merely action applied by an external source.
The majority of this chapter detailed the process of empowering children to choose between purposeful and distracted or disruptive behavior in the classroom. However, as I read on, a theme emerged that we all know but may sometimes forget, that the reciprocal relationship between independence and discipline are the pillars of human capability.
Consider the following excerpt from Dr. Montessori’s lectures. She was especially gifted in connecting the child of the moment with the adult of the future. This may seem an obvious element of education and parenting, but back in 1912 the notion of looking that far forward in a child’s development was almost revolutionary. Even in our “modern” education system, we squander the precious opportunities we are given to prepare young children to build the adults they will one day become.
“In reality, he who is served is limited in his independence.”
“Let us picture to ourselves a clever and proficient workman, capable, not only of producing much and perfect work, but of giving advice in his workshop, because of his ability to control and direct the general activity of the enviroment in which he works. The man who is thus master of his environment will be able to smile before the anger of others, showing that great mastery of himself, which comes from consciousness of his ability to do things. We should not, however, be in the least surprised to know that in his home this capable workman scolded his wife if the soup was not to his taste, or not ready at the appointed time. In his home, he is no longer the capable workman; the skilled workman here is the wife, who serves him and prepares his food for him. He is a serene and pleasant man where he is powerful through being efficient, but is domineering where he is served. Perhaps if he should learn how to prepare his soup he might become a perfect man! The man who, through his own efforts is able to perform all the actions necessary for his comfort and development in life, conquers himself, and in doing so multiplies his abilities and perfects himself as an individual…We must make of the future generation, powerful men, and by that we mean men who are independent and free.”
Family dynamics have shifted considerably along with societal norms over the last 100 years. In Dr. Montessori’s time, children were not “served”, but a housewife was expected to do so for her husband. To illustrate this paradigm shift, consider that the anecdote above applies even more accurately to 21st century children, many of whom are served by parents far more immersively than the husbands of 1900 ever were.
Admittedly, this is a bit of a dry read. That’s understandable since it was translated from Italian more than a century ago. But if you can get past the olde world phrasing, there are so many lessons imbedded within this short paragraph for educators and parents alike. It’s a greatest hit’s album of human development all in one short anecdote. Let’s break it down and see what we can learn.
“The man who is thus master of his environment will be able to smile before the anger of others, showing that great mastery of himself, which comes from consciousness of his ability to do things.” Beautiful. This sentence stands completely on its own, even without the details on the workman’s homelife. Achieving mastery of one’s self is the long term goal not just of education, but of life itself. In this case, mastery is not a single point in time, but is rather the accumulation of skills and character traits, which produce a broad level of capability. A capable human is obvious at any age. Why? To use Dr. Montessori’s words, because he or she can “do things.” They are obvious not only when in the act of their work, nor merely for the content of the knowledge they possess. Rather, there is a visible confidence exuded by awareness in their own strengths. That confidence allows for “smiling against the anger of others.” It is this awareness, which sets apart the master from the rest.
Today, my 11 year old son, a 5th grade student at MAB, spent 45 minutes at the reception desk in our front office answering phone calls. It is a part of our curriculum aimed at building confidence, flexibility and the ability to think on your feet (among other things). It’s a formative experience for the student, but obviously not something to which most children this age are exposed. In fact, I remember my first job that involved talking on the phone -in college. I can still recall the nervousness I felt each time the phone rang. Who or what would I encounter on the other end? In general, I felt confident I could handle whatever situation arose, but early on at the sound of the ring, somehow doubt always found a way to creep in.
My son, by contrast, not even tall enough to be seen behind the reception desk, manned his position with a comfort and confidence I would only expect from someone who had been doing the job for years. He was so self-assured infact, that he almost immediately began to ad-lib with callers, abandoning the script we worked on. The results weren’t perfect, but even in the face of momentary confusion or awkward silence, he remained largely unphased. By any measure, this is an example of a capable human. Next week he will be back for more. I can’t wait to see what he does.
As educators and parents, we should pay close attention to the moments when a child is able to “do things” without the unwanted and unnecessary involvement of adults. There is a direct relationship to inner discipline, maturity, independence and the frequency of observed independent success.
“In his home, he is no longer the capable workman; the skilled workman here is the wife, who serves him and prepares his food for him.” Since we are talking about children, replace “wife” with “mother.” Yes, mom, you are most definitely a skilled workman. So many moms do so much and are so capable of handling it all. You may not even recognize your own incredible productivity and capacity to always do more. In fact, through constant practice of serving the child, each day you get even better at what you do. So much better that doing your child’s work is far easier than allowing him to do it himself. Being as busy as we all are, following the path of least resistance becomes inevitable. However, to your child, your skills are used mainly to serve rather than to empower. Over time, the child becomes reliant upon your abilities, rather than developing his own. The longer this continues, the more slowly capability grows.
“He is a serene and pleasant man where he is powerful through being efficient, but is domineering where he is served.” At home with our children, perhaps we confuse comfort for confidence. The child is vocal with his opinions and communicates his desires freely, at times by making demands rather than asking politely for help. Because parents are so involved in the child’s life at home, it can only be through this relationship that he is able to acheive independence. Children at home, learning from their experience, may misperceive their positions and their independence based upon their ability to get parents to do what they want rather than the extent to which they are capable and permitted to do it by themselves. Ultimately, they may lose the desire to care for themselves and express their disappointment when parents do not meet their expectations for comfort. This is a different type of master, entirely. This is a tyrant. It is created by an environment where the adults do too much for the child, who is, as Dr. Montessori says, by their service, automatically limited in his independence.
“The man who, through his own efforts is able to perform all the actions necessary for his comfort and development in life, conquers himself…” “Conquers” himself. Not a word I would have applied to child development but the more I think about it, conquering is exactly what is required to overcome life’s obstacles be they internal or external. Everyday offers a new challenge. To conquer oneself is truly a Herculean task, complete with Labrynth and Minotaur.
How many young men and women of today are able to perform ALL actions necessary for comfort and development? Entire industries are based upon the many common areas in which humanity struggles. At what age is it reasonable to expect children or young adults to take over these actions for themselves? Ten years old? 15? 25? Dr. Montessori is quick to point out that biologically, all humans advance through physiological stages regardless of enviornment. However, “Environment can act in two opposite senses, favouring life, and stifiling it.” So in spite of natural human growth, the extent to which a child is offered appropriate independence at early ages directly impacts how soon he or she will begin to acquire the wherewithall to accept life’s many responsibilities for himself. As Dr. Montessori’s work clearly shows, the more a human being is “served” the less independent he will be.
“…and in doing so multiplies his abilities and perfects himself as an individual.” This sentence is another hidden gem. Here, Dr. Montessori describes the process that we see so often in the classroom, but is very easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. That independent success in one task simultaneously creates proficiency in other areas which might not immediately appear related. Success through effort begets ability just as knowledge begets understanding. Successfully dressing oneself or cleaning up a spill requires problem solving, sequencing and patience, which are not only valuable life skills, but are also required for math and all academics. The sum of one’s internalized skills learned through personal effort is human capability.
Why is this such an important concept to understand? Because along with it comes the acknowledgement that it is not necessary to force your child to work directly on the problem or deficit. A child who won’t go to bed when told does not need to be forced to sleep. A child who resists reading does not need to be forced to read. There is always a back door skill or character trait through which contributory success may be acheived indirectly.
Reading a dusty old book filled with words written in an abandoned syntax may not seem like a worthwhile endeavor. However, these concepts have stood the test of time, whether we remind ourselves of them or not. They are worth repeating and the purpose is not just so that we may apply them, but so that our children may avoid the conseqences of our ignorance.