From the time we were pre-schoolers, my brother and I constantly visited world-class museums and galleries with my parents. There was one rule that we were expected to adhere to without fail: hands behind your back. For us, “hands behind your back” meant: “We trust you and believe that you deserve to be in this beautiful and inspiring place. Show us that you can be trusted.” Even now, whenever I enter a museum or a store that sells fragile things, my hands swing instinctively behind my back.
Flash forward a few decades… As a Montessori guide in Primary (3-6) classroom, the message I wanted to transmit to my students was a similar one: “I trust you to control your impulses while observing someone working with a material. I trust you to respect the right of other children to work and concentrate.” A child who is able to observe with his hands behind his back understands that his rights end where someone else’s begin. He has internalized a concept that many adults still struggle to understand.
The younger we set up these expectations, and the more consistent we are, the more successful a child will be at developing self-control. In the Montessori Toddler and Primary environments, “hands behind your back” is one of the first Grace & Courtesy lessons given. The adults model proper observation etiquette for the youngsters, and will offer gentle reminders. The new children quickly learn to put their hands behind their backs, not because they are being forced to by an adult, but because nobody likes to be told by an irate classmate: “Don’t touch my work!”
When a child puts his hands behind his back, he is saying that he respects the other person’s work and expects the same courtesy in return. Putting one’s hands behind one’s back is always a choice, a subjugation of one’s impulses in the interest of social harmony. There are times for interacting and there are times for observing; Montessori children learn to tell the difference and make conscious choices on their own at a very early age.
We are often quick to doubt a child’s capacity for self-control. It’s very easy, almost automatic, to say: “You can’t watch her work because you’ll be tempted to grab her material.” Or, “You can’t go into that store because you’ll break something.” It’s much harder to look a child in the eye and say: “I believe in you; show me you believe in yourself.”