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Montessori Nuggets: When Your Child Knows Better Than You

This morning, while browsing through my Montessori books, I came across a short speech that Dr. Montessori gave in England, ca. 1930.  I have taken the liberty of transcribing it to this blog from the book “The Child, Society, and the World”.  As you read this speech, it’s important to remember that the Montessori approach is an entire philosophy, with each principle dependent on the presence of many others to function properly.  Therefore, when Dr. Montessori talks about giving children freedom, keep in mind that supporting concepts such as limits,  consequences, and a prepared environment are implied.  People who choose to apply only parts of the Montessori philosophy and ignore those that they find cumbersome very quickly run into problems and then erroneously conclude that the method doesn’t work.

It’s also important to note that if a child has been “helicoptered” his entire life, then it is all he knows.  When suddenly given freedom, we cannot expect the child to be capable of following developmental drives that have been forced into dormancy for years.  In a Montessori environment, we often receive children who are incapable of handling freedom because they have never experienced it.  They have a hard time making productive choices and are unwilling to work independently, preferring instead to be told what to do and insisting that the teacher stay by their side.  A wise teacher will not abandon this child in unfamiliar territory; she will give him appropriate choices based on his needs and interests and will provide clear limits he can understand.  She will observe the child objectively and will recede into the background as his Nature-given drives reawaken and take over, remaining a steadfast beacon of security he can turn to in times of need.  A parent who wants to support a child’s development might consider doing the same.

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When Your Child Knows Better Than You

 Dr. Maria Montessori

If a foolish mother frog said to her tadpoles in the pool, “Come out of the water, breathe the fresh air, enjoy yourselves in the young grass, and you will all grow into strong healthy little frogs.  Come along now, mother knows best!” and the little tadpoles tried to obey, it would certainly mean the end of tadpoles.

And yet, that is how so many of us are trying to bring up our children.  We are anxious that they shall grow into intelligent, useful citizens, with fine characters and good manners.  And so we spend our time and patience correcting them, telling them to do this, not to do that, and when they want to know, “Why Mummy?”, we don’t stop to find out why we interfere, but put them off with “Mother knows best.”

We are in exactly the same position as the foolish frog if only we could see it.  This little life that we are trying to mould needs no forcing and squeezing, no correcting or fault-finding to develop its intelligence and character.  Nature looks after children in the same way as she sees that the tadpole grows into a frog, when the time is ready.

“But,” I can hear you say, “shall we leave our children to do as they like?  How can they know what is best for them when they have had no experience?  And think what little savages they would grow up to be if we did not teach them manners…”

And I would answer, “Have you given your children a chance even for one day of doing what they like without interference?”

Try it and you will be astonished.  Watch and see how something catches their interest.  Perhaps they see you turn a key in the lock and want to do it too, or help you sweep, or just make some funny little pattern with pebbles on your tidy floor and on any ordinary day you would say, “Don’t get in the way, play with your toys.” 

But today give them the key, try to find a little brush for them to sweep with, leave the pattern on the floor and see how absorbed they become.  It is often not enough for children to do a thing once or twice, but they will perform the same simple action over and over again until they seem to have satisfied some inner urge.  You will be surprised how they keep out of mischief when they are allowed to busy themselves with something that really interests them.

But if you interfere impatiently and stop some absorbing occupation, you will destroy your child’s concentration and perseverance – valuable lessons he is teaching himself.  He will be dissatisfied, and filled with a sense of disappointment and restlessness, and will very likely find an outlet in deliberate mischief.

And what is this troublesomeness that we are so afraid of if we do not correct little children?  We say that we correct them for their own good, and a great deal of the time we honestly believe it.  But it is strange how often what we feel to be their good amounts to the same thing as our own comfort.  We are all so busy with our grown-up, froggy work that we forget that the little tadpoles have work of their own to do – the work of growing into men and women.

And this work which only they can do.  The greatest help we can give them is to stand by and see that they are free to develop in their own way.  We can on the other hand make their work very hard.  Iff we persist in saying “Mother knows best” and try to form their growing intellects and characters by our own standards, we shall succeed only in destroying self-discipline, we shall break the child’s power of concentration by trying to fix his attention on matters which he is not yet interested in, and he will grow deceitful if we insist too harshly.

But if we change our whole attitude and say to ourselves, “Baby knows what is best for him.  Let us of course watch that he comes to no harm, but instead of trying to teach him our ways let us give him freedom to live his own little life in his own way,” then perhaps we shall learn something about the ways of childhood if we are observant.

… Children live in a world of their own interests, and the work they do there must be respected, for though many childish activities may seem pointless to grown-ups, nature is using them for her own ends.  She is building mind and character as well as bone and muscle.

The greatest help you can give your children is freedom to go about their own work in their own way, for in this matter your child knows better than you.

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Filling the Bucket

An acquaintance recently posted this picture on his Facebook page:

Nice imagery… But how do you fill that darn bucket?  Praise?  Rewards?  A bucket full of “good jobs”, A+, and gold medals?  Honestly, I don’t think it’s the parents’ responsibility to fill the bucket.  Only by letting the child fill it on his own will we ensure that it will never run dry.

The only way we can encourage the child to fill his own bucket is by giving him experiences in which he can find success.  The crawling baby will feel a sense of achievement when he can get out of bed on his own; the toddler will rejoice when he spreads jelly on a piece of bread all by himself; the pre-schooler will know he’s capable when he figures out how to tie his own tennis shoes; the 9-year old will understand his worth when he carries groceries for an elderly woman; the adolescent will lift his chin when he can teach his dad how to fix an engine; the young adult will feel proud when his invention touches the lives of others.

Intertwined in all these experiences are two important concepts: trusting the child and giving him freedom with responsibility.  In each instance, the adult had to trust not only the child’s ability, but also his capacity for problem-solving and assuming responsibility when things go wrong (and things often do when mastering a new skill).  How can the pre-schooler feel successful about tying his shoelaces if we only buy him shoes with velcro (and even worse, insist on helping him with his shoes)?  How can the 9-year old help an elderly person if we don’t give him the skills and freedom to cross the street on his own?  Should we send the motorcycle to the mechanic or trust our adolescent when he says he can fix it?  Must we force the young adult to stick to the career path we think suits him best, or let him follow his heart and mind?

Praise makes the child dependent on you to fill his bucket; trust sets him free to fill it on his own.

So long as you are still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself. ~Neale Donald Walsch