(Photo courtesy of Joe Hayhurst, Flickr CC)
I’m about half way through reading Dr. María Montessori’s book The Secret of Childhood. If you are interested in learning more about the Montessori philosophy of life and learning, then I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s a great place to start!
Instead of waiting until I was done with the book to write a review of it on the blog, I wanted to share with you a page from chapter 2, “The Accused,” that stopped me in my tracks. It’s a section that, in my opinion, adults and parents must understand – a starting point, if you will – before they implement any of the other more well-known, practical, parts of Montessori, like the learning tower, or work trays, or child-sized furniture, or neatly-arranged low shelves. Those are secondary.
To prepare you to read Montessori’s words, consider this question: What if, in order to fully and most clearly see our child, we adults have to be the one to change?
I’ve broken down the rather long quotation into bits to give the words time to sink in, and also to share with you how each particular part has influenced me as a new mother.
“Now if a child is to be treated differently than he is today, if he is to be saved from the conflicts that endanger his psychic life, a radical change, and one upon which everything else will depend, must first be made; and this change must be made in the adult….”
(First, as any English teacher would, let me provide you with a definition.) What is “psychic life?” While today the word “psychic” makes us think of fortune tellers, “Dr. Montessori used the word ‘psychic’ …[to refer] to the psyche, or one’s mind and soul, and the development of one’s personality.” (Source; emphasis mine)
Wow! How often do we hear parents today talk about their children’s development in terms of their mind and soul? I know I rarely talk about E.’s soul growth; my parent conversations often revolve around to sleep train or not?, snacks: yeah or nay?, and when will my daughter learn to pick up her toys by herself?
And, how often do we parents frame our conversations about parenting in terms of our own need for change and growth? I remember hearing from someone somewhere that the day a baby is born is the day a parent is born, too.
“There is also much that is unknown about a child. There is a part of a child’s soul that has always been unknown but which must be known. With a spirit of sacrifice and enthusiasm we must go in search like those who travel to foreign lands and tear up mountains in their search for hidden gold. This is what the adult must do who seeks the unknown factor that lies hidden in the depths of a child’s soul….”
What if our children actually did come with their own unique manual of instructions? What if, through observation and a “…spirit of sacrifice and enthusiasm” we could unlock that manual to truly see what our child needs, likes, feels, and wants?
“Adults have not understood children or adolescents and they are, as a consequence, in continual conflict with them….”
Hey, wait. I’ve got a Master’s degree in education and eight years of teaching high school under my belt. Me not understand children?
Why do we parents often talk of our children in terms of conflict? Why won’t he eat vegetables? You think two is hard, just wait until she turns into a “threenager.” Why doesn’t he listen to me when I’ve told him 100 times to not run into the street? She’s so clingy!
Could it be that our conflict is due to our lack of empathy, our inability to listen, our own stubborn heart?
“The remedy is not that adults should gain some new intellectual knowledge or achieve a higher standard of culture. No, they must find a different point of departure. The adult must find within himself the still unknown error that prevents him from seeing the child as he is….” (Emphasis original to Montessori)
This flies in the face of everything I find natural to do in order to become a so-called better parent. I’ll just read ten parenting books and subscribe to every parenting blog out there; that’s how I’ll get my child to do what I say. Or, if our culture could just become more tolerant, more gentle, more nurturing towards children, that would solve our parental head-butting with our children.
That’s not enough! Montessori reminds us. It’s not that black and white. It’s not that superficial. We must go deeper (“within [ourselves]”). A relational conflict implies that someone in the relationship must change in order for their to be peace, reconciliation. What is it within me that creates distance and prevents intimacy with my child?
“In their dealings with children adults do not become egotistic but egocentric. They look upon everything pertaining to a child’s soul from their own point of view and, consequently, their misapprehensions are constantly on the increase. Because of this egocentric view, adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction….”
Most parenting and educational theories – both secular and religious – start from the assumption that a child is a blank slate. Children are empty vessels, passive, waiting helpless and needy to be filled. It is the job of the adults to impart knowledge, morals and ethics, customs, and values. “…Everything pertaining to a child’s soul…” is defined and judged based on the parent as standard.
Are we so infallible in our parenting? Are our children totally helpless and needy and weak? Perhaps they are more capable than we give them credit for.
“In conclusion we may say that the adult looks upon himself as the child’s creator and judges the child’s actions as good or bad from the viewpoint of his own relations with the child. The adult makes himself the touchstone of what is good and evil in the child. He is infallible, the model upon which the child must be molded. Any deviation on the child’s part from adult ways is regarded as an evil which the adult hastens to correct.” (María Montessori, The Secret of Childhood)
Wow, this part took my ego down like 1,000 notches. I grew this baby, so I know what’s best! If I’m honest with myself, I’d have to admit that that statement is the underlying reason for so much of what I do and say as a mom. Do I really, always, know what’s best? Am I really an “…infallible model…” for my daughter? Is every action of hers that’s different from mine wrong?
I don’t know about you, but Dr. Montessori’s words certainly cut me to the core and have caused me to reflect on my own relationship with my daughter. I plan to follow up this post next week by sharing practical changes I’ve made to my interactions with E. after having read this chapter from Montessori’s book. Stay tuned!