The Age of Rudeness, or Where Did My Adorable Baby Go?
Montessori identified four planes of development through which children move in fairly predictable ways. The preparation of the Montessori environment is tied to these planes, which explains why a Montessori toddler classroom looks so different from a Montessori Middle School.
The first plane of development, from birth through age six, is a time of expansion and exploration, when the child is learning about the world and his or her role within it. It's overflowing with curiosity and a constant investigation to determine which places and relationships are the most reliable, learning whether the world is a safe place and whether the child is secure within it. Children at this age seek constancy and routine, learning through concrete experiences with real objects they can move and touch and act upon.
The second plane of development, from age six through twelve, is marked by a defining and refining of those lessons learned in the first plane. Children can typically read and write by now, understand basic math concepts and have a sense of the primary relationships around them. As they move into the second plane of development, this foundational work leads to a new awakening, as the child's intellect and his or her sense of what's right and wrong blossom to reach beyond the lessons they are offered to new discoveries about the world around them and their ability to influence it. Children are suddenly concerned with social justice, arguing for things to be made more fair, and increasingly concerned with the opinions of their peers. They understand now that the society is not a random phenomenon, but a factor of individual actions, and they want to be one of the actors who influences it.
And while this is a cognitively, socially and emotionally awe-inspiring change, frankly, sometimes it can be a little annoying.
Because, while by now children have now experienced the security and assurance constructed by the limits and parameters of early childhood, children at this age are critically concerned with testing those same limits and parameters, rules they'd taken for granted in the first plane of development. They aren't easily satisfied. While a three-year-old can be distracted from an inappropriate choice by simply repeating the rule, a seven year old is much more likely to want to test that rule. They understand that rules are not absolute. They understand that good and bad are not constant conditions. They understand that the world is the way it is because people have made it so, and they are compelled to have agency and voice and influence in it. They want both to feel and to be important, not unlike most of us as adults.
And so they test. They use inappropriate language. They talk back. They insist on wearing clothes you would never have chosen for them. They make impolite noises with all parts of their bodies and they find themselves and their peers hysterical. They may or may not still think you're all that entertaining as an adult and, if you're their parent or another authority figure, they're likely to point out for you all the ways in which they think you might do your work a little better.
Montessori called it, "the age of rudeness."
Children between the ages of six and twelve can understand the world as separate from themselves. They understand that relationships are complicated and can change. They want to be noticed. And so they behave in ways that bring a lot of notice. It's important, as a parent or a teacher, then, to keep your eyes on the horizon. Your child may not behave like the sweet little angel in hand-smocked clothing anymore. You may suddenly feel a little less judgment and a little more compassion for the parents of older children you rolled your eyes at just a few years ago. But as challenging as this plane of development may be to guide, it also comes hand in hand with some pretty optimistic factors.
For example, your child's intellectual awakening may show itself sometimes through a refusal to take your word as an authority anymore. He or she may be more argumentative or dismissive. But this same phenomena makes the second plane a great time to introduce regular service and civic engagement. Children, with a newly emergent sense of outrage at the injustices of the world around them, are driven to change those injustices. Their need to be a part of a group of peers can be channeled into student-led service projects. They have the capacity to identify the needs of their community and, with your help, to focus that into specific actions to address those needs. Let them identify needs in their immediate community and work through the complicated routes to addressing them. A group of students who recognize that a crosswalk in their neighborhood lacks enough visibility for pedestrians can be meaningfully engaged in lobbying their local elected officials for better signage or a more clearly defined crosswalk. Children at this age have both the intellectual capacity and the attention span to engage in long-term, complex problem solving and to do so as a part of a group with distinct roles. They seek opportunities to work with their peers and for that work to better the world around them. Give them more of these opportunities, and the negative behaviors that are also motivated by a need for influence and agency will likely diminish.
Your child is also undergoing a moral awakening, when he or she understands that someone created the rules, when the nuances of good and bad are more interesting to them. Their need to influence those rules means that they are usually pretty astute at creating ones and following the ones they've identified. This is a prime time to talk with children about how they want their communities to work and what sacrifices or responsibilities they're willing to undertake to get them there. When your child's behavior pushes social norms, you have more choices as a parent in your response. While a younger child may be satisfied by a simple rearticulation of the rule, older children are more likely to change their behavior if (1) they are involved in identifying both the problem and its potential remedy and (2) that involvement happens quietly, away from the observation of their peers. So, when your child belches at the table or experiments with impolite language, quietly ask him or her to join you in private. Remind them of the norms for gracious behavior in your home, and then ask them how they would like to help protect those norms. When you're outnumbered, you can calmly offer a group conversation, identifying the problem of the discourteous behavior and asking for ideas from the group about how to fix it. Avoid calling your child out for his or her behavior in public. Children in this stage of development are acutely attentive to the opinions their peers and, if forced to choose between their loyalty to you and their standing with their peers, may, at first, choose their peers. Understanding this doesn't mean giving up your own influence on your child's moral development or behavior, but instead, appreciating that that influence will be more potent if it happens in private, connected conversations between you and your child.
The Age of Rudeness may feel like you've mysteriously lost that sweet angelic child you enjoyed for the last six years. Stay focused on the underlying growth your child's misbehavior demonstrates: an ability to imagine a world beyond his or her immediate environment, an ability to discern what's right and what's wrong and, most importantly, a motivation to influence the world in meaningful ways. Avoid patronizing language or sarcasm- your child has enough cognitive development at this point both to understand it and to be insulted by it. Instead, give your child opportunity for that influence to be both real and positive. Appreciate that the regards of their friends may seem more important to them now, but don't forget that you are still your child's first and most important teacher. While he or she may need some space to practice changing the world, your relationship should always remain the safe harbor to return to, a place of comfort and grace. Show it to your child and show it to yourself. You both need as much patience as you can muster these days.