Montessori, master observer, notes the ways in which infant environments are often designed for the comfort of adults, rather than to respond to the development of the infant. She notes the attention to hygiene and predictability in the nursery instead of the involvement of the infant throughout the household, and she describes for us how different the experiences are for infants when they remain with their parents. Still, a hundred years or so later, we often associate wealth with the isolation of children: we design houses to be large enough so that children have their own rooms, their own playrooms, their own spaces away from adult life, and we feel for the parents who can’t afford babysitters or other caretakers and have to bring their children along with them to the market, to the doctor’s office, to the bank...
We’ve got it all backwards. The luxury is not to be able to leave your infant behind, but to have the time and resources available to you to bring them along, to live a life that is welcoming throughout to the infant, that allows us to engage their interest and slow down to their pace. The luxury is to be able to change the direction of our lives to follow the child, to put away all the machines and apparatus on which we rely to distract our children and keep them out of our hair, and welcome them into our worlds. The wealth is not in the ability to buy more things that allow us to maintain our momentum as adults, but to spend more time and to slow down to the pace of the child.
But what if this weren’t a luxury? What if we accepted, as a basic human right, the infant’s right to be in the environments that surround them? What if we didn’t think of infancy as a time to be celebrated with play pens and cribs and battery operated seats, but as the time when the impressions the child receives about the world are the most powerful? What if we spent as much energy, as a society, as a populace, investing in the developmental needs of infants as we do on colleges and universities?
It may be far off before we will see society at large attend to the work of the infant as a primary focus. It’s worth moving toward, though, even if only to hold ourselves accountable when we make choices that interfere with that development. But it’s within our reach, as Montessorians, to do it today. What if we didn’t exclude children from parent communication with the school, but put the burden on ourselves to change the way we speak about children and the way we model communication when they’re present? What if, instead of thinking about things that we need to “tell” parents, we looked for ways to engage families in collaboration? What if we modeled welcoming for infants, through the supports we offer to parents at home, and the physical spaces of the “adult” areas of our schools, through schedules and pacings that supported it.
One of my strongest memories of my daughter’s infancy includes her baptism, at a little church in our hometown, officiated by a priest named Joe Sanchez. Father Joe was a rabble-rouser. Not because he pushed back on church doctrine or engaged political battles. But because he insisted that, of all the people who should be welcome in the church, infants and children were at the top of the list. He’d leave the altar if the children in the congregation were loud, and welcome them to move to the front rows so they could see better. He pushed back against the complaints of the conservative older adults in the church, who wanted the service to be predictable and the children to be more quiet. “The mass is life,” he’d say, “And life is messy.” When he baptized my daughter, the service took much much longer than it might have otherwise, because he kept interrupting the prayers to smile and laugh with her. He spoke to her gently about what was going to happen, my little baby of four months old, before he stroked oil on to her head. He apologized that the water might be cold before he sprinkled her with it. And he never broke eye contact with her until she looked away from him. It was messy, yes, and it took longer than we’d planned, and it was abundant with joy and warmth.
Father Joe was not a Montessorian, but he was a human who noticed and attended to the need for welcoming. What if we accepted, as a basic human right, the infant’s right to be welcome in the environments that surround them? What if we truly enacted a belief that we are at their service, instead of the subtle ways in which we insist they accommodate us? We would change things in our schools, to be sure, but we would also be aware of when we needed to change things in our society. We would notice when we see parents overwhelmed by the business of daily tasks, and we’d offer to help. We’d be more forgiving of other parents we see at the playground, who don’t have the luxury yet of slowing down the pace of their other demands, and we would offer them grace and companionship. We’d ask colleagues what their families needed of them before we scheduled new meetings or other obligations. We’d slow down. We’d model speaking to children instead of around them. We’d put aside the fear that strangers will think we’re odd of silly and we’d welcome the children. Life is messy. We’d make space for the mess, even if it takes longer than we’d planned, abundant in joy and warmth.
* A response to Chapter 9, Care to be Taken at Life’s Beginning, The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori