“Go find work.”
“Make a choice.”
“You may sit here until you’re ready to work.”
The trick of a system as comprehensive and complicated as Montessori is that it can also be wildly oversimplified. “Work gives joy,” becomes, “all children must work all the time.” “Freedom of choice,” becomes, “freedom to choose between the two things I’ve picked for you.” And because Montessori’s descriptions of the conditions of her original experiments are often nested within larger lectures or chapters that include other phenomenon, it’s easy to pick the few lines that we can use to explain, well, just about anything we may want to do.
If we believe (as we do) that children are intrinsically good, that they want to contribute to their communities and that they find joy when they are engaged in purposeful work, why do we sometimes engage in interventions (as we do) that treat children as though they want to be naught, as though they are lazy or troublesome, as though they are at fault if the work we want them to do is not purposeful to them?
Because we believe (as we do) that children, in their normalized state are attentive, are engaged, are focused, are peaceful and so we believe (as we do) that if we can make them behave as though they are attentive, engaged, focused and peaceful, they’ll get there more quickly.
Montessori warns us, in this chapter, of how wrong that presumption is. Children need purposeful work, driven by their own inner guide, and the time to discover and connect that guide to that work. We cannot speed along the emergence of the normalized child by taking away from them the motives that allow that normalization. We cannot force a child to work or force them to be still or force them to concentrate. We can only create the conditions within which that work might happen, that stillness might emerge, and that concentration may develop. The connection, Montessori reminds us, comes from the child.
With simplicity and uniqueness. Each child will demonstrate their own contribution, through work discovered joyfully by the child. We don’t have to force it. Indeed, we can’t.
'It is certainly beautiful to see the child learn with the material. However, what happens to the child, what happens within the child, is not for us to know. This is the secret of the child' (Montessori, Creative Development in the Child. Madras: Kalakshetra Press,1998, p.73)
So what in the world are we to do with the child who won’t choose work? With the one who uses the broad stair as a train? With the one who can’t leave their sibling’s side?
Montessori tells us clearly. Unless the child is in risk of bodily harm or damaging the materials, we follow the child.
We follow the child’s spirit.
We follow the child’s pace.
We follow the child’s inner guide.
We offer an environment prepared with purposeful activities, with interesting motives and materials to entice the child. We prepare the spaces carefully for the child’s discovery, offering lessons we suspect will enchant, and observing to see whether our best guess was right. And if it’s not, if the child walks away from a lesson we thought they’d find motivating, we don’t force them to return to work with it anyway. Instead, we have one more detail to help us understand how better to prepare the environment in the future. It’s all our best guess.
We are called to be scientists, to be servants, to be saints. Montessori never called us to be supervisors or strict disciplinarians. Children need purposeful work, driven by their own inner guide, and the time to discover and connect that guide to that work. Even when it takes a long time. Even when we really want them to get busy today. Even when we’ve offered a perfect lesson. It’s the child who connects their inner guide to the purposeful work. We cannot do it for them by force, even by gentle force that looks like guidance, even by gentle force that looks like guidance and uses Montessori’s own words. We can only prepare the environment, and prepare ourselves to be a part of it, interesting, available, responsive, ready for the child’s self-construction. We cannot construct the child by force. We don't "choose" for the child anymore than we carry them when when know they want to walk. We are witness and companion, walking alongside child until they are ready to run ahead.
* A response to Chapter 20: The Social Contribution of the Child The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori