Think about all the lessons of Practical Life. There’s a “Montessori way” to do everything, it seems, from how to carry a chair to how to greet a visitor, and even, as this chapter shows, how to blow your nose. We can get stuck on these lessons sometimes... we’ve spent so much time learning them, practicing them on each other in teacher education programs, writing out each step, drawing pictures or photographing them, to make sure we get them perfect.
But the presentation of the lessons is not about perfection; it’s about offering the child the tools they need for their own elevation. A child wants to be independent in feeding themselves, so we offer them lessons in carrying plates and transferring with a spoon. A child wants to have their own agency in dressing and undressing, so we offer them lessons with the dressing frames. A child wants not to be called, “the snotty one,” so they clap and cheer for lessons in blowing their noses. We need to offer elegant, graceful lessons, to be sure, but we need to be equally sure that the lessons we offer are the ones that allow children to elevate themselves.
Children are noticers. They’re watching the adults around them, older children, their peers, strangers, taking in all the possible ways of being But they are not only watching us to see how we behave. They are noticing, too, the things we are able to do that they are not, the language we use when we describe their limits, the subtle messages of inferiority that we instill when we talk about them or interact with them.
Those messages matter. Think about the language you hear used to describe children when they are interfering with adult agendas. “She’s trying to get attention.” “He can never sit still.” “Oh, no, I’m not bringing him there. He’d wreck the place.” We create diversions from the real activities that children are inspired by, and offer them instead time-wasters that remind them that we lack confidence in them. We build special rooms for them to cry in because we don’t expect them to want to enjoy the theatre. We give them crayons to draw on the tablecloths with at restaurants, so they don’t interrupt our adult conversation. We install screens in front of them- in our cars, in our living rooms, in their bedrooms, in all the places- so that they’ll just be quiet and still.
They rise to the occasion. When we expect them to be distractible and loud and cranky and bored, they are. When we talk about how they can’t sit still, how they can’t be trusted, how they never do what’s asked or always cause a problem, they will.
They rise to the occasion. When we talk about their promise, and how much faith we have in it, or when we acknowledge that they are good people who want to do the right thing, when we let them demonstrate power through usefulness, through contribution, and agency through collaboration and independence, they rise to the occasion.
The language we use around children, the language we use about them even when we think they are not in earshot: those messages matter. When we speak of children as less-than, they learn that they are less-than. When we speak of them as less-than, even when we think they are not in earshot, we will treat them as though they are less-than. The lessons we offer, the language we use, they’re not performative displays of goodness on our part. They need to reflect what we really believe about the children. And if we can’t speak well of the children, if we can’t describe them in terms of the potential we see in them and the work of construction in which they are engaged, the solution lies in changing ourselves, not fixing them.
So think about the lessons. Are you offering the child the Practical Life lessons that you think will elevate their spirit? The ones that will help them to become more useful contributors to their community? The ones that reflect the respect you have for the person they are becoming? Or are you offering them whichever skill is next in the series you learned in training? Are the children engaging in lessons because they’re purposeful, personally meaningful and motivating, or because they’re the-thing-you-do-when-you’re-done-doing-the-thing-you’ve-done?
The lessons are not about carrot cutting or holding a door or blowing a nose. They’re a way to offer the child meaningful motives for their own construction. They are a material way of saying, “You are a person who wants to matter to society, so here are the skills you will need to do so.” The society the children create, the society by cohesion, in which they are rely on and admire each other, is its own lesson for us. Give the children the tools they need to become who they are to become, and they will not only surpass our expectations, they’ll elevate each other at the same time. That's where the real treasure lies.
* A response to Chapter 23: The Society By Cohesion: The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori