“The three degrees of obedience,” sounds like a honeymoon to many adults. You mean there’s an entire chapter about how to get our children to do what we want them to? Well, yes. And no. It’s not that easy.
Montessori describes both the ways in which children can comply and the ways in which they ultimately may choose obedience, and in both, the relationships with the people they love most matter. Initially, they may be obedient almost by chance, when their actions and the actions desired by an adult happen to line up. Just as quickly, though, that alignment passes and the child appears to be “naughty” again. When they’ve developed more consciousness and the ability to demonstrate their own will, they are able to be obedient intentionally, but based fully on their wish to please the adult. Montessori compares this obedience to the enthusiasm of a loving pet. It’s only after the child has developed true self-knowledge and the ability to regulate their own choices by will that they demonstrate the noblest “obedience,” the knowing choice to act in a particular way because they alone have chosen rightness. Not from fear. Nor from love. But because they are independent actors capable of independent agency and with the full intent to live rightly.
As adults caring for young children, we often live in the space between the first and second degrees, when children occasionally but unwillingly obey and when they choose to obey because of their love (or fear) of us. Here is the tremendous responsibility: do we use the child’s love for us to make them do what we want them to do? Do we use language which influences the child’s choices, which links their behavior to our approval? “It would make me so happy if you...” Do we ask children to do things because the doing improves their community, or because it makes things a little easier for us?
We want our children to know that we love them unconditionally. But it’s so easy to link our language to our affection, as though their compliance determined our loyalty. What authority! And what a cruel path to obedience if we use that authority wrongly.
The society by cohesion, complete with children who see themselves as a part of a tribe of peers, who seek the good for their community and who want to engage in meaningful ways, leads to a different kind of obedience, one in which the children trust that the guidance of the adult is a resource for them, in which they recognize by will that they have the choice to act for themselves and choose nonetheless to act on behalf of others. In this most noble obedience, the children care for each other first. They act for the community before themselves. And so, when they are asked to do something, they will do so almost immediately, in a demonstration of that intertwined inter reliance among their society.
The normalization of the child precedes this highest obedience. And we know that the normalization of the child comes from spontaneous activity with interesting motives, in an environment prepared for their goodness and allowing for their own correction of their errors. The control of error, if it is to be profound and earnest, must come from the child themselves.
It’s an elegant obedience that comes not from fear or love, but from belonging.
And we only support the children in developing it by first supporting the society they are creating without us. Our classrooms cannot be places within which the teacher’s voice is more important than that of the children, or in which children must seek out a teacher’s approval or permission for each task. Without the society by cohesion, there is no belonging to protect. And a teacher-focused classroom, even in peacefulness and productivity, is more tyranny than community.
Hold your tongue. Tie yourself to the post. Allow the children to resolve problems between themselves. Allow them to teach each other, even when they may not do it exactly the way you would. They love you as you love them, and they will seek to please you if you allow your approval to carry more weight than their community. It is precisely because our voices carry such influence that we need to use them so sparingly, lest the child believe that theirs matter less.
* A response to Chapter 26: The Three Degrees of Obedience The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori