“The humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration.”

June 2, 2020

 

One of the best ways to inspire parents to come to an education night at school is to promise to discuss “Child Discipline.” Outsiders, looking over our shoulders into the classrooms, could easily be convinced that there is some structure or set of rules at play here that results in the peaceful environments, the busy children, the care for themselves and others that the children seem to demonstrate so naturally. 

 

There is. But it’s not for the children. The rules are for the adults. The children are just fine. 

 

Prepare an environment appropriate to the child. 

 

Observe the child’s free interaction with that environment. 

 

Intervene only if the child’s free interaction causes injury to others or harm to the environment, and otherwise, tie yourself to a pole. 

 

For most of us, the first two come pretty easily. It’s the last one that’s the hardest, the sitting on our hands, the practice of non-intervention when the children are doing things we don’t think will serve them, or when we have a better way, or when we think we can help. 

 

But here’s the thing: If you don’t follow the last one, you’re going either to have one of two extremes. You’ll either be overwhelmed by the first two, thinking there’s always more to do or thinking you better help the children find some work or thinking you have to somehow speed along this normalization things, or you’re going to have a classroom that looks very peaceful and very disciplined and very quiet but is actually just very dependent on you. Both come from our eager-intervention, even when that intervention is well-intended. 

 

Maybe especially when that intervention is well-intended. 

 

We are impatient for the child’s spontaneous activity, so we lead them around or make them sit still until they “find work.” We are impatient for the self-motivation Montessori promises, so we make them work plans to follow. We are impatient for the peaceful society we’ve been told they’ll create, so we pull them to Peace Tables or hand them sticks and roses to indicate that we have approved of their voices. We doubt them, and so we create all of these outside punishments and rewards and we call them, “natural consequences.” 

 

Prepare an environment appropriate to the child. 

 

Observe the child’s free interaction with that environment. 

 

Intervene only if the child’s free interaction causes injury to others or harm to the environment, and otherwise, tie yourself to a pole.

 

Montessori doesn’t tell us that anything goes. Indeed, the methods are quite clear: we are to intervene when the child’s behavior is hurtful or likely to cause injury. But we are to intervene to stop the behavior- we are not supposed to then force the child to “make it right,” or insist that they do other lessons of our choosing instead or make them sit still until they can “make a choice.” 

 

“A child’s liberty should have as its limit the interests of the group to which he belongs.” 

 

“But everything else, every act that can be useful in any way whatever, may be expressed.”

 

“This is essential.” 

 

It is not up to us, even when we think we are acting on the child’s behalf,  to insist on activity. It is not up to us, even when we call it, “responsibility,” to insist that a child demonstrate to us the value of their choices. It is not up to us, even when we think we are modeling right behavior, to insist that the child display remorse when they’ve done something wrong. Spontaneous activity comes from the child, and the humanity which is revealed comes from the society they create between themselves. There is no place for us in it. 

 

But we are so impatient. 

 

We want change so quickly. 

 

We’re getting in the way. 

 

The child has a humanity that is separate from ours, an ability to nurture themselves and to care for others, an intrinsic desire to be a part of a society, to contribute to it, to learn from it, to lead it peacefully. 

 

But we are so impatient. 

 

For a hundred years, we’ve been getting in the way. 

 

What would it take for us to sit on our hands? Some promise from outside that it’s going to work? Some protection that we won’t be held personally accountable if it doesn’t, that we’ll still have our jobs and the faith of the parents whose children we’ve promised to guide? The peaceful revolution Montessori called for is not going to unfold one teacher at a time. If we are committed to it, we need also to be committed to raising our voices in its defense. We need to be willing to use our voices to create space for other teachers who may not have the same protections we do. We need to re-educate ourselves to how this method was designed to work, rather than doubling-down on the ways in which it can be used to perpetuate adult-centered models of obedience, even when we have the best of intentions. We were not called to use Montessori methods to propagate traditional values, but to radicalize the ways in which adults value childhood, to recognize how, even when we mean well, we continue to perpetuate the same structures of power and control in adults. Inside of our classrooms, we need to sit on our hands. Outside of our classrooms, we need to use all that energy of intervention to educate parents and policymakers and civic leaders and school reformers about what we’re doing and why what we’re doing requires patience, respect and veneration. Be impatient with injustice. Be impatient with systemic racism. Be impatient with the totalitarianism. Be impatient with adults. 

 

Trust the child. Be impatient with yourself. Be impatient with adults. But trust the child. 

 

* A response to Chapter 3, Part One, “The Teaching Methods Employed in Children’s Houses,” The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori 

 

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