Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More from Montessori

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

Today, I'm wrassling with a parenting post that is just not cooperating. Does that ever happen to you? I find it somewhat frustrating, especially when I have a neat-o topic I'd like to start talking about right NOW. But I know there's little point in publishing something that is not coherent.

So instead of publishing my post today, I thought I'd share with you more quotations from Maria Montessori that I found in my research today. It's been a little while since I've read any of her books, but I still find her thoughts interesting and inspiring. Many of her quotations apply to my personal parenting principles, even though her focus was education.

Encouraging Independence

As an example of one my parenting principles (and I've mentioned this before), I try to encourage my kids' independence by giving them as much freedom as possible to experience reality and the consequences of their actions. And when I'm in doubt about what I should/could do, I try to err on the side of freedom--meaning that if I can think of no good reason to interfere (in matters of safety, for example), then I do not.

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

“Little children, from the moment they are weaned, are making their way toward independence.”

“To give a child liberty is not to abandon him to himself.”
“The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self.”

Using Positive Discipline Methods

The ideas behind Positive Discipline are very similar to Montessori's thinking. One of my favorite PD books has the phrase "giving your child the gift of inner discipline" right in the title, which really speaks to the essence of PD. We ultimately want our kids to reach adulthood with inner discipline, and not become accustomed to someone else doing their thinking for them, making decisions about what is best for them. True inner discipline will be difficult--if not impossible--to attain without the relative freedom to interact with reality, to learn how things work.

“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.”

“Free choice is one of the highest of all the mental processes.”

“Only through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to occur.”

The Teacher (Parent) as Guide

One of the striking things about a Montessori classroom is that the role of the teacher is very defined and it's quite different from a traditional classroom. Traditional teachers are experts who impart knowledge to children and the child's job is to learn what the teacher tells him. By comparison, a child in a Montessori classroom has an enormous amount of freedom of movement, freedom to choose what he wants to do. The teacher is there to assist the child--when and if he needs it. Other than that, the teacher stays out of the child's way.

The way I try to parent emulates how Montessori teacher guides her students. I'm there to guide and help them: when Ryan needs help he calls for "reinforcements" which is a pretty good way to describe it, too.

“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”

“These words reveal the child’s inner needs; ‘Help me to do it alone’.”

The first quotation is pretty interesting; I'd love to read it in context. (There is a danger, always, to taking quotations like these out of context.) At first, she seems to directly contradict the quotation above about how giving a child liberty is not "abandoning him to himself." If you happen to know the context, point me to one of her books. I believe that remark describes the crucial role of the teacher--and I think, the parent--in helping a child gain control over his body and his mind, so that he might become truly independent one day. (But I could be wrong.)

[WARNING: Despite what I wrote at the beginning of this post about not publishing posts that are not coherent, there's rambling disjointedness coming up! These ideas are very much a work in progress as I'm thinking through some things. I'd love to get some constructive feedback, though.]

Allowing a child do absolutely anything he likes with no boundaries does not foster true freedom. He will not learn how to control his impulses or exercise his own rationality--unlike lower animals, a human child is not born knowing what to do automatically. But because he has an immature brain, he also lacks rationality. I think the process of developing inner discipline might be simply learning to use one's mind, to learn how to focus on reality and understand how one's thought processes work (among many other things).

A child who lacks inner discipline will not be able to be truly independent and would develop into an adult who is essentially a slave to his own ungoverned mental processes. It's easy to see how such a person might be easily swayed by others; how he might follow his irrational whims; how he might view the world as essentially out of control and a malevolent place. There are of course many directions such a person may head (drift?) toward. Someone will need to make his decisions, to guide his life--the choice between learning to exercise rationality and developing discipline of mind and body or, well, not--is essentially the choice to guide one's own life or to put others in charge of those crucial decisions.

How hard do we adults have to work to break a bad habit or even just to improve an "okay" habit? To do so requires inner discipline, to retrain our minds to hold X instead of Y as our higher value--to hold one's health higher than smoking or overeating, to hold saving money for a home higher than spending through each paycheck, etc. If you are accustomed to accepting another's thoughts as your own, or accepting another's direction instead of your own, breaking a bad habit would be that much more difficult to accomplish. Consider how much easier life would be if you grew up with a strong, limber rational muscle, and lots of solid experience to help guide your decisions.

I think Montessori is right--that without freedom to make choices, there is no real discipline. Experience--direct interaction with reality--is a really great teacher. And as a parent, I try not to interfere with that great teacher's methods. And to be perfectly honest, it's a whole lot easier when the kids are mad at reality and not me!

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