Montessori: Committed People with a Passion for Children…
I recently attended the closing ceremony of a five week gathering of young scientists in Beijing that brought together people from almost every country in the world. These were young people who have graduated; some are working on their masters or doctors degrees, some young scholars, researchers. They all shared a common interest: astronomy, astrophysics, engineering, etc. As the ceremony was about to end, the last speaker was called. Peter Diamandis was one of the three co-founders of the International Space University, the institution standing behind this five week gathering. I was prepared for a more technical speech than what he gave, but somehow, his words did not astonish me. The feeling was more like, indeed what else could he say? He was planting seeds that can grow and bring results that last beyond a person’s lifetime…
He did not speak of space exploration, travel nor the latest discoveries. Neither did he list the accomplishments of ISU or any other similar institution. What Peter Diamandis had to say to the several hundred attendees of the closing ceremony was that “little something” that he thought has been essential, during the more than two decades since ISU was founded, and guarantees it is still around and is still successful.
“There were times when we had no money,” he said, “yet, we kept going, until we managed to find funding again.” Difficulties, even now, must be faced daily. There will always be difficulties and challenges to be met, whatever work we do. We all know that. What was important, however, was the question he asked as he addressed the audience: “What is it that is essential to succeed at what we do?” The question could be asked of any group, or individual, and the answer, also fits any community: “Passion, commitment and networking,” and I paraphrase and reflect upon what he said, now, from the point of view of what it means for Montessorians.
Passion: “If you are not passionate about what you are doing, quit right now, find what your passion is and go do it!” If you have no passion for what you are doing, is it possible to succeed?
Commitment: “Never quit. Never give up.” Persistence is essential in any and all activities, if we are to succeed. Someone said that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and it is very much true. It doesn’t all have to be hard work. But we must keep at it and not quit.
Networking: “People.” People are the most valuable asset. One person, or two or three, start it, whatever the venture may be. Then a few more join. Then even more. The interest is shared. Consequently, progressively, more and more resources are shared. Knowledge is shared. We all become richer in terms of outcomes, results and growth. Strength lies in numbers, when people rely on each other.
For Montessorians, be it the adult in the classroom or the parent at home, when we speak of being advocates for the children, providing the best possible environments, and making sure that children are allowed to become all they can, all these apply: passion, commitment and networking. It applies to those who work with children and the children themselves.
If children are to become all that their potential will allow, then they have to be given the right conditions. What conditions? An environment where they can find and develop their passion; development of the capacity to commit themselves wholeheartedly to their work; and the capacity to both support and rely on others, be it family, friends or the community at large—network…
These principles are essential in all Montessori environments as they are at home, when we deal with children and also with other adults. Can you imagine an adult, in an environment like the Montessori prepared environment, who is not passionate about being with children? Or one who is not passionate about preparing that environment in the best possible way, so the children who daily use it, live (in) it and gravitate there, can have their needs met? It does not mater if it is a lead directress we speak about, or an assistant. It also applies to the janitor, the gardener and the office clerk. Some work with children directly, others indirectly. It all requires passion, and passion is the foundation of dedication, or commitment. Only passion and commitment will take us the extra mille even when we face adversity. Networking is also essential because there is no point in reinventing the wheel. The more resources we share, the more we can dedicate our time to what is essential: the children. Trust is essential too; our own activities and knowledge are a great deal supported by what others can convey to us. Language is acquired from our environment. So are our cultural traits. Our habits, our traditions, values, even many of our dreams and hopes and vision of a brighter future are based on what expectations and dreams we share with our peers, neighbors and communities.
What we do in Montessori schools, and what every child can expect of a Montessorian, must be based on these three basic pillars. Passion, commitment and networking.
Passion for the child, commitment that her best interests will always be safeguarded, and the guarantee that we will network and rely on each other. We can thus reach our goals and always provide the best possible environment for children, and adults, to live in. This is a goal we set according to the highest standards, and to be honest, we must admit we are not always doing our best to reach that goal—societies and a world ravaged by dissention and conflicts, selfish interests and war, are definitely not a showcase of the best we have to offer, worse yet, of what we can indeed offer our children if we truly put our hearts to it!
Montessorian Ursula Thrush once said that if we use Montessori’s name, “then we should stand for what Montessori stood for. And Maria Montessori stood for world peace.”
Dr. Montessori appealed to the children to help accomplish this objective. The words are engraved on her tombstone: “I beg the dear all-powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in Man and in the World.” Yet, her appeal was directed at all of us. She hoped that every single individual would be active, involved, and help spread the word. She spoke of it as a need for a "science of peace."
In 1943, she wrote, "How strange it is that there exists no science of peace, no science with an outward development comparable at least with the development of the science of war in the matter of armaments and strategy.” How much money is spent every year on war and mass destruction, compared to peace? Peace is like the needle in the haystack—the hay being the instruments of war. To minimize its hideous effects and the appalling reality we live in, the entertainment industry trivializes “war” in the form of movies, games and toys. The bad guys never have human traits. When we think of a soldier, whatever side he is fighting for, as a man and not as a killing machine, he becomes part of the network of humans we all belong to. He is identified as one of us. He too is humanized. He has a family, is someone’s child, husband, father, daughter, mother… s/he too deserves to be treated humanly and with respect.
Peace must start with ourselves and an understanding of what “respect” means. Thus, respecting the child is essential. It is essential to help preserve in the child that feeling of being respected as she grows because a child that is respected will respect others, and see differences and diversity as elements that enrich our world—not as threats to be eliminated. Another being will never be a mere statistic. In the Montessori prepared environment, children are, from a very early age, allowed to come in contact with these differences, which they naturally and spontaneously accept and grow up to respect. These are the seeds of peace being planted.
A very basic set of rules for respecting the child and providing for her needs are known among Montessorians as the “Montessori Decalogue,” as devised by Dr. Montessori. These rules can be followed at home as they are in Montessori prepared environments at schools all over the world. Here they are, with some brief comments. They are worth reflecting upon.
The Montessori Decalogue
1. Never touch the child unless invited by him (in some way or another).
Unless there is a very strong reason to (like avoiding an accident, for example), one should never touch a child unless a child requests it. Picking up a child without the child’s consent, even if in a playful manner, or grabbing her hand, pushing her, etc., should always be avoided. If children are engaged, looking at a book, working, playing, resting, the same principle applies. Children invite contact in many ways, and parents and adults in general, who work with children, know how to interpret the signs they send. It is important also to respect a child when she is angry and does not want to be touched or picked up.
2. Never speak ill of the child in his presence or absence.
Speaking ill of a child, or making negative comments about a child, either in the child’s presence or absence, denotes lack of respect for the child. It also sets a frame of mind and denotes an attitude that is negative and conducive to confrontation—and not always open! Preconceived ideas often linger as negative thoughts and breed reactive behavior. If an adult falls into this trap, it is very easy for a lack of patience and negative attitudes to creep in and damage the relationship with the child.
3. Concentrate on strengthening and helping the development of what is good in the child, so that its presence may leave less and less space for what is negative.
If adults focus on negative behavior, children will feel inadequate. This will result in low self-esteem, and a self-fulfilling prophecy like behavioral patterns will take over. Negativity will become second nature. Instead, by focusing on what is positive, the child will feel safe and confident. Children are learning what is and is not acceptable behavior can and cannot be done, etc. They do not need punishments or rewards. Simply to be shown what is and is not acceptable, by adults that model appropriate behavior.
4. Be proactive in preparing the environment, take meticulous and constant care of it. Help the child establish constructive relations with it. Show the proper place where the means of development are kept and demonstrate their proper use.
If the child is presented with a prepared environment, there is little need for much more. Again, modeling appropriate behavior is essential. A child that is shown an orderly environment will likewise feel encouraged to keep it orderly. If a child has available manipulatives she can handle, play and work with, rather than things she cannot touch, she will feel at ease to explore the world around her. If objects are at reach, that the child may break or hurt herself with, she should be shown how to handle them, rather than told “don’t touch!” A kitchen is a world full of wonder for a child! Cutting, cooking, stirring, pouring, etc., are all activities the child will want—and need!—to master in order to become independent. Include the child in as many activities as possible at home, from cleaning to cooking; there is enough to keep any child busy and engaged all day long.
5. Be ever ready to answer the call of the child who stands in need of you, and always listen and respond to the child who appeals to you.
There is nothing worse for a child than to feel insecure and ignored. Abandonment is a feeling no child should have to live with. “If a child asks for attention, then that child needs attention,” stressed Montessorian Margaret Homfray. When people brush a child aside and say, “she just wants attention,” that person is missing the point: a child only wants attention when she needs attention. Children who feel cared for and do not have to worry about being abandoned, even if for a short time, are far more likely to care for others and show concern for and trust others, than those who experience this sort of “cold shoulder” treatment. Also, “timeout” and “go to your room and stay there” approaches are also expressions of abandonment.
6. Respect the child who makes a mistake and can then or later correct it herself, but stop firmly and immediately any misuse of the environment and any action which endangers the child, its own development or that of others.
Avoid rushing to correct mistakes a child has committed. Children are learning to cope and function. They will persist and practice to their heart’s content whatever skill they need to acquire, until they master it. If a child starts throwing things around and disrespecting the environment, by all means, stop her. Yet, explain why you had to stop her. Reason and listen to what the child may have to say. Maria Montessori said that “a child’s first tantrums are the first ills of her soul.” There is always a reason for everything. Try to bring the reason to light. Punishing, isolating the child, etc., will only feed her pain, and burry deep those reasons—she will learn to hide rather than communicate.
7. Respect the child who takes a rest or watches others working or ponders over what she herself has done or will do. Neither call her nor force her to other forms of activity.
A child that is idle is often not idle at all… Children need to be given space to find what it is they are interested in and want to do. Once they do, they pursue their interests with unrestrained passion and perseverance! A child that is observing other children or adults is also learning. If the child is resting, she is not being lazy and doing nothing just lying there—she is most probably processing information, observing, reflecting on something she did, or saw, or is planning on doing.
8. Help those who are in search of activity and cannot find it.
Be sensitive to the needs of the child including differentiating when apparent inactivity is inner activity, or in contrast, a child is simply lost. A child in search of activity and unable to find it is usually restless. If sitting or lying down, it can be noticed that she is not “engaged;” she is not resting, but simply lost and prostrated. There is a thin line that separates these two worlds. It is the adult’s responsibility to observe carefully and find out the signs—often very different from child to child—that can reveal what the child is experiencing. Abandonment differs from rest and contemplation.
9. Be untiring in repeating presentations to the child who refused them earlier, in helping the child to acquire what is not yet her own and to overcome imperfections. Do this by animating the environment, with care, with purposive restraint and silence, with mild words and loving presence. Make your ready presence felt to the child who searches and hide from the child who has found.
A child may need to be shown the right way to do something, say a word, express her feelings or acquire any sort of new skill, many, many times. One should never grow tired of repeating it, such as reading the same bedtime story or singing the same jingle. Children seek perfection in all they do until they reach a level which meets their needs (not what the adult may think “perfect” is, or means.) To be always available but not intrusive is an art. When a child needs help, she will ask for it. When a skill has been acquired and the child no longer needs assistance, adults should respect the child’s new acquired or reached level of independence.
10. Always treat the child with the best of good manners and offer her the best you have in yourself and at your disposal.
Children who are respected will learn to respect others. Giving the child the best one has to give helps the child learn that you are someone she can count on, and teaches her to also give others the best she has to give. It is important the way Montessori puts it, “the best you have in yourself,” as if to say, always reach higher, but do not feel dismayed if you fall short, and “the best” that you can give is not the best you think or know you should give. If your best manners are not always what they should be—a common feeling parents harbor when children seem to be pushing their patience beyond the limits, do not lose heart. The way Dr. Montessori put it, is basically this: have realistic expectations towards the child, and yourself too. Give the best you have to give, but don’t feel guilty if you fall short. Simply keep striving to improve and always do your best. If you commit a mistake, giving the child your best may well be recognizing it and apologizing. “Amy, Mommy got upset and shouted. That was not nice of me. I am sorry.” Children also need to recognize mistakes, learn to apologize, and that parents are not always perfect.
These are basic principles. What Montessori strives for is to protect the child from all sorts of negative influences that can create deviations in the child’s spirit and psyche. To preserve the natural curiosity of the child, help her find her interests, protect her passion for learning, foster it and let it grow in a healthy way. In this way, the child can contribute her best to society. This is conducive to world peace, as Dr. Montessori envisioned it, and Montessorians believe is possible. It takes passion, it takes commitment, and it takes working together.
Series on Montessori education contributed by Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten
Photos courtesy Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten
 “Peace and Education” – Geneva, International Bureau of Education, 1923