APPLICATION OF THIS PHILOSOPHY TO AMERICAN HOME LIFE
Naturally, the question which concerns us is, how the spiritual discoveries made in this new institution in a far-away city of Italy, can be used to benefit our own children, in our own everyday, American family life. It must be stated uncompromisingly, to begin with, that they can be applied to our daily lives only if we experience a “ change of heart.” We are to abstain from being children’s despots, even their paternal, wise, and devoted despots. We are to safeguard their interests against their own weaknesses, but we have no right to interfere with inoffensive individual tastes, preferences, needs, and, above all, initiative.
At this point I can hear in my mind’s ear a chorus of indignant parents’ voices, crying out that nothing is further from their theory or practice than despotism over the children, and that, so far from ruling their little ones, they are the absolute slaves of their offspring ( forgetting that in many cases there is no more despotic master than a slave of old standing ). To answer this natural protest I wish here to be allowed a digression for the purpose of attempting a brief analysis of a trait the understanding of which bears closely on this phase of the relations of parent and child. I refer to the pleasure taken by some people in the dependence of someone upon them.
This is so confused with benevolence that it is usually wholly unrecognized as a separate and quite different characteristic. Even when it is seen, it is identified only by those who suffer from it, and any intimation of its existence on their part savors so nearly of ingratitude that they have not, as a rule, ventured to complain of what is frequently an almost intolerable tyranny.
A thoroughly bad-tempered analyst, one who takes a malicious pleasure in dwelling on human meannesses, can perform the useful function of diagnosing this little suspected, prevalent, human vice. Here is the sardonic Hazlitt, derisively relieving his mind on the subject of benefactors : “Benefits are often conferred out of ostentation. When the unfortunate protégé is just coming to land and expects a last helping hand, he is, to his surprise, pushed back in order that he may be saved from drowning once more. You are not haled ashore as you had supposed by those kind friends, as a mutual triumph, after all your struggles and their exertions on your behalf. It is a piece of presumption in you to be seen walking on terra firma ; you are required at the risk of their friendship to be always swimming in troubled waters that they may have the credit of throwing out ropes and sending out life-boats to you without ever bringing you ashore. The instant you can go alone, or can stand on your own ground, you are discarded.”
When chance throws in our way a little child, our affection for whom confuses in our minds the motives underlying our pseudo-benevolent actions, do we not wreak upon it unconsciously a desire to be depended upon, to be the stronger, to be looked up to ?
If this seems an exaggerated statement, consider for a moment the real significance of the feeling expressed by the mothers we have all met, when they cry, “ Oh, I can’t bear to have the babies grow up ! ” I have been one of those mothers myself, and I certainly would have regarded as malicious and spiteful any person who had told me that I wished to be surrounded by little sycophants, and that I was willfully keeping the children as weak and dependent on me as possible.
What I now see to be a plain statement of the truth underlying my sentimental reluctance to have the babies grow up would have seemed to me the most heartless attack on mother-love. It now occurs to me that mother-love should be something infinitely more searching and subtle. To conceive a new devotion for our children, a devotion which has in it courage for them as well as care for them ; which is made up of trust in their natures, a well as love for them, and which begins by the ruthless slaughter of that which makes us take pleasure in their dependence on us, rather than in seeing them grow ( even though it may mean away from us ) in the ability wisely to regulate their own lives. We must take care that we mothers do not treat our children as we reproach men for having treated women, with patronizing, enfeebling protection. We must learn to wish, above all things, to see the babies grow up since there is no condition ( in a creature not a baby ) more revolting than babyishness, just as there is no state more humiliating ( in any but a child ) than childishness. Let us learn to be ashamed of our too imperious care, which deprives them of every chance for action, for self-reliance, for fighting their own weaknesses, which snatches away from them every opportunity to strengthen themselves by overcoming obstacles. We must learn to see in a little child not only a much-loved little body, informed by a will more or less pliable to our own, but a valiant spirit, longing for the exercise of its own powers, powers which are different from ours, from those of every human being who has ever existed.
Now all this reasoning has been conducted by means of abstract ideas and big words. How, practically, concretely, can we begin to avoid paternal despotism over little children ?
To begin with, by giving them the practical training necessary to physical independence of life. Anyone who knows a woman who lived in the South during the old régime must have heard stories of the pathetic, grotesque helplessness to which the rich population was reduced by the presence and personal service of slaves . . . the grown women who could not button their own shoes, the grown men who had never in their lives assembled all the articles necessary for a complete toilet. Dr. Montessori says, “ The paralytic who cannot take off his boots because of a pathological fact, and the prince who dare not take them off because of a social fact, are in reality reduced to the same condition.” How many mothers whose willing fingers linger lovingly over the buttons and strings of the little costume are putting themselves in the pernicious attitude of the slave ? How many other bustling, competent, quick-stepping mothers, dressing and undressing, washing and feeding and regulating their children, as though they were little automata, because “ it’s so much easier to do it for them than to bother to teach them how to do it,” are reducing the little ones to a state of practical paralysis ? As if ease were the aim of a mother in her relations to her child ! It would be easier, as far as that is concerned, to eat the child’s meals for him ; and a study of the “ competent ” brand of mother almost leads one to suspect that only the physical impossibility of this substituted activity keeps it from being put into practice. The too loving mother, the one who is too competent, the one who is too wedded to the regularity of her household routine, the impatient mother, the one who is “ no teacher and never can tell anybody how to do things,” all these diverse personalities, though actuated by quite differing motives, are doing the same thing, unconsciously, overbearingly insisting upon living the child’s life for him.
But it is evident that simply keeping our hands off is not enough. To begin with the process of dressing himself, the first in order of the day’s routine, a child of three, with no training, turned loose with the usual outfit of clothes, could never dress himself in the longest day of the year. And here, with a serious problem to be solved, we are back beside the buttoning boy of the Children’s Home. The child must learn how to be independent, as he must learn how to be anything else that is worth being, and the only excuse for existence of a parent is the possibility of his furnishing the means for the child to acquire this information. Let us take a long look at the buttoning boy over there in Rome and return to our own three-year-old for a more systematic survey of this problem, which is none other than the beginning of his emancipation from the prison of babyishness. Let him learn the different ways of fastening garments together on the Montessori frames if you have them, or in any other way your ingenuity can devise. Old garments of your own, put on a cheap dress form, are not a bad substitute for that part of the Montessori apparatus, or the large doll suggested in an earlier chapter may serve.
Then apply your mind, difficult as that process is for all of us, to the simplification of the child’s costumes, even if you are led into such an unheard-of innovation as fastening the little waists and dresses up the front. Let me wonder, parenthetically, why children’s cloths should all be fastened at the back ? Men manage to protect themselves from the weather on the opposite principle.
Then, finally, give him time to learn and to practice the new process ; and time is one of the necessary elements of life most often denied to little children, who always take vastly longer than we do to complete a given process. I am myself a devoted adherent of the clock, and cannot endure the formless irregularity of a daily life without fixed hours, so that I do not speak without a keen realization of the fact that time cannot be granted to little children to live their own lives without our undergoing considerable inconvenience, no matter how ingeniously we arrange the matter. We must feel a whole-hearted willingness to forego a superfluity in life for the sake of safeguarding an essential of life. When I feel the temptation, into which my impatient temperament is constantly leading me, to perform some action for a child which he would better do for himself, because his slowness interferes with my household schedule, I bring rigorously to mind the Montessori teacher who did not tuck in the child’s napkin. And I severely scrutinize the household process, the regularity of which is being upset, to see if that regularity is really worth a check to the child’s growth in self-dependence.
If a child must dress in a cold room it is better for an adult to place the little arms and legs into the clothes with all haste, rather than run the risk of chilling the child. But as a rule, if the conditions are really honestly examined, these two alternatives are seen not to be the only ones. He is set perhaps to dress in a cold room because we have a tradition that it is “ messy ” and “ common ” to have dressing and undressing going on anywhere except in a bedroom. The question I must then ask myself is no longer, “ Is there not danger that the child will take cold if I give him time to dress himself ? ” but, “ Is the ordered respectability of my warm parlor worth a check to my child’s normal growth ? ”
And it is to some such quite unexpected question that one is constantly led by the attempt really to analyze the various restrictions we put upon the child’s freedom to live his own life. These restrictions multiply in such a perverse ratio with the material prosperity and conventionality of our lives that the children of the poor fare better than ours in the opportunities offered them for the development of self-reliance, self-control, and independence, almost the most valuable outfit for the battle of life a human being can have.
It is impossible, of course, to consider here all the processes of the child’s day in as minute detail as this question of his morning toilet. But the same procedure of “ hands off ” should be followed, because help that is not positively necessary is a hindrance to a growing organism. The little child should be allowed time to wash his own face and hands, to brush his teeth, and to feed himself, although it would be quicker to continue our Strasbourg goose tradition of stuffing him ourselves. He should, as soon as possible, learn to put on and take off his own wraps, hat, and rubbers. He should carry his own playthings, should learn to open and shut doors, go up and down stairs freely, hang up his own clothes ( hooks placed low must not be forgotten ), and look himself for articles he has misplaced.
Adults who, for the first time, try this régime with little children are astonished to find that it is not the patience of the little child, but their own, which is inadequate. A child ( if he is young enough not to have acquired the invalid’s habit of being waited upon ) will persevere unendingly through a series of grotesquely awkward attempts, for instance, to climb upon an adult’s chair. The sight of this laborious attempt to accomplish a perfectly easy feat reduces his quick-stepping, competent mother to nervous fidgets, requiring all her self-control to resist. She is almost irresistibly driven to rushing forward and lifting him up. If she does, she is very apt to see him slide to the floor and begin all over again. It is not elevation to the chair which he desires. It is the capacity to attain it himself, unaided, which is his goal, a goal like all others in his life which his mother cannot reach for him.
And if all this sounds too troublesome and complicated, let it be remembered that the Children’s Home is close at hand, ready to devote itself to making conditions exactly right for the child’s growth, never impatient, with no other aim and no other occupation but to do what is best for the child.
The average parent cannot or will not make the average home into a place really suited for the development of small children. It is visibly apparent that, as far as physical surroundings are concerned, he is Gulliver struggling with the conditions of Brobdingnag. He eats his meals from a table as high for him as the mantelpiece would be for us, he climbs up and down stairs with the painful effort we expend on the ascent of the Pyramids, he gets into an armchair as we would climb into a tree, and he can no more alter the position of it than we could that of the tree.
As for the conduct of life, he is considered “ naughty ” if he interferes with adult occupations, which, going on all about him all the time and being entirely incomprehensible to him, are very difficult to avoid ; and he is “ good ” according to the degree of his silent passivity. When we return after a brief absence and inquire of a little child, “ Have you been a good child ? ” to most of us it comes as rather a surprise that this standard of virtue should not be the natural and inevitable one.
The Casa dei Bambini, arranged as it has been with the single-hearted desire to further the children’s interests, is better adapted for child-life than our average home. It required the alarming sight and study of that institution to make me see that I was forcing my children to live under a great many unnecessary restrictions.
A Montessori Mother by Dorothy Canfield Fisher