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With the end of the preceding chapter I have brought myself to another principle of this new idea of children, one which at first I was unable to understand and hence to accept. At the sight of this pleasant and smiling world of children, some old Puritan sprang to life in me and cried out sourly,  “ But it’s good for children to do what they don’t like to do, and to keep on with something after they want to stop. They must in later life. They should begin now.”

The answer to this objection is one I have had practically to work out for myself, since the Italian exponents of the system found it practically impossible to understand what was in my mind. There was much talk of  “ discipline ”  in their discussion of the theories of the method ;  but evidently they did not attach the same meaning to the word as the one I had been taught to use. This fact led me to meditate on what I myself really meant by discipline :  a process of definition which, as it always does, clarified my ideas and proved them in some respects quite different from what I had thought them.

Discipline means  “ the capacity for self-control.”  I had no sooner formulated this definition than I saw that I had been, in my practical use of the word, omitting half of it, and that the vital half. It was not discipline I had been vainly seeking at the Casa dei Bambini, it was compulsion.

And yet self-control, like all other vital processes of individual life, is tantalizingly elusive and subtle. My untrained mind, face to face at last with the real problem, despaired of securing this real self-control and not the valueless compulsory obedience to external force or persuasion with which I had been confusing it. I saw that it is secured in the Children’s Home and betook myself once more to an examination of their methods.

For instance, the capacity for close, consecutive attention to any undertaking is a very valuable form of self-control and self-discipline  ( one which a good many adults have never mastered ).  In the Children’s Home, the child is provided with a task exactly suited to the natural needs of his growing organism. Later on in life he must learn to concentrate mentally whether he feels a strong spontaneous interest in the subject or not ;  but it is evident that he cannot do that, if he has not learned first to control his wandering wits when the subject does interest him. The Montessori apparatus sets a valuable vital force in the child’s own intellectual make-up and naturally the force grows stronger with every exercise of its power, just as a muscle does. The little boy who was so much interested in his buttoning-frame that he stuck to his enterprise from beginning to end without so much as glancing up at the activities of the other children, showed real self-control, even though it was not associated with the element of pain.

It is true that self-control in the face of pain or indifference is a necessary element in adult moral and intellectual life, but, like every other factor in life, it must start from small beginnings and grow slowly. The buttoning boy showed not only self-control, but the only variety of it which a baby is capable of manifesting. When I had the notion that I ought  ( for his own good )  to demand of him self-control in the face of pain, even of a very small pain, I was asking something which he could not as yet give, and of which compulsory obedience could only obtain an empty and misleading appearance, an appearance really harmful to the child’s best interests. He must begin slowly to learn self-control, as he must begin slowly to learn how to walk. I am quite satisfied if he takes a single step at first, because I know that is the essential. If he can do that, he will ultimately learn to climb a mountain. If he can overcome the naturally vagrant impulses of his mind through intellectual interest in the completion of his task of buttoning up the cloth on his frame, he has begun a mental habit the value of which cannot be overestimated, and which will later, in its full development, make it possible for him to master difficult subjects.

The child in the Casa dei Bambini advances from one scientifically graded state of mental self-control to the next, from the buttoning-frames to the geometric insets, from these to their use in drawing and the control of the pencil, and then on into the mastery of the alphabet, always with a greater and greater control of the processes of his mind.

The control of the processes of his body are learned in the same analyzed, gradual progression from the easy to the difficult. He learns in the  “ lesson of silence ”  how to do nothing with his body, an accomplishment which his fidgety elders have never acquired ;  he learns in all the sensory exercises the complete control of his five servants, his senses ;  and in moving freely about the furniture suited to his size, in handling things small enough for him to manage, in transferring objects from one place to another, he learns how to go deftly through all the ordinary operations of everyday life.

This physical adroitness has a vitally close relation to discipline of all sorts. When we say to the average, untrained, muscularly uncontrolled child of four,  “ Sit still for a while,”  we are making a request about as reasonable as though we cried  “ Stand on your head.”  The effort required to accede to our request is entirely too great for him, even if he wholly understands what we wish, which is often doubtful. The Montessori training makes every attempt to teach a child exactly how to do a thing before he is requested to do it.

We give a child the enormously compendious command,  “ Don’t be so careless ! ”  without reflecting that it is about as useful and specific an exhortation as if one should cry to us,  “ Do be more virtuous ! ”  Dr. Montessori is continually admonishing us to analyze into its component parts the child’s carelessness, so that, part by part, it can be corrected. Suppose that it has manifested itself by a reckless plunge across the room, carrying a plateful of cookies which have most of them fallen to the floor by the end of the trip. What some might cry impatiently to a child, even to a very little child, under those circumstances, is  “ Look at what you’re doing ! ”  which is, considered at all analytically, exactly what it is our business as his guides in the world to do.

A little reflection on the subject makes us realize that he takes no pleasure in spilling the cookies and falling over the chairs ;  that is, that he had no set purpose to do this, instead of walking correctly across the room and setting the plate down on the table. The question we should ask ourselves is,  “ Why then, did he do all those troublesome and careless things ? ”  Obviously because we were requiring him to go through a complicated process, the separate parts of which he has not mastered ;  as though a musician should command us to play the scale of D minor, and then blame us for the resultant discord. He should have taught us a multitude of things before requiring such a complicated achievement,—how to hold our fingers over the piano-keys, how to play simpler scales.

The child with the cookie-plate needs, in the first place, exercises in learning to walk in a straight line directly to the spot where he means to go. How can he learn to do this ?  Dr. Montessori suggests drawing a chalk-line on the floor and having the children play the game  ( either with or without music )  of trying to walk along it without stepping off. I myself, remembering the forbidden joys of my reckless childhood in walking the top-rail of a fence, have tried the expedient of providing a less dangerous top-rail laid flat on the ground. Did any healthy child ever need more than one chance to walk along railway tracks ?  The objection in the past to these exercises has been that they were connected with something dangerous and undesirable. I do not blame my parents for forbidding me to try to balance myself either on the top-rail of a fence or on a railway track. Both of these were highly risky diversions. But it does seem odd that neither they nor I ever thought of providing, in some safe form, the exercises in equilibrium so craved by all healthy children. A narrow board, or length of so-called  “ two-by-four ”  studding, laid on the ground, furnishes a diversion as endlessly entertaining for a child of three as the most dangerously high fence-rail for an older child, and the never failing zest with which a little child practices balancing himself on this narrow  “ sidewalk ”  is a proof that the exercise is one for which he unconsciously felt a need.

Another trick of equilibrium, which is hard for a little child, is to lift one foot from the floor and perform any action without falling over. If he is provided with a loose rope-end, hanging where he can easily reach it, his guardian can suggest any number of entertaining things to do while his equilibrium is assured by his grasp on the rope. My experience has been that one suggestion is enough. The child’s invention does the rest. Another exercise which is of great benefit for very little children is to walk backwards, a process which needs no more gymnastic apparatus than a helping hand, equally effective in teaching a young child the fascinating game of crossing one foot over the other without falling down.

Does all this physical training of tiny children seem too remote from the older child who spilled the cookies ?  He stands at the end of the road over which the balancing, backward-walking three-year-old is advancing.

It occurred to me one day that water is a neglected but very valuable factor in training a little child to accuracy of muscular movement. This reflection occurred to me just after I had instinctively led away a little child from a basin of water in which I had  “ caught her ”  dabbling her hands. Making an effort to put into practice my new resolution to question myself sharply each time that I denied a child any reasonable activity he seemed to desire, I perceived that in this case, as so often, I was acting traditionally, without considering the essential character of the situation. I could not allow the child to dabble in that basin of water, there, because she would be apt to spatter it on the floor and to get her clothes wet. But on that warm summer day, why could I not set her outdoors on the grass, with a bit of oilcloth girded about her waist so that she should not spoil her dress ?   When I really came to think about it, there is nothing inherently wicked in playing in water.

For the effort necessary to use reason about a fact the outlines of which are dulled by familiarity, I was rewarded many times over by the discovery of a  “ sensory exercise ”  which apparently is of the highest value. The child in question, provided with a pan of water, and various cups and jelly-molds of different sizes, which I snatched at random from the kitchen-shelf, was in a state of silent bliss. She filled the little cups up to the brim, she lifted them with care which no exhortation of mine could have induced her to apply, she drank from them, she poured their contents into each other, discovering for herself that the smaller ones must be emptied into the bigger ones and not vice versa, she filled them again with a spoon. At first she did all this very clumsily, although always with the most painstaking care, but as the days went on with repetitions of this game, her dexterity became astonishing, as was her eternal interest in the, to me, monotonous proceeding.

Now she is not only kept quiet and happy for about an hour a day by this amusement, and she has not only learned to fill and handle her little cups and jelly-molds very deftly, but the operation of drinking out of a water-glass at the table is of a simplicity fairly beneath her contempt. I smile to see our guests gasp and dodge in dismay as, with the reckless abandon of her age, she grasps her water-glass with one hand, not deigning even to look at it, and conveys it to her lips. But as a matter of fact, no matter how hastily or carelessly she does this, she almost never spills a drop. The control of utensils containing liquids has been so thoroughly learned by her muscles in the long hours of happy play with her little cups that it is perfectly automatic. She no more spills water from her glass than I fall down on the floor when I cross a room, even though I may be quite absent-minded about that undertaking.

A Montessori Mother  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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