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I must stop at this point and devote a paragraph or two to laying the ghost of the Puritan who demands,  “ But where does the discipline come in here, if it is all automatic and unconscious ?  Why sneak exactitude of muscular action into the child’s life by the back door, so to speak ?  Would it not be better for her moral nature to command her outright not to spill the water from her glass at table, and force her to use her will-power by punishing her if she does ? 

There are several answers to this question, which is by no means so simple and direct as it sounds. One is that a great many generations have experimented with that method of training children, with the result that family life has been considerably embittered and the children very poorly trained. Practical experience has shown it to be a very bad method indeed.

Stimulating the proper use of the will-power is something entirely different. The will-power is more apt to be perverted into grotesque and unprofitable shapes by the use of punishment than to be encouraged into upright, useful, and vigorous growth.

Here it is well to question our own heart deeply to make sure that we really wish, honestly, without mental reservations, to stimulate the will-power of our children—their will-power, be it remembered, not our own. Is there, in the motives which actuate our attempts at securing obedience from children, a trace of the animal-trainer’s instinct ?  For, though it is true that children can be trained by the method of the animal-trainer, they are trained by those methods only to feats of exactly the same moral and intellectual caliber as those performed by trick dogs and cats. They are then forced to struggle blindly, and wholly without aid, towards whatever human achievements they may later accomplish, with the added disadvantage of the mental habit either of sullen dissembled revolt or crushed mental servility, according to their temperaments.

The end and aim of the horse-breaker’s effort is to create an animal who will obey literally, with no volition of his own, any command of any human being. The conscientious parent who faces squarely this ultimate logical conclusion of the animal-trainer’s system, must see that his own aim, being entirely opposed to that, must be attained by very different means. Since his final goal is to produce a being wholly and wisely self-governing, the sooner the child can be induced to begin the exercise of the faculty of self-government, the more seasoned in experience it will be when vital things begin to depend on it.

I can recommend from successful personal experience an abandonment of our traditional attitude of deep distrust towards life, of our medieval conviction that desirable traits can only be hewed painfully out across the grain of human nature. The old monstrous idea which underlay all schooling was that the act of educating himself was fundamentally abhorrent to a child and that he could be forced to do it only by external violence. This was an idea held by generations of schoolteachers and parents. It would have been swept out upon the dump-heap of discarded superstitions by one single, unprejudiced survey of one normal child under normal conditions.

Dr. Montessori, carrying to its full extent a theory which has been slowly gaining ground in the minds of all modern enlightened teachers, has been the first to have the courage to act without reservation on the strength of her observation that the child prefers learning to any other occupation. In addition she tells us just as forcibly, that they prefer orderly, disciplined behavior to the anarchy which we slanderously insist is their natural taste.

Apparently, judging by the results obtained in the Casa dei Bambini among Italian children, and by Miss George in her school for American children, there is no more need for the occasional storms of temper which are so familiar to all of us who care for children, than there is for the occasional “ fits of indigestion,”  “ feverishness,”  or  “ teething-sickness ”  the almost universal absence of which in the lives of contemporary children so astonishes the older generation.

The notable success of Miss George’s Tarrytown school disposes once and for all of the theory that  “ it may work for Italians, but not with our American children.”  Fresh from the Casa dei Bambini in Rome, I visited Miss George’s Children’s Home and, except for the language, would have thought myself again on the Via Giusti. The same happy, unforced interest in the work, the same Montessori atmosphere of spontaneous life, the same utter unconsciousness of visitors, the same astonishing industry.

When theoretically by talking with experts on the subject, and practically by the sight of the astonishing results shown in the enlightenment and self-mastery of the older children who had been trained in the system, I was led towards the conviction that children really have not that irresistible tendency towards naughtiness which I had unconsciously assumed, but that their natural tendency is on the whole to prefer to do what is best for them, I felt as though someone had tried to prove to me that the world before my eyes was emancipating itself from the action of some supposedly inexorable natural law.

Old-wife wisdom has already reduced by one-half the percentage of infantile wickedness, in its fireside proverb,  “ Give a young one that’s acting bad something to eat and put him to bed. Half the time he’s tired or starved and don’t know what ails him.”

It now seems likely that the other half of the time he is either hungry for intellectual food, or exasperated by perfectly unnecessary insistence on a code of rules which has really nothing to do with the question of right or wrong conduct. When it comes to choosing, apparently the child’s natural preference is for the orderly, educating activity of the Children’s Home over disorderly  “ naughtiness.”  Our business should be to see to it that he is given the choice.

A Montessori Mother  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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