What We’re Reading: “A Child In The Family”

Cover Art via namta.org

Cover Art via namta.org

“Education demands only this:  the utilization of the inner powers of the child for his own instruction.”  -Maria Montessori // The Child In The Family

By Stacy Burnett

Recently I read The Child in the Family written in 1929 by Dr. Maria Montessori.  This book is filled with observations about child development and education that were revolutionary for their time and that are still relevant today.  For me, her observations on the relationship between the young child and society are profound.  Originally written in Italian and of another era, her writings could be a bit challenging for a person brand new to Montessori.  If you are new to Montessori,  what I hope to do is to give you the general gist of what she has to say in this book, and to hopefully pique your interest and encourage you to start and/or keep reading (check out our goodreads list here).   If you’re ready to tackle Dr. Montessori’s writings, The Child In The Family is a great place to begin.

In this book she discusses the role of young children in society and touches upon how, through scientific observation of children, she came to develop the Montessori method.  Her method is not simply an educational curriculum, but a larger philosophy on the care and education of children from birth.  As a scientist and medical doctor she observed over her lifetime how children develop, how they learn, what motivates children to learn, and how adults can assist, but not force, children in becoming the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual being they are meant to be.  She used her observations to develop educational materials and to establish Montessori schools all over the world.  Because her philosophy is based on years of scientific observation, the Montessori method and the materials in traditional Montessori schools today are essentially the same as they were 100 years ago. While this may cause concern for some, it makes a great deal of sense to me. She observed the true nature and inherent developmental needs of children, and these remain unchanged. They are not subject to the whim of whatever current educational wind may be blowing. This results in philosophical and educational consistency from child to child, AMI school to AMI school, generation to generation.

The Child In The Family is particularly meaningful to me because it lifts a veil of long-standing assumptions about children and the raising of children that I have taken blindly as fact.

It forced me to look at everything I believe about raising and educating children and ask “is it so?”

This book opened my eyes to how society passes down social norms, and how these norms are accepted without question from caregiver to child, year after year after year. Through her work, Montessori believes that supporting children on a path to independence should be the main priority of the parent and educator.  Dr. Montessori suggests that what our children need is an environment where they are welcomed for who they are (rather than what the adult expects them to be), one that is adapted for their needs at each stage of their development, and one with adults who are always there to help and guide if and when needed.  That said, many of us, myself included, are taught through example to believe that ‘well bred’ children must be constantly monitored, contained, and corrected. So many of us do these things out of love for our children.  What this book suggests is that by failing to question if there is another way, that we’re shooting ourselves in the foot without even realizing it.  Dr. Montessori says,

“It is the adult closest to the child….who presents the greatest danger to the formation of the child’s personality. “

“The adult himself is the unknowing cause of the difficulties against which he [the child] battles.”

“Until the adults consciously face their errors and correct them they will find themselves in a forest of insoluble problems.  And children, becoming in turn adults, will be the victims of this same error, which they will transmit from generation to generation.”

For many parents, decisions about the care and education of children are often made unconsciously.  Many new parents know little about child development, yet sadly there is little emphasis in our society to do the work to educate ourselves before we have children. In The Child In The Family, Maria Montessori encourages parents and educators to reconsider socially accepted practices, and she explains how her philosophy can benefit children and ultimately humanity.

Dr. Montessori’s philosophy, method and educational materials are a direct result of her scientific observations and lifetime of work with children from infancy through adolescence.  Today, medical science is confirming what Dr. Montessori observed over 100 years ago to be true.   The Child In the Family provides insights into how children develop both physically and psychologically, what parents and educators can do to support children in their natural development, the importance of a prepared environment, and the role of the adult in the supporting the child as they build both character and intellect, starting at birth.

The following are my top ten concepts from The Child In The Family with supporting quotes from Dr. Montessori:

1.  Children are not understood by society and because they are weak, they are dominated by well-meaning but misguided adults.

“The idea that the child is a personality separate from the adult never seemed to occur to anybody.” (pg.9) 

“What is the child? He is a reproduction of the adult who possesses him as if he were a piece of property…..No servant has ever had the limitless obedience of a child required of him.  Never were the rights of man so disregarded as in the case of the child.  No worker has ever had to follow orders as must the child.  No one has ever had to work like the child, who has to submit to an adult who imposes hours of work and hours of play according to a rigid and arbitrary set of rules.” (pg.14/15)

2.  Children live in a world created by adults that does not address their needs for physical and psychological development.

 “The fact is that the child is not understood very well anywhere.  This ignorance is a consequence of the subconscious apprehension and annoyance we manifest towards him from the very first moments of life and instinctive defensiveness about our possessions, even if they are worth nothing.  Our attitude develops logically from these beginnings and we are obsessed with fears that the child will destroy the daily order of our lives and disfigure and dirty our homes.  Yet when we have a child in the home not only do we deal with him by rushing to save our things from destruction and even by fleeing the house to save our peace of mind, but we also suppress the child’s so-called caprices so that he doesn’t become a slave to them and develops finally into a well-bred child….we commit a serious error simply out of incomprehension and assess as capricious much of the child’s behavior that is not capricious at all.”

3.  A child at birth is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled but rather a unique, complex psychological being who is, from birth, developing their inner self.

“The process by which the human personality is formed is the hidden work of incarnation….nobody knows what he will be or what he will do.  His helpless body contains the most complex mechanisms of any living creature, but it is distinctly his own.” (pg.33)

“Man must construct himself, and in the end possess himself and direct himself.” (pg.158)

4.  Adults are not responsible for who a child is to become, but are responsible for supporting the child in the process of creating themselves.

“Those who have assumed that the not only the body of the infant is passive but the self is inert and empty of life have thought erroneously…..in the face of the magnificent but late development of the child the adult is equally in error who assumes that such development has come about solely through his care and upbringing.” (pg.33)

5.  The child’s process of developing their inner self is similar to the creation of a magnificent work of art.  It is crafted slowly over time before it is ready to be revealed to the world.

“Man..is “worked by hand” and each individual is different from the other, having his own distinctive created spirit as if he were a natural work of art.” (pg 32)

“The child thus incarnate is a spiritual embryo which must come to live for itself in the environment. But like the physical embryo, the spiritual embryo must be protected by an external environment animated by the warmth of love and the richness of value where is it wholly accepted and never inhibited.” (pg.35)

6.  The problem with education is that the education of character has been ignored.

“Every creature that comes into the world is not only a physical being but has latent in it functions that depend on instinct….psychological traits are apparent in animals from the moment of birth; how then is it possible to argue that the human infant is not similarly endowed?” (pg.31)

“But of all the necessities the child requires the one most often neglected is that which defines his humanity: his spiritual needs.” (pg. 63)

7.  Children must be provided with an environment that protects them while also supporting their natural tendencies to actively and independently learn about the world around them.

“The environment itself will teach the child.  If every little error he makes is manifest to him, without the intervention of parent or teacher who should remain a quiet observer of all that happens.  Little by little it will seem to the child that he hears a silent language of objects advising his actions.” (pg.66)

“No child can lead a regular life in the complex world of the adult.  Indeed it is well know that the adult with his continual surveillance, his uninterrupted admonishment and his arbitrary commands, disturbs and impedes the child’s development.  In this fashion all the vital energy in the process of germination is suffocated and for the child but one thing remains: the intense desire to free himself as soon as possible from everything and everyone” (pg.64)

8.  Children are self-motivated and are driven to activity.  They do not require external rewards.  The act of doing, and succeeding on their own, is its own reward.

“In children, the drive for activity is almost stronger than that for food, although we rarely see it because they lack it in their present forced environment.  If we give them the right environment, we see little unhappy nuisances transformed into happy active children.” (pg.65)

“The delight that children find in working impels them to attack everything with an enthusiasm that is almost excessive…. Apparently it is not the completion of a given task that inspires them but the fact that it utilizes their latent energies; it is this utilization that determines the duration of the activity.” (pg.68)

9.  Young children, if allowed to, are capable of concentration for long periods of time. Deep concentration without interruption is essential to development of character.

“We see there exists a strict relationship between manual labor and deep concentration of the spirit.  At first glance these might appear to be opposed but they are profoundly compatible, for one is the source of the other.  The daily life of the spirit prepares the dynamic power for daily life, and daily life encourages thought by means of ordinary work.  The physical energy expended is continually renewed through the spirit.” (pg.71)

“I too believed that children were incapable of fixing their attention on any object for very long… From that time on I observed…when the children had completed an absorbing bit of work they appeared rested and deeply pleased.  It almost seemed as if a road had opened up within their souls that led to all their latent powers, revealing the better part of themselves….I took what happened within the children to be a law and this made it possible for me to resolve completely the problem of education.  It was clear that the concept of order and the development of character, of the intellectual and emotional life must derive from this veiled source.” (pg.73/74)

 “Here lies the key to all pedagogy: to learn to recognize precious moments of concentration in order to utilize them for the teaching of reading, writing, storytelling etc….Psychologists agree that there is a single method of teaching; one must sustain in the student the deepest interest and a lively consistent attention.  Education demands only this: the utilization of the inner powers of the child for his own instruction.” (pg.74)

10.  Adults must not abandon children to their own devices, but rather provide the proper environment and be available at all times to guide and support when they are needed.

The first step in the integral resolution of the problem of education must not therefore be taken toward the child, but toward the adult educator.  He must clarify his understanding and divest himself of many preconceptions, finally he must change his moral attitudes.  Another step follows this one: we must prepare an environment adapted to the child’s life, one that is free of obstacles. These two steps are necessary to prepare a foundation for a new moral order for the adult as well as the child.  In fact, having prepared an environment scaled to the child, and having been exposed to the freedom created by his impulses toward activity, we have seen characteristics in the child who is tranquilly at work that have never been seen before.”

“What is expected of her [the teacher/adult] is the ability to distinguish the child who has chosen the right path from the one that has erred, and she must be imperturbable, ready to be there whenever she is called in order to attest to her love and confidence.  To always be there – that is the point.” (pg.76)

……………………………………………………………..

The Child In The Family was an eye opener for me and very inspirational.  While some of Maria Montessori’s books are geared specifically for Montessori educators, this book is appropriate for parents and educators alike. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about Dr. Montessori’s philosophy on the care and education of children.  I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this book.  I look forward to sharing more of Dr. Montessori’s writings in future posts.

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