Respecting the Child

We selected Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents for our book club having been introduced to its Chapter 4 and 5 in our Autumn book club. Our first book club of the year will take place this Tuesday, 26 January, at 7 pm (UTC). Register here.

I reflect on the current global situation which has highlighted the challenges of parenting as most families have been brought together by the necessity of having to isolate and having to work and learn from home.  In the UK there has been a significant change in fathers’ involvement with their children’s daily lives and this cannot be a bad thing for the dads and their off-spring. This situation has highlighted the joys and challenges of parenting – so turning to Montessori for her words of wisdom seemed like to good thing.

Starting to re-read the book with fresh eyes, thinking about writing this blog and leading the book club discussion, I was struck again by the very simplistic Montessori guidance for parents about what may be good and what does not benefit children.  If only life was that simple!  If only we could prepare the home and let our children take this opportunity to get on with it.  As Montessori herself recognised by quoting Ellen Kay – the 20th century was the century of the child.  We have learned so much about children’s development, about the brain, and “parenting” has become an art and an industry.  There is now a plethora of blogs, twitter feeds, articles and books on how to be a better parent – giving diverse, often oppositional guidance – offering the new parent so much choice.  For many of us they have replaced the parenting wisdom of the extended family – which might have been as diverse as oppositional as the information available today; it might have also been irritating as it often came unsolicited, but it also offered the warmth of an embrace, a knowing smile, an hour of respite giving rest for the tired parent.  It also offered opportunities for new caring relationships – love for a special aunt, a special relationship with a grandparent, the joy of playing with cousins.  For many children in the western world of the 21st century, these relationships have been replaced by their key persons and teachers in nursery and friendships formed there. This has placed a huge responsibility on all of us and so, as often happens in an hour of need, I have turned to Montessori to seek wisdom and grapple with her inconsistencies, teasing out the meaning and relevance of her writing for us today.

I continue to value her guidance on respecting the child – seeing them as human beings in their own right. In the first chapter (article from The Saturday Review of 19 December 1931) Montessori urges us : “children must be respected as social, human personalities of the first order”.  I still remember the strong feelings of joy and inspiration when I first read very similar words in The Secret of Childhood in 1982 before I enrolled on the Montessori course.  Here was someone who saw the child as my equal, who challenged me to be humble and take the back seat whilst learning from the child. I now know that, particularly since becoming a grandparent, that this restraint Montessori advocates continues to be a challenge.  At the same time, I have witnessed the benefits of letting the child’s play/being active and work unfolding in front of my eyes, and marvel at the power of human ingenuity, creativity and empathy.  It is for these moments that I try to refrain from acting instead of the child – offering time and space to try, to persevere, to learn by repeating. It may be that the child has chosen to wash the dishes, dress a doll, construct a tower or draw a person or just be sitting and watching the sun rise – each and everyone of these acts has a value to the child – I may not always fully understand its meaning or purpose, but it is my role as an educator of young children to honour the child’s choice and give a helping hand, but only if asked for.

In the second chapter Montessori shares her observations that “children learn naturally through activity, and that their characters develop through freedom”. In other words, children learn by doing – she recognises that children need to fix their attention “on the world around them, only then will their imagination have a safe foundation.”  We see this so clearly in their role play which reflects their daily experiences of life often imitating our gestures, expressions and actions or things observed in books and media. It is for these reasons we need to be mindful of our role as models which often serve as the “means of developing their own individual mind and character.”

In the third chapter Montessori addresses our love for the child and relates to our experiences when in the presence of babies of toddlers.  She describes the very young child’s efforts as “becoming masters of their own fingers” and she reminds us of the “spontaneous urge towards development what is within the child and dictates its own pace.”  Montessori is very clear that trying “forcibly to direct the child’s intelligence and mental growth out of the normal course of its development, we may distort the character in subtle ways”.  She urges us to be patient and love the child for who they are rather than for whom we would like them to be.

As we continue to reflect on these chapters in our book club we may want to consider our role in helping parents to understand their children and our role in being children’s secondary attachment figures – what message do we take today from Montessori’s writing?

Barbara Isaacs January 2021


Montessori M (2017) Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

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