Friday, December 13, 2019

Well it’s back to the battle today

“It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” —Dr. Maria Montessori
we try out some Montessori
I’ve been reading a lot about Dr. Maria Montessori (Italy, ca. 1900) and Montessori-based education. I’ve written about it here before. Although it can feel overwhelming, this sense that an entire child’s future rests on my ability to do parenting “right.” I read an article recently that questioned that thinking, that said that we should be thinking of educating children more as being a gardener, rather than being a carpenter. Basically: not worrying about it so much. Not thinking of parenting as a verb, as something that you do, but as a relationship. We shepherd our children, we cultivate the ground they grow in, but we’re not actually trying to shape them, as we would a board, into a specific design.

Yet: my struggle is that I feel like there are many things being done wrong by parents today. There’s this sense in the article that most parents do things more or less right, and that most children end up more or less okay. This assertion I question. I, myself, have struggled for a long time with something I hesitate to call mental illness, because it feels more common than that. It feels literally ubiquitous, in the sense that this cosmic unease—or angst, or a kind of low-level anxiety—is everywhere. Everyone has it. I’ve written about my struggles with depression, and I’ve written about my struggles with disordered eating.

It is, of course, that eternal question of nature versus nurture. When things go wrong with our children we want to blame nature, but when things go well, we think we’re doing a great job.

And I feel like many things are going wrong with children these days, and not just children, because children grow up to be adults, and adults and children together make society. There is much I see wrong with our society right now, much I believe needs to change. Maybe if we focused a little bit more on our children, on the ways in which their needs are and are not being met (or maybe I say so because I happen to have a preschooler) we might see some changes at a larger societal level.

I just hunted online for my possibly apocryphal article (which, I believe, really did make the case that the kids were going to turn out okay), and it turns out that the research is actually from a book by Alison Gopnik titled The Gardener and the Carpenter.  Maybe I heard about it on my new favorite (that’s a stretch—I have so many favorite podcasts right—but I wish to God they’d do an episode about Carl Jung) podcast, “Hidden Brain.”

It turns out that Alison Gopnik makes exactly the point I’m trying to make, much better than I could, about the problems with the carpentry method, and the gardening method that she supports is akin to Montessori.

Referring to the carpentry model, she says: “the main harm is that it makes the process -- the life of being a parent -- anxious and difficult and tense and unhappy in all sorts of ways that are unnecessary. And I think it makes it that way for parents, and it makes it that way for children… the carpentry story is one where you're so concerned that the child come out that you're not giving the child the freedom to take risks and explore and be autonomous.”

Even though children of carpenters can be considered more successful: “in some ways, they're doing much better. They're achieving more, they're less likely to take risks, they are less likely to get pregnant or to use drugs. But that goes with a kind of anxiety -- high levels of anxiety, high levels of fear …that is what you would predict from the carpentry story.”

So, Montessori. Although whenever I mention the word, especially to another mother, I find my listener’s eyes immediately shut down: already they’re hearing, “You’re doing it wrong. Do it this way instead.”

Which, in short, is what I am saying. But I’m not saying: worry more about how you’re parenting. I’m saying: trust your children to follow their own path. Prepare their environment, make it safe, and then get out of their way. Don’t worry about whether or not they’re doing the right thing, but trust that what they’re doing meets their current developmental need, whatever that is.

I find it so difficult to put this essential Montessori principle into words. It is, as Dr. Montessori wrote herself, the “secret of childhood,” but the more I learn about it the more I see these principles borne out by research again, again, and again, not just for children, and not in work that uses Montessori terminology. It seems to be not just the secret of childhood, but the secret to happiness, to contentment, to joy.


Take, for instance, the idea of focus. That particular intense concentration that children use in order to grow, to explore, to learn to do the things that they need to do in order to be complete human beings. The focus that a baby has when she is learning to crawl, or walk. It is one of the things that initially drew me to the practice, all the blogs with moms showing pictures of their children with what I now call Montessori face: a look of intense focus. Of inner drive and determination.

independent baking

"We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.”  --Dr. Maria Montessori

I’ve begun to think of those moments when my daughter is in deep focus as sacred. To interrupt her, to ask her if she needs to drink some water, or to teach her how to construct a tower, or to say we’re leaving for the library— any of these things interrupt the neural pathways that she is building, the pathways that she will use for the rest of her life when she is deeply immersed in something invaluable to her.

In short, it is flow. I take for granted that you’ve read Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow? Or that, even if you haven’t, you know what I mean? Flow is that right-brained state an artist enters into when he is painting, or a writer when she is writing, or a violinist when he is practicing. Full immersion into a timeless eternal state, where one may as well not be in one’s body. Again and again, in study after study, in book after book, I read about flow as being the one essential element to happiness. People are happy in their jobs when they can find flow. In their lives, when they have a hobby that allows them to slip into that state. That old saw “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is about flow. I keep reading self-help books, and they constantly refer to the concept of flow, and how essential it is to recover true contentment. (Designing Your Life is the book I read most recently that mentioned the concept.)

We say what we most want for our children is happiness, but really we deprive our children of the concentration that brings it, every chance we get. When they’re born we immediately pack their playrooms with every possible brightly colored electronic gadget that sings and dances, with rotund jovial cartoon animals that never occur in life, with screens and noise and color and sensation—anything to distract them from the horror of life— that must be what we really believe, right?—and then we wonder why they’re unable to put their own toys away, why they can’t sleep, why they’re having tantrums, why they’re so upset. All they need is a calm, safe place to discover the world and all we offer them is distraction.


Take, for another, the Montessori idea of self-reliance.

Or self-trust, self-motivation, self-esteem — whatever you call it. The idea that I can know myself, deeply, intimately, and believe, at an intuitive level, that I know what is right for myself. I have come back to this self-reliance in my own life as I’ve begun intuitive eating, learning that my own body’s fullness and hunger signals can be trusted. Again, it is something that reoccurs in my reading so often, especially on the self-help websites I frequent: the number one predictor of happiness is intrinsic motivation.  (Like here!  Link: "Self-Reliance Is the Secret Sauce to Consistent Happiness")

Anyone can be shamed into doing anything. It’s a method of force, like physical pain. As soon as no one’s looking, though, we’re going to go back to the thing that we really wanted. When we become ashamed of ourselves, we lose our ability to trust our inner intuition. For a child, self-trust depends on learning that the way I want to play the blocks is a manifestation of my own imagination, and of no one else’s. It means teaching children that their desires can be trusted, and followed, and that they lead where they should go.

It’s one of the things I’ve read about early-childhood education that has the most data to back it up: this understanding that saying “good job” actually subverts children’s sense of self, because it takes away their ability to rely on their own intuition and motivation.  Link:  "How Not to Talk to Your Kids," by Po Bronson
"In short, 'good job!' doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure." --"Five Reasons To Stop Saying Good Job," by Alfie Kohn
"Excess praise can be damaging to our children's intrinsic motivation (working just for the pure pleasure of it -- not to please anyone else)." --"Break the Good Job Habit" by Aubrey Hargis
It’s so counter-intuitive, right? Because we’re saying that what the child is doing is good! We’re supporting him! We’re telling her she SHOULD trust herself! Aye, there’s the rub: US adults, from the outside, telling children what to do, what’s good, what’s bad, instead of allowing them to discover the world for themselves.

The reason we don’t say good job is not because we don’t think our children are doing a good job. It’s because we don’t want them to be reliant on other people to think that they’re doing a good job. We want that sense of satisfaction to come from inside, rather than from outside.
"Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely."  --Alfie Kohn
I continue to struggle with praise as an adult, as a writer. All I want as a writer is external validation. In the form of publication, or an agent or an editor telling me that my words are worthy of reproduction. In the form of money. In the form of an audience, of you, reading these words. It’s not enough for me simply to write them, to produce them for the joy they give me, the sense I have of order coalescing as I organize my sentences. I want you, reader, to tell me “good job.” Preferably in the comments.

So. Is it any surprise that I want something different for my daughter? Something different than what was given to us by our parents, and what I’ve consistently watched other people give their children: shame, and guilt, and constant reliance on external validation.

A brief story: we toured a Montessori school (Bridgeview Montessori) and the director said that she’d sent her daughter to Montessori preschool, but then to kindergarten at a traditional school. When she and her husband figured out that it wasn’t working for their daughter, they brought her back into Montessori school.  Even in that one brief year, she had unlearned this ability to trust her own intuition, her reliance on intrinsic motivation, her own inner sense of self. The girl would bring her drawings up to the teacher and say: isn’t this good? Is this what you wanted? Is this how it should be colored?

The Montessori-trained teacher would have to answer: what do YOU think? Is it good for you? Is that how you wanted your drawing to come out? Can you talk to me about it?

That’s after one year. Only one year of traditional school.
“'s particularly ironic because school was actually designed as part of trying to get people trained for an industrial world. In a sense, school was designed to make robots, in that it gave people skills that now robots are capable of doing. And in a post-industrial world, exactly the skills that we need -- innovation, creativity, risk-taking -- are exactly the ones that we're not encouraging.”  --Alison Gopnik
When I say I want this self-trust for myself, I mean that I’m thinking of starting remedial Montessori workshops for adults. Because I have 41 years of that kind of programming to counteract. It’s why yoga has been my heart-song for the last however many years. In yoga, the teacher says: allow your body to be what it is today. Listen to your body, the same way in Montessori we say: follow the child. In yoga, the lights are off and I’m on my mat myself, no one to impress, no teacher to show off for. Even though 99 percent of the time, I’m thinking: did that impress her? Or: oh no, I’m not doing it right.

The other crazy thing about Montessori is how it actually works. Every principle that I’ve taken seriously and implemented consistently has had unforeseen benefits and astonishing success. It works.

The irony is that articles about teenagers all essentially say the same things. Have good boundaries and agreed-upon limits with your children. (Montessori: freedom within limits.) Teach them how to do things themselves rather than doing them for them. Give them autonomy and responsibility rather than helicoptering all over the place. It seems like so much of what we’ve done with the millennial generation, all the evils that are blamed on them, is exactly the opposite: our fault. The boomers, the Karens. We’ve given them no freedom--not to go outdoors, or to get jobs, or to hang out with their friends--and instead have given them limitless addictive technology that may literally be killing their brains.  ("God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” says Sean Parker, Facebook's first president.)
"...that parent can take on the most important role of parenting, that of teaching the child to take care of himself by demonstrating how it is done."  --"When It's Time for Them To Get a Life," by Jim Fay
"An emerging adult who takes the time to deeply reflect and raise their own self-awareness about their innermost desires can be guided by them if they have at least some clues from listening to who they are and what they value.”  --"How To Help My Young Adult Find Their Purpose," by Jennifer Miller
"While some parents may think that they are helping their children to make better decisions and to fix the consequences of their actions, research has shown that parental codependency may alienate children from their own feelings and distance them from self-determination. Ultimately, parents may want to consider setting up boundaries for their children, and also for themselves."  --"Failure to Launch," by Mark Banschick
I become more and more frustrated because not everyone shares this view. The first two essential parts of Montessori education are prepared caregivers and a prepared environment, and I fear I am giving my daughter neither. I do my best, but I’ve been taught to be a voiceless people-pleaser my whole life, and despite my attempts to the contrary, I am not always finding the courage to speak up in favor of autonomy, and joy, and creative freedom, for her or for myself. Plus, these things are effing expensive. I applied for financial aid at a local Montessori school and was told that their financial aid maxes out at 30 percent, meaning if we were to qualify for the maximum, and send Sagan to school part-time for three days a week, school would still cost $5000 a year. This, despite Dr. Maria Montessori explicitly designing the method for poor children.

Then I read the data about how important Montessori is, and how it’s even more effective when children come from disadvantaged or impoverished backgrounds.  It can erase differences between income levels.  “The difference in academic achievement between lower income Montessori and higher income conventionally schooled children was smaller at each time point, and was not (statistically speaking) significantly different at the end of the study," says the National Institutes of Health.  "The Montessori Method is not only superior to all alternatives, but categorically so," says America Magazine, in this article"The scientific link between executive function and school success couldn’t be clearer, but the real opportunity lies in taking that science out of the lab and putting it into practice inside the homes and classrooms of our youngest learners," says Mind in the Making, a nonprofit founded by Jeff Bezos (himself a Montessori alum).  

Still, despite the evidence of these and many other studies, education in this country is not based on science. Nothing in our country is based on actual scientific data, least of all the precious minds of our most vulnerable. As a country, we continue to use outmoded, outdated, hundreds-of-years-old traditional pedagogy.

Meanwhile, I’m watching the elementary school in our community be torn down and rebuilt with a $90 million state grant. Money that would pay for 1400 teachers, or to retrofit our public school into a Montessori one, as this low-income school in rural South Carolina did.  (Link:  "Public School Makes the Case for Montessori for All.) It feels like a purposeful attempt to ignore the reality of what is involved in good education for all children. Because a well-educated populace would mean that people have the courage to become active. They wouldn’t be consumed by anxiety and diseases of despair, cocooned inside their houses and their devices. Freedom means the courage to take action: against climate change, against racism, against children’s concentration camps.

“How can we speak of Democracy or Freedom when from the very beginning of life we mould the child to undergo tyranny, to obey a dictator? How can we expect democracy when we have reared slaves? Real freedom begins at the beginning of life, not at the adult stage. These people who have been diminished in their powers, made short-sighted, devitalized by mental fatigue, whose bodies have become distorted, whose wills have been broken by elders who say: 'your will must disappear and mine prevail!'—how can we expect them, when school-life is finished, to accept and use the rights of freedom?”  --Dr. Maria Montessori, Education for a New World

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