The Secret of Childhood
by Maria Montessori, published 1936, 1982
If you’re looking for a “how-to” on the Montessori Method, this isn’t it. What this book is is an exploration of the philosophical foundations of Maria Montessori’s view of the child in society, based upon some of her historical experiences and study of related social research.
Although this book was published long ago, Montessori’s revelation appears to be, by and large, still a secret. Sadly, it is not just a cultural secret. Even in the West, and particularly the United States, where her ideas seem to have the strongest following, the parenting and educational mainstreams seem to have done little to absorb Montessori’s insights into both theory and practice. If Montessori was correct in her discovery, then it says something both appalling and demoralizing about the failure of society to integrate such important truths. So, what is this “secret”?
The secret of childhood is that it is a period of time during which the child works, not to assimilate himself into society, but to assimilate himself into himself. We hear echoes of Max Stirner (1806-1856, Germany) in Maria Montessori (1870-1952, Italy), for example, compare Stirner,
school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.
Adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction… the adult makes himself the touchstone of what is good and evil in the child. He is infallible, the model upon which the child must be molded… An adult who acts this way… unconsciously suppresses the development of the child’s own personality.
or to Montessori’s son, Mario, from the preface,
Man has discovered flight, he has discovered atomic energy, but he has failed to discover himself.
or to Margaret Stephenson, a Montessori instructor, from the foreword,
How can one learn through group play what it means to be a mother, father, space pilot, dog, when one does not yet know what it mean’s to be one’s self?
This psychic development of the child, a “universal” as Montessori puts it, into an individuated person, the man, unfolds along a predetermined path dictated by nature.
Childhood constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that a man is made.
That is not to say that man’s childhood development is deterministic, but that there is a logic and a succession of predictable stages and events to it, much like a caterpillar becomes a cocoon and then a butterfly.
The place an animal will have in the universe can be seen at birth. We know that one animal will be peaceful since it is a lamb, that another will be fierce because it is a lion cub, that one insect will toil without ceasing since it is an ant, and that another will do nothing but sing in solitude since it is a locust. And just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species… A child develops not simply as a member of the human species, but as a person.
And the implication of this fact is that the child, in his childhood, has special needs during this period of development which will allow this process of psychic development to occur without obstruction or injury, ranging from the suitability of his environment, to the tools and instruments he has at his use, to the way he is interacted with and communicated with by adults, who he sees as omnipotent, almost magical, beings of power and authority. (Isn’t it funny to stop for a moment and consider how sure of ourselves and the nature and limits of the adults around us we are, and how truly mysterious any of this was when we first made our way into the world as small children? Just ponder that for a moment if you’re having trouble grasping the significance of Montessori’s “secret”.)
What are some of these differences and needs between children and adults? The first is understanding the significance of work to each. For adults, work is a means to obtain a fixed and known goal, and the general idea is to work efficiently, that is, to get the highest yield in terms of outcome for the smallest amount of resources and energy expended. But for children, the purpose of work is to learn about the self– work is not performed to obtain an income, or to be fed, or to avoid a threat, but rather work is performed to experience the psychic benefit of knowing how to perform the work.
An adult walks to reach some external goal and he consequently heads straight for it… An infant, one the other hand, walks to perfect his own proper functions, and consequently his goal is something creative within himself.
In working, a child applies their intellect to the world, they come to understand their power and ability as a person to influence and change the world more to their liking, a fact that mature adults take for granted.
His hands under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world.
Because of this, a child may be seen to work “aimlessly”, or “inefficiently”, or “incompetently”, but this observation is made from the point of view of an adult which is not applicable to the child and their psychic purpose in working. Montessori relates how adults who are finished working are typically tired and in need of rest or recreational stimulation, whereas children who are finished working are exhilarated and self-satisfied at accomplishing whatever it was inside of their psyche that compelled them to perform their work.
Another need is the need for separate property. Children exist in a world created by adults, for the benefit of adults and adults can be capricious with their property and arrangements in ways that are befuddling and intimidating to children. Everything in the child’s world (for example, in the home) belongs to the adults– the furniture, which is sized for the adults; the dishware and glassware and silverware, which is sized for the adults; the books, the clothes, the walls, the art, even the pets!
[An adult is tempted to overvalue his material possessions when they’re being handled by a child, such as with a glass of water being carried by his child.] The adult who does this may even be very wealthy and intent upon increasing his fortunes many times over in order to make his son still more wealthy than himself. But for the moment he esteems a glass as something of greater value than the child’s activity and seeks to prevent its being broken [and so interferes needlessly with the child’s development in stopping him from his activity with the glass].
Montessori describes the adults as “kings”, who may of occasion grant the child a right to temporary use of the king’s property, but never the right to possess the property themselves.
An adult, however high or low he may be, is always a powerful being in comparison with a child.
The child can feel as if it lives only at the mercy and privilege of the king. The child is constantly being instructed and informed how to use something, what to touch and what not to touch, to keep away from this or to go be near that. The child needs some of its own things, in sizes and qualities specific to its uses, so that it may explore and understand and “work” in the world around itself without constantly being in conflict with the adults.
An adult is constantly interrupting the child and breaking into his environment. This powerful being directs the child’s life without ever consulting the child himself. And this lack of consideration makes the child think that his own activities are of no value.
A final need is for adults to appreciate the differences in perceptive faculties of children, who, as Montessori describes, pay attention to details not just different in magnitude, but in kind.
A child’s psychic personality is far different from our own, and it is different in kind and not simply degree.
Adults are accustomed to looking at the world and paying attention to details in a particular way based upon their individual goals, ambitions, professional outlook, educational level, etc. etc. But children often pay attention to details quite differently, and in ways that conflict with adult perceptions or treat them as non-sensical or unimportant.
Children an adults are in possession of two different mental outlooks… Adults frequently attempt to point out ordinary objects to three- or four-year-old children as if they had never seen anything before. But this must have the same effect on a child as one shouting at another whom he thinks to be deaf [who is not so].
An adult may wish to draw a child’s attention to the beach and the ocean, but the child is fascinated by a tiny bug crawling across the sand. Adults are often quick to pass judgment on the child in these moments, as if they are “wrong” for not being interested in what the adult wants them to be interested in, or even questioning their intelligence or development when they seem incapable of taking such an interest. But as with work, observation serves a different purpose for the child than for the adult– it is not to satisfy his desire for recreation, or to attend to a productive goal, but to stimulate his psyche according to these innate, natural needs of his development.
Here are some other interesting quotes I collected:
- The child is a universal… There is, in reality, only the child of all times, of all races, heir to tradition, hander-on of history, crucible of culture, pathway to peace.
- The absorption of culture, of customs, of ideas, ideals, of sentiments, feelings, emotions, religion, take place during the period of the absorbent mind, in the child from zero to six.
- We should try to understand that there is an intelligible reason behind a child’s activities. He does nothing without some reason, some motive… A child does not simply run, jump and handle things without purpose and thus create havoc about the house… Knowledge always precedes movement. When a child wishes to do something, he knows beforehand what it is. [A very Misesian idea!]
- An adult’s avarice, which makes him jealously defend whatever he owns, is concealed under “the duty of properly educating one’s child.” [What Stirner would refer to as a “spook”, or a mental hobgoblin an adult uses to frighten his own psyche and thus prevent himself for taking ownership over his actions.]
- When a child moves slowly, an adult feels compelled to intervene by substituting his own activity for that of the child. But in acting thus an adult, instead of assisting a child in his psychic needs, substitutes himself in all the actions which the child would like to carry out by himself.
- What an adult tells a child remains engraved on his mind as if it had been cut in marble.
- When a child is disobedient or has a tantrum an adult should always call to mind the conflict and try to interpret it as a defense of some unknown vital activity necessary for the child’s development.
- Toys furnish a child with an environment that has no particular goal and, as a consequence, they cannot provide it with any real mental concentration but only illusions.
- Before anyone can assume a responsibility, he must be convinced that he is the master of his own actions and have confidence in himself.
I enjoyed reading this book, it stimulated MY psyche and made an impression upon me in terms of how much more there is to think and know about this subject than what I possess currently. I also enjoyed the archaicness of it, Montessori writes like a civilized person of years gone by, speaking articulately and frankly about the world around her without apology and with much conviction and passion for her subject, something which doesn’t seem to exist anymore in our world of sterile, clinical academics reluctant to take a position on anything of import. But it was not always an easy read and it was fairly repetitious. I will likely come back to the book at some point to re-read certain passages that I found hard to appreciate without an experience of raising a child myself. Yet, I wouldn’t recommend this as an “essential” title for someone looking to up their parenting game unless I already knew they were more philosophical in their approach.