Dr. Maria Montessori observed that a child’s innate potential finds full expression through interaction with the environment. An experience from the life of world-renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall illustrates Dr. Montessori’s idea beautifully:
As a young child, Jane Goodall had a keen interest in the animal world. One of her tasks as a four-year old was to collect eggs from the hen house. Jane began to wonder: where on a chicken was there a hole large enough to expel an egg? One day Jane decided to see for herself. She hid in some straw in the corner of a hen-house, waiting. Hours later, a hen came into the hen house and sat on a nest directly in Jane’s view. To Jane’s wonder and satisfaction, the hen rose and gradually pushed an egg from the feathers between her legs.
By this time, Jane’s panicked family had been looking for her for over four hours. When Jane finally emerged from the hen-house, her mother, Vanne, saw her excitement and her “shining eyes.” So instead of scolding her daughter, Vanne sat down on the ground and listened to Jane as she recounted the story of how a hen lays an egg.
I read this story a few weeks ago and I thought of three things:
*Jane needed several hours of sustained focus to achieve her goal of understanding where the egg comes out of a chicken (like an uninterrupted work period in a Montessori classroom);
*Vanne’s response upon finding her daughter, who had been missing for several hours, was quite Montessori-like (she “followed the child,” rather than destroying that critical moment through chastising her).
*Our own fears and wishes as parents can easily get in the way of our children’s true selves emerging.
Would Jane Goodall have gone on to spend decades in the wilderness with chimpanzees, upending the prevailing views about the animal world, had her mother not seen and celebrated her curiosity and her talent for patient observation? What would have happened to Jane’s shining eyes, had Vanne met her excitement with punishment and control? We’ll never know. But we can learn from Vanne’s example. We can support our own children in discovering and expressing their gifts.
Parenting is deep work. Most of us struggle with the balance between guiding our children and giving them the space they need to figure out who they are as unique human beings. That balance involves a lot of letting go.
At toddlerhood, we let go by watching a child walk into the classroom by himself. We allow her to run, and stumble, and sometimes fall.
Later, letting go might take the form of respecting that your child doesn’t share your interest in dance (or science fiction, history, basketball, art… whatever passion you had hoped he would share with you).
In adolescence, letting go could mean reflectively listening and trying to understand when your child makes a political argument you find incomprehensible.
Every Montessori classroom is a “prepared environment,” a safe space where a child is empowered to make choices within age-appropriate limits.
As parents, we are the most important prepared environment in our children’s lives. We create the safe space for them to become the human beings they came here to be. We prepare ourselves, committing to our own inner work so we can be both compassionate and firm. We seek support when we need it, because while parenting is joyful, it is also messy and hard.
At each stage of development, we empower our children by allowing them to discover who they are. We allow them to experiment. We give them the freedom to try new things, even if they are things we don’t understand. We respect them enough to value their opinions, even when we disagree.
Ultimately, the most important job of parenting is letting go of who we think our children should be, and challenging ourselves to see and celebrate who they actually are. In doing so, we empower them to discover and express their unique gifts.
What sort of world would we live in if every child were free to live out his or her individual genius?
I’d like to find out. Wouldn’t you?
Perspectives of a Montessori Mom
Letting Go: The Most Important Work of Parenting
Kim Schneider, M.Ed., JD, LPC Head of School