This post is a distillation of thoughts that have been swimming around in my head for a long time, but I got the motivation to finally put it all down for the Stayfree Time To Change Contest hosted by Indiblogger!
If I could change something around me, what would it be?
If I could change just one thing in the world today, it would be the attitude of people towards children. I would change the way children are parented and educated. I would advocate a radical approach to parenting and education that is modern, validated by the latest research in neuroscience, and yet is 100 years old!
Why? When I look at the world around me, although there are happy stories all around, there are also people killing one another, stealing, raping, committing suicide, doing drugs, abusing alcohol, sex, money, hating each other in the name of religion, politics, race, gender, caste. The list can go on. Even in places with high socio-economic standards, where good education is paramount, people don’t feel happy or secure. Why is this? Should education be just about getting a job or should it also be about preparing one for life ahead? Can the education system alone be blamed for the current mess the world is in? What about parenting approaches to the child?
The foundation of a human being is laid in the first few years of his life-the early childhood years. It is in these years that he has to be cared for with utmost love and respect and awareness. It has been proved that most criminals are those who have had miserable childhoods. Most psychotherapists will delve into the person’s childhood to unravel the mysteries of the present. Still, when it comes to the early childhood years, most people don’t believe it is significant enough to warrant any particular awareness or training.
Why is it that you need to have a license to drive a car and lots of training to get the said license, but not even one-millionth of that kind of training before you become a parent? Sure, everyone reads books, get a load of advice from well-meaning parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors-but nothing based on solid scientific observation that has stood the test of time, is there? Surely, raising a human being is not an endeavor that can be entered into casually, is it? But how many of us have gone into it blindly, putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one step at a time with no idea what we were doing and just trusting that the end result would be a happy human being who the world will be proud of some day? Feeling guilty one day, proud the next, but always wondering if we’re doing it right?
When it comes to early childhood education, even nursery school teachers are traditionally not perceived as requiring any sort of scientific training before children come into their care. That kind of training is supposedly reserved for university professors! This is like saying that when building a house, the foundation does not matter, its the upper floors that have to be lavished with more attention and detail as that is what is most visible to people. If the foundation is not strong enough to support the house, will it matter how much money or time you spend on the upper floors? That is the importance that has to be given to the early years of the child-both from the parents and the educators. That awareness is sadly lacking in society.
It would not be an understatement to say that every major problem that the world faces today stems directly from the patterns woven in early childhood by people who were not aware of what they were doing. Whether it is terrorism or rape or drug abuse or alcoholism or suicides, every time a human being commits an act that violates the life or dignity of another or his own self, you can be pretty sure that it is the direct result of some of his basic needs and tendencies not being met as a child. The more people are ignorant of this, the more we will have a population that is just waiting to explode into rage and violence. On the other hand, if we want a community of peaceful, fulfilled human beings, all we have to do is make sure that whoever becomes a parent or an educator does so with full awareness of these needs and tendencies of the child and ensures they are met-not just material needs, but spiritual and emotional needs as well. As the number of such children increase, we could reach the much talked about ‘critical mass’ that is required to cause a huge transformation in human consciousness-en masse!
So, to put things in practical terms-what kind of awareness do parents and educators need to have? Is there a particular kind of methodology or philosophy of parenting that is proven to succeed? Is there a way of parenting that is based on scientific observation which has proved its worth over the years? Yes, there is. For me, personally, I have found sense, logic, and soul in the writings based on scientific observations put forward by a person who just so happened to be the first woman in her country, 100 years ago, to become a trained physician; a person who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times; a person who now has a whole educational methodology named after her and which has consistently proved successful in raising confident, independent, and compassionate human beings, from birth to 18 years of age, in almost every country in the world over the past 100 years-the person I am talking about is Dr. Maria Montessori. The approach I am talking about is the Montessori path.
Why has it worked over the years? It works because this is a philosophy based on the observations of a well-trained scientific mind which also included the scientific discoveries of other well-known educators of her time. Her discoveries, incidentally, have now been validated by the latest research in neuroscience. It works because this method is based on the awareness of some fundamental human needs and tendencies that all human beings have, in every corner of the globe, and which has not changed since prehistoric times and are still very much present in every human being to the present day. It works because this approach ensures that these needs are met and shows you how to do it. If these are met at the early childhood level, you can be pretty sure that the adult waiting at the end of the process will be a wonderful person!
To try to encapsulate the whole of the Montessori approach in just a few paragraphs would be blasphemy. There are some wonderful courses and books and websites that will give you a pretty good idea of what this is all about, if you only care to research or google or wiki it! However, here I would like to give you a good understanding of the basic concepts in this approach, which should hopefully jumpstart your curiosity about this path of parenting or education.
Dr. Maria Montessori found that the child from birth to six years of age had a special kind of power-the power of the absorbent mind, which is not there at any other stage in human life. During this stage, children absorb everything in their environment just like a sponge soaks up water. They acquire effortlessly things that later might require a lot of intellectual effort to assimilate. For example, children at this age can speak any language they are exposed to, without any effort or teaching required. Their movements, mannerisms, habits, likes and dislikes, may be mirror images of the people around them. They imitate the people in their environment unconsciously. The influences that surround her during this stage are what make up the child’s personality for the rest of her life. You can’t change the child. The only thing you can change is yourself and the child’s environment. So if you want your child to grow up to be a refined, compassionate, confident, and smart person, just ensure that you surround her with the people and the environment that can reflect these values back to her! You want her to love classical music? Play such music in your house. Take her to classical music concerts. You want her to speak and behave graciously with people? Do the same! You want her to be a linguist? Make sure she is surrounded by at least one person who consistently speaks only one particular language to her. If you have 5 people speaking 5 different languages, each consistently, you can bet that by the age of 6, this child will speak all 5 languages effortlessly! Also, one common phrase children at this age keep saying is "I want to do it myself". They may say this in different ways, but the meaning is always this-help me to do it by myself! Unfortunately, people, in their misguided love for children, think that love means doing everything for the child, which only leads to the child feeling either entitled or frustrated. Helping the child do things herself makes her feel happy and confident in her abilities. This is the first step to independence, so start small-whether it is helping your child dress herself, feed herself, or clean herself up!
Another important finding of Dr. Maria Montessori, which was also based on the works of a Dutch scientist called Hugo De Vries, was that children go through what is called ‘sensitive periods’ during the first six years of their lives. These sensitive periods each have a fixed time frame and their purpose is to guide the child to be attracted to certain aspects and activities in their environment that will help her build up particular faculties or abilities which will help her become a well adjusted member of society later in life. There are sensitive periods for language development, for coordination of movement, for refinement of senses, for order and social behaviour. If the environment is prepared in such a way as to provide the child with what she needs during each of these sensitive periods (which run concurrently) then the child effortlessly imbibes that quality from the environment. Once the sensitive period for a particular task is over, though, then the child has to really work on acquiring a particular faculty. It is important to provide the opportunities for these sensitivities to develop and remove obstacles to the same as they are windows of opportunity that reflect the proverb ‘strike while the iron is hot’. That is why a ‘prepared environment’ and a ‘prepared adult’ is very important in the Montessori way of life.
Not knowing about these sensitive periods, people unknowingly hinder the development of the child. This is when the child reacts in anger because she is traumatized. When the child is sensitive to movement, she needs all the opportunities to move in as many ways as are safe for her. The reason she comes out of the mother's womb itself is because there was no more space in there for her and she needed to stretch. What happens when she comes out? She is swaddled up in a cocoon and limbs tied up so that she will feel 'safe'! I have seen toddlers in supermarkets, who are perfectly capable of walking and who want to walk, being forced to sit in the shopping trolleys, for the parents' convenience, and throwing a fit that now makes me want to run over and free the child from that trolley! Even babies are put to sleep in cradles and cots that are at a height, which restricts their free movements when they wake up. Give them a floor bed and they will be most happy! When it comes to the sensitive period for language, they are attracted to human language and work really hard to repeat the sounds they hear. What do adults do, instead of talking to them using a rich and varied vocabulary? They talk to them in baby talk! They repeat the sounds exactly as the child says them, thinking its cute and that the child will understand it better, but what the child really craves for is the language that adults speak, which she longs to hear spoken to her so that she can speak it back! Even worse, sometimes a pacifier is stuck in the baby's mouth so she can't even make any sounds! Coming to the sensitive period for refinement of the senses, when children are at their best time to enhance their senses (sharper senses give better sensory input to the brain, which in turn processes that and gives better information to the person) instead of giving them really cultured and diverse and rich experiences, what do we expose them to? Meaningless nursery rhymes, loud colors, cartoon figures, very bland food, only smooth fabrics to touch, etc. How can she refine her senses by this? How can she appreciate or enjoy the world like this? Do you think your child will not enjoy the best music, dance, art, food, that has been produced by the human race? Have you seen a two year old who enjoys classical music and Kathakali? I have. Children will grow to love what they are exposed to and that is our responsibility. When it comes to the sensitive period for social behavior, this is the best time to get children involved in all the activities of daily life-meeting and greeting people, going to festivals, places of worship, etc. Knowing how to behave with whom and when is something that children learn by watching adults. This, again, is something children learn effortlessly during this sensitive period and if exposed to social situations during this time, they will adapt well to society later. If they do not have such exposure now, then there is no point later in complaining about how unruly or impolite they are as teenagers!
Over and beyond all this are Dr. Maria Montessori’s observations of innate human needs and tendencies. An environment that meets these needs and tendencies ensures that the human being will reflect all that is noble and beautiful in the human psyche. On the other hand, if the environment does not meet them, it will unfortunately lead to a human being who will forever have a ‘hole in his heart’ so to speak, someone who keeps looking for what he never got in every person and every situation, and still never be satisfied. Invariably such a person will be unhappy and will only cause misery to others as well. What are these needs that Dr. Maria Montessori talked about and which every parent following the Montessori philosophy and every school following the Montessori method ensures that the child gets?
We are not talking about the material needs here, which as everyone knows are essential-food, water, clothing, shelter, air. These are as important as the spiritual needs, which are love and security (a feeling of being safe). What we are talking about are the human tendencies which are as important as these, and are largely overlooked by people when formulating an educational path or a parental approach to children. If obstructed, they cause great distress in the child and can even be the cause of personality disorders later in life. Only if these tendencies are met can a human being feel fulfilled and be productive, and this is true not just in children but in adults as well. These tendencies are seen in every human being, all over the planet, and through time immemorial.
What are they?
· Tendency for curiosity, which every parent knows a child has.
Every child exhibits the curiosity to know more about its surroundings. This curiosity is what drives a child to leave the safety of the crib/bed and move further away. This curiosity is what will later drive the child to leave the safety of its home and explore the world. It is curiosity that drove our ancestors to explore the world, make new discoveries and inventions. This is why children's curiosity should be encouraged.
· Tendency to explore
The human child has a tendency to explore the environment using all its senses-sound, taste, smell, sight, and touch. This exploration is vital to getting sensory stimuli that builds up the neural networks in the brain. This is why children need to be allowed to explore with all their senses.
· Tendency for orientation
The tendency for orientation is a way to get back to a place that is familiar to us by using familiar landmarks to mark our position and guide ourselves. The confidence that we can always find our way back to a familiar place gives us more courage to explore newer horizons. This is why the child’s environment should be one where everything has a place and there is a place for everything!
· Tendency for order
Every human invention, science, and cultural art is based on order. Nature is based on order. Human babies thrive on order in the environment and order in the day’s routine. That is why they take a long time to get used to a new routine, new places and new people. This external order is also crucial to help the child build order in the mind, because he is trying to classify and organize information in the early years. Chaos and disorder in the environment can throw him into confusion.
· Tendency for gregariousness
Human beings have a tendency to move in groups, form new groups, seek out familiar groups, and stay in groups. This helps us with a sense of belonging.
· Tendency for communication
Belonging in a group makes it imperative that we communicate. Communication need not be based on language alone. It can also be through gestures, expressions, or body language. It is verbal and nonverbal. That is why babies should be talked to, sung to, looked at, and touched.
· Tendency for calculation
We are mentally, knowingly or unknowingly, constantly in a calculative mode all our lives. From the baby who is trying to judge the distance of a spoon from the bowl of food to his mouth, to a person determining how much weight he can carry in a bag, to the cook who speedily calculates how much salt to put in a curry, we are always calculating. There is no work in this world that does not utilize the tendency for calculation.
· Tendency for perfection
We are the only species that strive for perfection in ourselves and in our world. Perfection gives us satisfaction. We are always adjusting things to make it more exact, more precise, and absolutely right. Without the tendency for perfection, there would not be any refinement or progress in the world.
· Tendency to self-judgment
Everyone has the tendency to judge themselves and the work they do. By judging the quality or result of a work you do and determining that you have done it well gives a sense of satisfaction. This is the basis of self esteem that is not dependent on another's opinion of you.
· Tendency towards work
Doing work that makes a contribution to their family and society brings a deep sense of fulfilment in all human beings. The happiest human beings are those who feel they have made something of their lives and themselves-made a positive difference in the lives of others. Even children are workers, which is a strange thing for people to understand as they think that all children like to do is play. Observe a child with a room full of toys, though, and you will see he gets bored easily and is never satisfied with newer, costlier toys. On the other hand, give him the opportunity to do work that adults do in their every day life-gardening, cooking, cleaning, washing-do you think he will ever get bored? In fact, if you observe children everywhere, you will see that they like to imitate the work that adults do, but unfortunately this has not been understood or else the multinational toy manufacturers would have gone bankrupt a long time ago!
· Tendency for coordinated movement
The tendency for coordinated movement can be seen in the child who is constantly trying to refine his movements. The human body is capable of amazing grace, flexibility, and strength, as can be seen in dancers, gymnasts, and other athletes. While the average human being may not push his body to go through such rigorous training, every human being is driven to perfect his movements from the day he is born, as can be seen in the kicking of a newborn baby as well as the way toddlers are constantly trying to jump and skip and hop and do it better each time!
All these tendencies were observed in the child by Dr. Maria Montessori 100 years ago and are still valid today. They are met in a well prepared Montessori home or classroom. How? Movements are not restricted as in the classroom there are no benches or chairs, but work is done on mats or little tables and chairs that are placed unobtrusively in the room. In the home, the baby from birth is placed on floor bed, which is safer and also encourages the child to move out on his own without fear of falling. Communication is free in the Montessori classroom as children can work alone or in groups and the teacher does not lecture or take ‘classes’ the traditional way. At home, parents are encouraged to constantly talk, sing, and name everyday objects to the child as well as respond to the child with attention and respect. Gregariousness is given opportunities too, unlike in traditional classrooms, as children are of a mixed-age group (children of three different ages put together). This encourages socialization, role modelling and helping each other. There is opportunity to practice the rules of social behaviours-the dos and don'ts. Children know not to disturb or how to interrupt another if needed. The tendency for calculation is taken care of by the materials that help the child calculate and judge his work as well as correct himself without the help of the teacher-which takes care of the need for perfection as well. The child from a very early age thus gets the joy of self evaluation and his self esteem is not dependent on another person. The tendency for work is taken care of too as there is always work to do in the Montessori classroom or home. Children are given opportunities to do the daily every day tasks that adults do. There is an order in the classroom and home as well, with things always kept back at the same place every time and there being a general routine to the day. Above all this is the opportunity to do things for themselves and others, by themselves with guidance from the adults, that build in them a great deal of self confidence and the spirit of independence.
Thus, following the Montessori approach at home or in a school has been working terrifically for millions of children across the world, over the last 100 years-because it takes into account these very basic human needs and tendencies that are universal. There is enough information out there for anyone to begin the Montessori approach to parenting at home, even if you don’t have a Montessori school in your neighbourhood. While it may require a major change in your thinking, personality, and home environment, it is well worth the effort when you see the beauty and logic behind this very simple way-and all to raise a happy, confident, compassionate and independent human being who will be a true gift to the world!