Being a parent in 2019 feels like it is full of extra responsibility. With daunting global-political tensions and fears over the future of the environment, wondering what the future will look like for our children can feel scary.
The question isn’t just how we can protect our children from an uncertain future, but how to raise them in a way that produces a generation of adults that will take care of this world responsibly, respectfully and peacefully.
One answer can be found in the words and teachings of a woman who would have turned 149 last week. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and child educator. Her books established a philosophy of education, known as the Montessori method, which is still popular around the world but has never become main-stream anywhere. This is a perfect moment to look closely at her words of wisdom, and integrate them into our modern world, as either parents or educators, more than 100 years after they were first spoken.
Maria Montessori fought against the social norms of her time, questioned the status quo, and believed in social equality. She broke the mould of what was expected of women by studying medicine and was the only woman in her medical school. From there, she took an interest in mental health and children with special needs.
She observed that if their environment was changed and prepared carefully, they were able to achieve and develop skills. The children she worked with blossomed, and she began to write about how child education needed to be radically changed.
So, what are the basics of the Montessori method, and how does it work? At its core is the idea of “follow the child.” In other words, instead of a control-mode of education, observe what the child is interested in, and let them flow with their own interests.
An environment that has a lot of practical play will help the child figure out his or her interests more easily. This child will develop into an adult who doesn’t blindly follow others, but one who has confidence, and who can control their own actions and destiny.
For similar reasons, independence is another key concept. “Let us set it straight,” Montessori said, “the child wants to do everything all by himself.” She advised to encourage a child, but at the same time not get in the way of them doing a task alone; a child’s desire, she said, is for the educator to “help me to do it by myself.”
Respect for the child is of high importance in Montessori philosophy. Respecting a child’s interests and respecting their desire to do things alone, Montessori believed, would lead to a child and then an adult, who respects themselves as well as others and the environment that they live in, as the two go hand-in-hand.
Peace and education became the focus on the Montessori method after World War I when fascism was on the rise in Europe. Montessori toured the world giving lectures on peace and education, as she believed her methods of encouraging independence and treating children with respect would be the antidote to war.
Allowing children space to resolve conflicts, for example, would lead to adults who were empathetic and drawn to respecting others, rather than being drawn to hate and conflict. When World War II ended, she famously said: “Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.”
Montessori philosophy does not have to come only from the classroom; there are many ways that parents can integrate her ideas into their own home. This would include, for example, using a floor-bed rather than a crib, and making items that the child uses accessible so that they can get them for themselves. A simple adjustment is to have no artwork above a child’s height in their bedroom or nursery because, after all, the art should be there to be viewed by the child, not the adult!
Parents can also encourage children to dress themselves, and include them in household chores like cleaning, or watering the plants. Though this may sound like it is easier said than done, Montessori developed materials for different age groups to aid her teaching methods. Parens can buy or even make some of these materials and offer them to the child at home. Much of this can be done simply, and there is a range of blogs and books, including Montessori's own books, to offer advice and guidance.
The work of Maria Montessori is still so relevant in today’s society and continues to grow in popularity. And, as they say, "the proof is in the pudding."
It is not surprising that a whole host of famous and successful people had a Montessori education, several of whom are known for advocating peace and social justice, such as Anne Frank, George Clooney, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Beyoncé Knowles, Helen Keller, Helen Hunt, and Sean “P Diddy” Combs.