“We learn from failure, not from success,” wrote Bram Stoker in Dracula. Mistakes are essential to our growth and development, and yet in our society, they are taboo. At some point in our lives, most of us have passed the buck instead of taking responsibility for our errors; in our culture, messing up isn’t something you readily acknowledge. Since we have such a negative view of failure, we try to protect our young children from making mistakes, and this is the biggest blunder of them all.
Imagine that you have just entered a special event.
Everyone is already there and has begun to eat their meals, having already had time to hang their coats, get a drink, find their table and get to know the people next to you and across from you before the special guest speaks.
You have arrived late and haven’t had time to do any of the above. It’s almost an arresting feeling to walk in the door and realize how late you are. I mean, it didn’t seem like things were running that far behind, right?
Everything that is worth doing is worth doing well, or so my dear mother always said. Whether it is a holiday celebration, a dinner for 2 or 6, a trip to the Bahamas or the preparing of a perfect soufflé, each endeavor demands forethought, planning and the execution of those plans to ensure success. Although some of us seem to do this naturally and effortlessly, closer inspection would probably reveal the secret to success: hard work and prior planning.
The comings and goings of the children were remarkable. They seemed so assured and confident and decisive. No one was telling them where to go or what to do. It was hard to believe that I was observing a room of children ages three through six. If a child chose to do his “work” on the floor, he would first get a rolled up mat the size of a doormat from a bin of several, bring it to his chosen location on the floor, and meticulously unroll it. Then he would go get the work (or the “material” as the various pieces of work from which to choose are called) he had chosen and bring it back to the mat on the floor. Whenever he decided he was done, he’d put the work back where it came from and then re-roll the mat, placing it back in its bin. When something spilled, or it was noticed that a spot on the floor was dirty, a random child would choose to get the broom and dustpan out, or maybe hand towel, and simply clean it up without waiting to be told. I almost had to pinch myself.
On a recent morning I had two sets of prospective parents scheduled to observe in the same primary class (mixed-age of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds), a half hour apart. One of the more satisfying parts of my job is to meet with prospective parents after their first observation in a Montessori school. I usually start the conversation by asking, “What did you see in the classroom? Did anything surprise you? What were your impressions?”
Surely this father would have preferred having a conversation with me about the daughter he has in my class and her development. We had opened a discussion several times only to set it aside in favor of his more urgent and immediate task of attending to his toddler’s development. Never did this father roll his eyes, make a sarcastic comment, or express the slightest displeasure to me over being interrupted several times. His entire being seemed suffused with alertness and calm. It seemed that repeating as many times as necessary the words and gestures his daughter needed were to him the most ultimately meaningful and fulfilling experience.
An elder Quaker friend of mine was speaking of the importance of discernment when attempting to move forward when challenged; that is, letting go of our own preoccupations so to let the Divine inspire our actions. Through this process, one winnows the desires, thoughts, and personal attachments that might otherwise cloud guidance from Spirit.
Freedom and Discipline are two words that are not usually used together, at least in regard to children. It seems counter-intuitive—how can you give kids freedom and still have discipline, or be disciplined and have freedom? It is generally understood that children can only “behave” when strict discipline is imposed on them, meaning their freedom taken away– this is the thinking of traditional schooling. But Maria Montessori discovered that the two, freedom and discipline, indeed go hand in hand.
During my pregnancy I crafted a series of Montessori mobiles that are designed to isolate certain concepts (black & white, primary colors, gradation, etc.) and to stimulate the visual sense of newborns. When my son, Zachary, was 7 weeks old, I introduced the third mobile in the series: the Gobbi Mobile. It is designed to isolate the gradation of one color – in this case the color blue.
When we thought about our daughter’s progress at Montessori in particular, we discussed how much progress she had already made – we were amazed by her burgeoning math skills, her beginning writing, her ability to select work and focus…we thought perhaps the ‘third year leap’ was something she was already experiencing. She had been so prolific and learned so many new and diverse things, how much more could she grow in the following year?
It is often during the elementary years that a child first experiences the death of a loved one – frequently a grandparent or great-grandparent, but sometimes and aunt, uncle, parent or sibling. These times can be very difficult and confusing for us as adults caring for elementary children. Younger children also suffer loss, but they may have an easier time accepting that this is just the way things are. It may be only much later that they revisit and truly comprehend the loss through a process of reflection.
This very same principle can be applied in our daily lives with our children. To be fully present, to be fully on cue, to be fully there when encountering your child can serve as one of the greatest gifts your child can receive. How often do we let the cares of the day distract us from these little people? How focused are we, really, in our contacts with them? With a nod to Lama Suyra Das, I would like to suggest 10 mindful moments drawn from your daily routine that you, as a parent, can use to bring your awareness and focus totally into the present moment while being with your child. You can establish each moment or activity as a call to focus, to mindfulness.
She was twenty and she told us that her mom had read aloud to her every night till she went off to university. The first time she came home for a visit her mom kissed her and said goodnight. “Wait,” she said to her mom, “we can’t go to bed till you read to me!” And so their custom continued, but over time it evolved into each of them alternating to read to the other from their current book.
But what is the difference between the kind of work which is an obligation and a chore, and the work that fulfills the spirit and the mind? First, it is important to realize that work in a Montessori environment is not forced on a child, but is instead freely chosen. A Montessori environment offers the child the liberty of choosing their own activities, and they have consistently, and independently, chosen work that serves a developmental purpose. Through this work, children show an ability to concentrate for long periods of time, a propensity for repeating an activity until a certain skill is mastered, and the urge to make the maximum effort on any task.
I asked this group of well-educated professionals what they remembered from their own education about pi. Someone responded, “3.14159.” “You’re right,” I said, “that is the value of pi, but does anyone remember what pi means?” At once they seemed to adopt the sheepish demeanor of students in a traditional math class, each of whom is saying to him or herself: “I should know this but am afraid to answer because I might get it wrong. I hope the teacher doesn’t call on me!” To relieve their discomfort, I supplied the answer: “It is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.”