There are many instances in Dr. Montessori’s work where she explains why she “eventually…gave up either punishing or rewarding the children”.(1) She explains that this method is “always a form of repression”(2), and is based upon our – in her opinion tragically erroneous – belief that children “come into the world bad and full of naughtiness.”(3) She found, after careful observation, that both punishment and reward were equally ineffective tools for supporting the type of development that she felt was important (i.e. the normalization of the individual and the valorization of mankind). In fact she observed that children were disinterested in both of these methods and often could not even tell the difference between them (4). For many of us our experiences of being punished, and – in some instances – administering punishment, have proven this to be an accurate assessment. And the overwhelming and ever growing body of scientific evidence (for instance that collected by Alfie Kohn in his comprehensive work, Punished by Rewards) has served to put a final nail in the coffin of “pop-behaviourism”.
So how is it possible that many parents – sometimes even parents who appear to be making so-called holistic or alternative parenting choices – still choose to use punishment and reward strategies? And, even more alarmingly, choose instead of some of the sophisticated control mechanisms at their disposal the blunt, archaic approach of physical punishment (i.e. pain-based negative reinforcement)?
My contention is that the core issue here is to do with an understanding of the role and function of the human will. Women and men can be easily dominated when their will is destroyed. History has born witness that although we may imprison, torture, or manipulate the minds and bodies of people they will remain free, for as long as their will is their own. Conversely when people hand over their wills their bodies and minds become the captives of foolish desires and suggestions. Knowing this, many powerful organizations or ideologies have sought to break or ensnare the wills of individuals. As Simone de Beauvoir would have it, oppression is most effectively enforced by “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them”(5).
The construction of man as evil and in need of control is a pervasive one; if we want someone to behave in a particular way there can be few more effective methods than labeling the obedient as good and the disobedient as evil. When we succeed in doing this we are able to more easily create self-justifications for our acts of violence, and – ideally – as the will is progressively obliterated the acts of punishment will become less frequently necessary. This notion is put forward by the psychologist and popular parenting guru Dr. James Dobson in his book, The Strong-Willed Child. He writes,
“…take charge of your baby now, hold tightly to the reins of authority, and quickly begin building into her an attitude of respect and obedience. You will need every ounce of awe you can muster in coming years. Once you have established your right to lead, begin to let go of the reins systematically, year by year.”(6)
This is a trend in modern discipline, surveillance, and punishment which the Parisian social historian, Michel Foucault, documented in his work, particularly Discipline and Punish. He explains how the emergence of the panopticon prison (and the work of Jeremy Bentham) in the late 19th century lead to a gradual loosening of restrictions as prisoners became the “principles of their own subjection” and increasingly “docile bodies” who “internalized the gaze” of their captors, whilst unwittingly submitting themselves to a variety of techniques of testing, scrutiny, and control.(7)
So what was Dr. Montessori’s perspective on the child’s will? Dr. Montessori points out that there is no lack of obedience in the world today, people all over the place are blindly accepting and following those authorities whose threats are most apparent. Terrorism and despotism in all of its guises from apartheid, to the “war on terror”, to the Third Reich are fueled not by strong wills, but by weak and broken ones who follow blindly even to their own demise. Dr. Montessori writes,
“This kind of obedience (breaking the will) is the real reason why vast masses of human beings can be hurled so easily to destruction. It is an uncontrolled form of obedience which brings whole nations to ruin. There is no lack of obedience in our world: quite the contrary! What, unhappily, is absent, is the control of obedience.”(8)
Dr. Montessori believed that a different type of obedience was necessary for the development of mankind. Her biographer and protégé E.M. Standing clearly identifies obedience as an act of will (i.e. acceptance of adult guidance) as well as the ability to act from a place of true choice (as opposed to idle curiosity) as chief characteristics of normalization.(9)
So, in a nutshell, Montessori holds that in order for a person to choose to be obedient it makes sense for her will to be allowed to develop to its full potential rather than being systematically suppressed. She writes,
“Conscious will is a power which develops with use and activity. We must aim at cultivating the will, not at breaking it. The will can be broken in a moments. Its development is a slow process that evolves through a continuous activity in relationship with the environment.”(10)
A few pages later she continues with the following convincing and amusing argument:
“The basic error is to suppose that a person’s will must necessarily be broken before it can obey, meaning before it can accept and follow another person’s directions. Were this reasoning to be applied to intellectual education, we should have to destroy a person’s mind before we could give him any knowledge”.(11)
Dr. Montessori was able to see, quite clearly, that treated the human will as a kind of pathology formed an integral part of the schooling system. She noted that,
“… the ordinary school not only denies the child every opportunity for using his will, but it directly obstructs and inhibits its expression. Every protest on the child’s part is treated as rebellion, and one may truly say that the educator does everything possible to destroy the child’s will.”(12)
When one is able to take on this perspective it becomes clear that the active subject in most classroom power struggles is not a child who wishes not to obey, but an adult hell-bent on the notion that she should. In her – often under utilized – book, The Child in the Family, Dr. Montessori states the following,
“Now we can see that the so-called problems of education, especially those relative to individuality, character and intellectual development, have as their origin the permanent conflict between the child and the adult. The obstacles that the adult places in the way of the child are numerous and grave, and the degree of their danger is dependent upon the consistency with which the adult resorts to them – armed against the child, as it were, with moral law, science and the will to direct him according to his own convictions. It is therefore the adult closest to the child, the mother or the teacher, who presents the greatest danger to the formation of the child’s personality. … The question takes on, therefore, universal proportions of a cyclical nature in that the problem passes from adult to child and from child to adult”.(13)
The cyclical nature of systems of intimate violence are particularly important because of the ways which the simple act of spanking or slapping not only perpetuates itself, but can in fact mushroom out of all proportion. This is explored more in the work of – among others – Riane Eisler(14) and Alice Miller(15). The time is now right for adults to take responsibility for their own wills, attitudes, and actions rather than capitalizing upon our human propensity to shift blame on to the most vulnerable in our communities. I think Dr. Montessori puts it beautifully when she writes,
“When I see how the numbers of naughty and difficult children are increasing today, I see it is not a question of the morality of the children, of something wrong inside individual children. It is a question of a lack in the parents more than in the children and attention should be directed to them rather than to the little children. If we are to make better conditions for the children we must consider the parents…. First change these grown-up people who are so anxious to give little children a moral education. Grown-ups must adapt themselves to the needs of the times. The central point for little children is their need to go in a certain direction towards the adult. Adults are ignorant and see the children in only one aspect. They see only the naughtiness of the children. So the conclusion is that if we are to have a better humanity the grown-ups must be better. They must be less proud, think less of themselves, be less dictatorial. The adults must look at themselves and say “Yes, I understand this problem.””(16)
“The first step in the integral resolution of the problem of education must not, therefore, be taken toward the child, but toward the adult educator: he must clarify his understanding and divest himself of many preconceptions; finally, he must change his moral attitudes”.(17)
Particularly in Western society, and especially since the onset of the Christian era, we have developed an addiction to dualism. This causes us to perceive many false dilemmas and the area of parenting and education is no different. We are told by supposed authorities that we must either punish our children or adopt an entirely permissive and laissez faire approach to child-rearing. I don’t perceive that either of these are viable options, and neither did Montessori. She was emphatically clear that “…the liberty of the children should have as its limit the collective interest”. However, she clearly outlined a method of partnering with children in developing their own path to full choice with regards to their behavior, rather than by punishing them and robbing them of choice. For instance, she proposes that,
“It is true that we have said and repeated often enough, that when a child is absorbed in his work, one must refrain from interfering, so as not to interrupt his cycle of activity or prevent its free expansion; nevertheless, the right technique now (for misbehavior) is exactly the opposite; it is to break the flow of disturbing activity. The interruption may take the form of any kind of exclamation, or in showing a special and affectionate interest in the troublesome child. These distracting demonstrations of affection, which grow more numerous with the disturbing activities of the child, act on him like a series of electric shocks and they have their affect in time. Often a question will serve, such as, “How are you Johnny? Come with me, I have something for you to do.” Probably, he won’t want to be shown and the teacher will say “All right. It doesn’t matter. Lets go into the garden” and either she will go with him or send her assistant. In this way… the other children will cease to be disturbed by him”.(18)
I think that the argument in favour of nonviolent approaches to dealing with children is both cogent and convincing. What remains is for us to turn. It starts with us each taking a stand and then sharing our practice and beliefs with those parents and educators who surround us. Our method supplies us with many tools. Each voice is important if we are to help families, communities, churches, schools, and nations to turn. Every moment that we walk with a child who is growing in their own will and power is spent manifesting peace on earth. What could we ever do that might be more noble?
Published in Montessori Leadership, June 2009.