Developing Inner Discipline

One of the first and fundamental lessons in Nature is that the plant grows from the root, and it is the root which supports and provides the channel for nourishment. The natural root of the child’s development is the family, from whom the child grows outward, but who throughout the child’s life supports and provides for nourishing development. 

Montessori education has at its center the child, school life begins and grows outward from the family. Montessori’s great interest in prenatal life and post natal development shows her deep regard for the family and its foremost role in the education of the child. From the home comes the basic instincts of love, caring, nurturing, empathy, appreciation, service, and cooperation. The parents are nurturing the human potential of the baby to love, trust and to bind themselves to human partnerships in a lifetime of relationships. These are the fundamental values that start in the home and are reinforced in the Montessori school. 

The school and the home join as the psychic environment that aids the child in their development. There is a partnership between the child and the family in the collaborative effort that guides the child to be motivated by the wonder of life and the satisfaction of self improvement. 

Montessori education is an aid to a process that is dictated by nature and performed in the most part by the parent. From this ideal comes the concept of partnership in education. The school is separate and the home is separate, but they are both in the service of the child. Education becomes a joint partnership in which the child forms the center and the school and family form the nurturing outer circle.

How can the parents and the school join together in helping the child develop discipline? What processes help the child to make acceptable choices and build skills of cooperation? Where do we start in helping children to exercise self discipline?

Discipline, when we think of this word we often associate it with punishment and rewards, ways in which we as adults can control the behavior of children.  Yet we all realize that rewards and punishments do not help the child develop self discipline. What we need is an interpretation which is more in keeping with our understanding of growth and development. We must return to the roots of the word. Discipline comes from another old word in the English language stemming from the same root, disciple, meaning an ardent follower, a co-worker. In its true sense, discipline means the art of completing conditions favorable for cooperation.

Montessori felt there were three distinct stages of the development of self discipline. In the first stage the  child is constantly changing and adapting, shaping the inner self according to the demands of the persons around him whom they love. It is the establishment bond of love that comes first, obedience comes after. As the baby grows, parents help them make choices by guiding them with sensible “do’s” and “don’ts”. Gradually, the child develops a sensibility for what is right and wrong through this interaction. This forms the foundation for the child gaining inner control of his impulses and interests. The child is obedient because he loves and trust the guidance from the parent. 

The second level of obedience is a step by step process that begins with  parents’ external influence and ends up is the gradual growth of the child towards a desirable kind of self control. It is the change from outer to inner control, with the child exercising his own free will to shape his behavior.  This is often the time that the child enters school, and is influenced by classmates and teachers in this gradual transition to self control. At this crucial turning point in development it is the parents’ and school’s role to provide standards for the child to build the social self-his ego. This function is just as vital as the physical care of the child, yet it is harder to discern. We seek to help the child bring the variety of impulses and interests into harmony. 

We must be cautious in our approach so that we seek a balance between control and abandonment. We can go overboard as authority figures, giving the child constant commands so they have no practice in exercising their own decision making process, confronting them with consequences where they have no real choice, and structuring a dependency on the adult that creates an obstacle to the child developing the capacity for guiding themselves. On the other end of the scale their are the adults that give too few standards for behavior, change the rules of conduct under duress, and lack consistency in setting consequences. This state of over leniency leaves the child with no guidelines to go by. Both weak and strict adult control puts a burden on the child and deprives them of a framework for them to formulate a code of behavior for themselves.

For adult guidance to be effective it must start with the bond of affection and trust that gives the child the security and self esteem necessary to be motivated to guide their behavior. The child transforms from external control to inner control when they feel both accepted and needed, and the true ticket is for the child to feel needed, in his own home and in his classroom. This is the first step to purposeful activity which develops self discipline while contributing to the formation of character. Finding meaningful tasks for the young child may be difficult for the adult, but if the work assigned the child is so simple that he feels beneath the task, then he can not develop an eager, positive attitude towards useful tasks. The self disciplined child is one who has often enjoyed the satisfaction of being needed and enjoyed a difficult task that has brought recognition for his accomplishments.

Children are sensitive to the realness of a situation, children enjoy the small jobs which make the household or classroom work. Yet the child lives in a world designed for big people. The difference in size between the child and the objects around him make it near impossible for him to participate in a meaningful way. More importantly, the child fails to draw the necessary relationships between things which constitutes the grist for intellectual development. Dr. Montessori sought to prepare an environment that was a place for children “The Children’s House”, where all the furnishing and equipment were scaled to the proper size and adapted for the child’s physical strength, so that they could move or manipulate these with the same ease as adults in their homes. As Dr. Montessori described these special places for the children in her book, The Child and the Family:

Here, then, are the fundamental principles: the furniture must be light and arranged in such a fashion that the child can easily move it, and the pictures must be hung at a level that permits the child to look at them comfortably. We must apply these principles to all the surrounding objects, starting with the rugs and ending with the vases, dishes and other such things. The child must be able to use everything he comes across in the house and he must be able to do the ordinary tasks of every day life – sweep, vacuum the rugs, wash and dress himself. The objects surrounding the child should look solid and attractive to him, and the “house of the child” should be lovely and pleasant in all its particulars; for beauty in the school invites activity and work, as adults know that domestic beauty nourishes domestic unity. It is possible to say that there is a mathematical relationship between the beauty of his surroundings and the  activity of the child; he will make discoveries more voluntarily in a gracious setting than in an ugly one. 

In a house that is truly his, a child tends to be as well behaved as possible and seeks to control his movements; in this fashion, he starts on the road to perfection without external prodding.

Real goodness does not consist of putting up with whims and fancies, but rather seeking the means to avoid them through purposeful and constructive work. This work is only possible when the child is given the tools in a prepared environment. Then the activities are not done because they are required or expected, but rather for the sake of serving a useful function, and because it is useful it boosts the child’s self esteem, sense of belonging, and total concentration. Given the help to ”help themselves” the child achieves the highest level of obedience, where the child acts consciously and voluntarily in a manner that is self directed and disciplined.

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