Thursday, January 22, 2009

Montessori Manual: Avoiding Near Occasions

I wrote last time about the way Dorothy Canfield Fisher, in her book The Montessori Manual for Parents and Teachers, thinks parents can inadvertently train their children to disobey. One of the primary ways is to give them a command that they are incapable of carrying out, and that was the focus of the last post. Now for the alternative methods for encouraging obedience -- there are four that she mentioned, so I'm going to post them separately because otherwise the post would be immensely long:

First. -- To so arrange his life that there shall be few needs to issue commands.
A child's natural desire is to behave well; when he does not, there is usually some reason for the misbehavior. He is over-stressed, or there is something in his environment that is desirable but not allowed for him. He is inexperienced, and does not understand that what he wants to do hurts himself or others around him. Just telling a small child that something is not allowed is not usually enough for him to really "know" the truth, because small children are concrete and usually need repetition to understand how things work. It takes several years before they can actually pause before they act and think about what it might mean to themselves or to others.

Sure, children have fallen human natures like everyone else but young children, before school age, are not at the age of reason, which is a prerequisite for true sin. Their "naughtiness" may be a symptom of imperfection but it is not culpable in the way similar behavior would be for a given adult (and don't most adults have their moments of acting just like little kids? I know I do).

So one way to minimize naughtiness is by arranging the child's life to keep "near occasions" to a minimum. This is a reward in itself and also leads to better things. For example, a child who is playing well is furthering his own development, while a child locked in a power struggle is exhausting himself and the people around him. Aquinas says that emotion affects learning. Positive emotion enhances it, while strong negative emotion leaches it away. There are storms in a child's life that no one could possibly predict or forestall, unless the parents were superhuman. It's not our task to take these all away. But certainly parents can work towards avoiding the unnecessary, unavoidable ones that cause bad behavior.

For instance, Mrs Fisher says, it is possible to avoid a lot of "naughtiness" simple by avoiding occasions where the child is forced outside himself, outside his normal comfort zone. For example, some of the things that make it difficult for a child to behave well are: being shown off to other adults (forced to entertain at a party, for example), being dragged to activities which don't have much in them suitable to the child's nature.... that are oriented towards older children or adults, or too chaotic to handle. In other words, it's best to make sure as far as possible that the child's small strength of will isn't tested. Hunger and tiredness are two other things I can think of that make it hard for a child to behave well. And I have noticed particularly with my extroverted child that he really needs intervals of stable, reassuring "mom time" between periods of play with siblings or friends. Quiet time talking or playing little games or reading a book together restore his will and emotional equilibrium. If I don't come in and out of his daily life a bit, his behavior tends to disintegrate.

When there is no choice but to make difficulties for a child (say, if he is in church and simply needs to be reasonably quiet) then she recommends realizing the difficulty he is in and treating the problem simply and calmly. Enforce obedience, yes, but strive to avoid the emotional overtones (this is VERY difficult for me because I get humiliated by disruptions in public places). I think there is no worse way to aggravate a small child who instinctively KNOWS he is being asked for a lot, to be treated like he is a disappointment or a "bad child" just for acting within his nature.

Plus, as Charlotte Mason says, small children have a very active sense of sin. Some children put up barriers when they know their behavior is not pleasant in the eyes of their loved ones. They seem indifferent, but I don't think they generally are. So helping them be pleasant is a worthwhile occupation. Children who have "difficult" personalities often get less positive feedback from those they love. This can become a factor in discouragement and resentment which makes the child less likely to try in future. To me this seems like a reason to quickly isolate unpleasantness. ... to deal with the behavior quickly and decisively and in whatever style comes naturally to the parent, but to keep it as concrete and geared to the immediate occasion as possible. A bit of sympathy along with the firmness can be helpful. After all, being good in times of trial is a heroic achievement and even if the young child doesn't quite succeed, any effort is a positive sign.


  • avoid when possible occasions where the child is stretched beyond endurance. This will differ somewhat from child to child, so studying your child is important, but generally hunger, tiredness, over-stimulation, boredom, or lots of temptations in the environment (say a place where normal child activity can't be allowed) are triggers for misbehavior.

Possible Application:

  • Look for a "problem spot" in your child's life.... some area where he has a pattern of misbehaving. Then try to figure out how to proactively avoid the problem (this is mostly talking about children below the age of reason, as you've noticed).
A Personal Example:

In my 6 year old's life, one trouble spot is that he gets wrapped up in playing and then doesn't notice his hunger signals until he is VERY hungry. Then he either lashes out at his playmate, or runs to me and imperatively, sometimes in tears, demands food right NOW. This recurrent habit could possibly be minimized if I paid attention to the time and had his snack ready to eat already, or if I set the kitchen up so he could fix a snack for himself and then reminded him at the proper time. So I'll give that a try and see if it helps.

A Note:

Remember that there are some things that are just going to be tough no matter what. For example, I used to have to take all three of my small children -- ages 4, 2, and 1 -- grocery shopping. It's unlikely that this will become an altogether pleasant, serene experience for most people no matter what. Dorothy Canfield Fisher would say that this is just the sort of situation to try to avoid if possible.

If you can't avoid it, you can generate strategies to make it a bit easier depending on what the "triggers" are. I used to shop with a friend who didn't have children. She didn't mind helping me out in dealing with restlessness, cravings and that sort of thing. Other strategies were: keeping it short, keeping snacks in my purse for the baby and toddler, getting my older child involved in the shopping procedure, and making distinctions between "normal" child rowdiness vs real problem behavior that involved defiance.

The task with these activities is to
(1) review principles of good behavior ahead of time
(2) recognize that this is very hard for the children
(3) make it as easy as possible for them to be obedient
(4) try to stay engaged and positive
(5) and try to get over it as fast as possible, if it was bad... spend some time reconnecting later (kids are good at doing this themselves, but some moms have a hard time forgiving and letting go -- I am a melancholic myself so I have to consciously remind myself to move on.)


Stephanie said...

Good stuff! (I think I better go get a copy of that book.) This first point is the reason I was always careful to go to my waking child before she/he started to fuss. I did not want the baby to associate crying or fussing with getting my attention. So ... at the first sounds of stirring after a nap, or the first murmurs of "mama?" in a store, or the first sign of reaching out, I was ready.

Of course, that didn't mean I tried to anticipate all needs and fill them before they were expressed. That's just the same mistake from the other end of the stick. I did have the grace to wait to be asked.

hahaha! I just thought of something. When they got older and said, "Mom..." I did what I'd always done. Stopped and waited for them to say what they wanted. But by that time, "Mom" was just the booting up phase of their processors. I think they'd learned to use it as a way to start their thinking procedures. (LOL! Haven't thought about that in awhile.)

Celeste said...

Just wanted to say thanks, Willa, for this series--so very timely for me. My son and daughter (both 2yo) are giving me quite a time lately, and I've been looking for ways I can change things up around here before Baby #3 arrives (any day now). I'm going to be re-reading these last couple posts this evening as I try to do a quick restructuring of how I handle the children. Thank you for sharing this great resource!

lissla lissar said...

I don't suppose you're available to a) become my Mom, or, b) move to Canada and live next door to us? Or both? Thanks. :)

Yes. Must work on avoiding occasions for fussing, and responding promptly. Problems with both tend to come up when I become too task-focused, or succumb to acedia.

Stephanie said...

Willa, a thought has occurred. Do you think that the situation works like this?

When the child is in the Absorbent Years (Montessori), which the Church as often referred to by names like "age of accountability" and things like that ... it just seems obvious - kids change into some other sort of critter near the age of 6 or 7, which is when Roman Catholics do First Communion, but also when lots of other people change the game a bit ... know what I mean?

Anyway, do you think that in those first years, what the child is doing is gathering behavioral and reaction options? Um ... let's see if I can get my thoughts out. It seems to me that those first years are for forming the will. We give the child many ways of doing this, and every time the child acts upon his world, he learns what works and what doesn't.

Well ... if we arrange the child's world so that the near occasions are not part of his little equation, then do we not give the child good and stable habits on which to build? I've got a vision in my head of a very plump little child with a bucket, toddling around, gathering things up from what is available, and it is from this bucket he will draw things for the rest of his life.

Willa said...

if we arrange the child's world so that the near occasions are not part of his little equation, then do we not give the child good and stable habits on which to build?

I think I get what you are saying. Let me know if I don't!

When I was writing the post originally I was hearing a little voice arguing with me, saying something like "If a child never has his muscles (of the will) tested, how will he grow?"

I can think of two arguments in response to that, though, and you hit both of them, I think. Well, actually three. The first is that inevitably, children WILL meet obstacles. There's really no way around that. But why make more than is necessary?

The second, which you mentioned --

A child's "will" isn't really a big factor in very young childhood. Properly speaking, will involves reason, a consideration of alternatives, that isn't really part of the framework of a small child's development. Children tend to operate by affections and habits.

The third -- I THINK I get it -- is expressed by your quote above.

So here goes. There is a very primary Habit of Expectation set up in a child by his treatment primary years PLUS his temperament. This has to do with attachment theory. If a child spends his first months and years in an atmosphere of affection, intimacy, respect -- I sort of visualize warm arms to start from and come back to, and a kind smile even in the tough moments, and a bit of challenge maybe personified by a dad's playful wrestling and teasing --he will have a sort of habit of using that approach to filter things through.

A melancholic child -- I have one -- won't lose his negative temperament but will have some extra skills to meet the trials and tribulations of life.

Now I can hear a little worried voice saying "but what if my kids are older and I don't feel I did a good job with this in their young years?" I don't really think it's ever too late to make good changes. I know this from personal experience. In fact, what I'd say is that no matter how many good things a mother did in her early years of mothering, she is still going to need to have an openness to change. The analogy is spiritual progress, which involves daily and sometimes hourly reconversion. Not that you redirect your whole life every moment but that you regularly re-ratify your principles and grow deeper towards them.

An example: I had some relationship difficulties with one of my children. I didn't know very much about mothering and he was a difficult child in some ways. We tended to trigger each others' emotional buttons. Even though I made a ton of mistakes our earlier difficulties have been largely resolved.

So is this what you meant?

Willa said...

I forgot to mention that you can download an older version of the book as a pdf for free since it's in public domain The Montessori Manual. The more recent printing is OOP right now and kind of expensive in secondhand (if you can get a library copy though it's easier to read that way than online : ))

Stephanie said...

"So is this what you meant?"



Or ... should that be "precisely"?

And does the question mark go before or after the quotation marks in that instance?

(A good example of how MY brain works! lol!)

1. "The first is that inevitably, children WILL meet obstacles. There's really no way around that. But why make more than is necessary?"
--- In my head, the reasoning had (has) these words: "I want to assist my child with his own challenges - I do not want to BE one of his challenges."

2. "A child's "will" isn't really a big factor in very young childhood. Properly speaking, will involves reason, a consideration of alternatives, that isn't really part of the framework of a small child's development."
-- Except, we do have to factor it in, because it is during these limited-options years that the will is being formed. In direct opposition to my training and upbringing, I wanted a child with a strong will, healthy affections, and the ability to assess alternatives - which can only come with practice. (I build the fence, you have free run of the yard inside the fence.)

3. "There is a very primary Habit of Expectation set up in a child by his treatment primary years PLUS his temperament."
-- Yes, yes, a thousand thousand times yes!! God made the child. That part is already done, and we have to work with reality, doing only our own jobs, and not the child's job.

One powerful way to convey this: Give instructions (sufficiently - not just a hint), and wait. Hold still. Keep your attention on the child. Do not intervene. Do not mindlessly and needlessly repeat what you have said. The child will most often fulfill expectations of obedience if we will just wait for it. And for heaven's sake, do NOT re-do tiny attempts at fulfilling expectations by re-stacking the stacks, re-making the beds, re-wiping the table ... just let the poor kid practice a cheerful expectation of obedience.

(Willa, I think your kids and my kids would be instant friends.)

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of wisdom here (and I can see that there's an interesting discussion in the comments that I won't want to miss.) This is very much what I needed to hear now, as we are struggling with some of "Missy's" behaviors and not handling it well. Thanks!