Saturday, January 24, 2009

Montessori Manual: Reasons Behind the Rules

Next in the series of strategies from Dorothy Canfield Fisher's Montessori Manual (the book is available online as a PDF and the relevant section on obedience can be read here).
Second -- As soon as he begins to be able to understand simple statements, the reason for various commands given him should be explained to him.

The child should first obey, then expect an explanation for the command, she says. This has two purposes: it shows the child that there is a reason for the rule, and it restrains people around him from making unreasonable rules. If a mother is inclined to say "no" for small reasons, she should try to rethink ways that she can say "yes".

If a mother is always thinking about what she WOULD explain to the child if the child could understand, even if it is a small child, it makes it easier for that mother to sort out for herself what is based on real reasons and what is not.

I read somewhere else that Montessori teachers are often grieved to see a toddler scolded for doing the very things -- touching, investigating, arranging -- that they are encouraged to do in the prepared environment.

Mrs Fisher writes, and I find this too:

"Such frank explanations and mutual concession are most valuable and vital elements in the harmonious relations of parent and child, and do more than anything elsee to prevent that bitter rebellion against authority which so often saddens the adolescence of children with strong wills and a keen sense of justice"
I do think that a general habit of minimizing unnecessary restrictions and commands, and being willing to think them through, is a very helpful habit. I wanted to mention some possible difficulties, things that have cropped up in my experience. But if you're not much interested, just skip to the summary, strategies and so on at the bottom.

I. I have to explain the reason for EVERY rule? I can only make rules that I can explain?

Here I picture a busy overloaded mom who sees this principle as saying that she can't justly say NO ever, or has to rigorously evaluate every single executive decision and communicate every detail to her children. The household becomes a free-for-all as children negotiate and argue and Mom has to justify her decisions. I do not think this is the sort of thing Mrs Fisher is advocating at all. I think I made that mistake sometimes when my children were younger. I hesitated to impose what the Church calls "disciplines" -- things that weren't specific Commandments, but that were indirectly good because they made the family life run better. And I often critiqued myself, which is an extra burden to bear when you're already doing a lot in a day.

While decisions should be thoughtful, mothers have to make some decisions by intuition based on lots of factors -- her own energy level, the factor of several children of varying levels of responsibility, the flow of the day, the stress level of her husband, many things that she can't explain thoroughly to children or even completely articulate to herself, but that she is taking intuitively into account.

I've made rules, say for walking near busy streets with my group of children, that I wouldn't have to bother about if I only had one child. This is part of finding what Stephen Covey calls a "win/win" solution that works for all the people concerned. The mom's sanity and comfort zone (and the dad's) are part of the equation and to be considered seriously in the same way as the comfort zone of the child(ren) is considered. I do try to give the children the understanding that some rules like "don't hit your sibling" are based more directly on the real nature of things, while some rules "hold hands with Mom when you cross the street" are more situational even though they are based on real principles like "preserve safety". More on that some other time, perhaps.

II. What if explanations and choices and compromises just make a conflict worse?

When my kids were younger I didn't realize that children rather like habitual behavior and get pleasure out of ritual; in fact, that small children prefer not to deal with long, philosophical discussions, and as Charlotte Mason points out, find it stressful to have too many decisions and choices to make. Sure, it is good to give choices and have some open-ended situations so they gradually grow into the ability to choose well, and it is good to talk about reasons behind decisions. But the value of giving choices and discussing principles is not so much because the children like it so much -- they usually don't particularly -- but because it is good practice for parents and children, and plants a seed for future thinking.

I am just mentioning that in case you tend to fall into a mistake I sometimes still fall into, of thinking that it is a concession to the child to offer choices or explain things. Then when your child gets angry and even more locked into his own will, you wonder what went wrong. Well, the reason, I think, is that instead of being seen as a compromise or concession, as it seems to the adult, to the distressed child it is seen as a third alternative and too overwhelming for an undeveloped thought process.

It is still good to give reasons and offer choices. But try not to expect it to be seen as a gift or a pacifier for conflict. Rather, as Dorothy Canfield Fisher says, offer these things as a teacher of responsible freedom, expecting the results to unfold slowly, just because it is a good thing in itself. Practically speaking, I find it MUCH more effective to explain things and offer choices in calm times when there isn't already a conflict going on. If my child isn't already emotionally invested in a particular outcome, he is FAR more likely to be able to handle the stress of an explanation or a presentation of alternatives.

III. How many times do I have to repeat my reasons for a rule?

Can it ever start seeming silly to keep repeating the same explanations over and over again? When Paddy has asked for the fifth time why he has to do a given thing, say put his boots by the door, even if he is obeying, I start working on having him memorize it so he can tell ME... or I try to set up in informal fashion what Montessori calls a "presentation" -- a teaching procedure. (It might be better actually to do this beforehand, but I am usually not that organized). Asking for the same explanation over and over again can start sounding like a reflex. My mother in law is very good at "object lessons" or creative demonstrations or Socratic questioning on WHY a rule is in place. She helps the child participate in the reasoning behind the rule. If you have a talent for this, it's a useful one : ).

It might be helpful to consider the Montessorian principle that the fewer and more simple words in teaching, the better it is. I have a friend who is very good at explaining rules in advance, but at the same time thinking up a short phrase or motto to express in capsule form her reasons for a rule. It is true but simply expressed so she can build on it with more detail and depth as the child grows older, and it sums things up so that she can quickly state it in times when there is turmoil. I think it's something like a "Talking Point" and I've seen a similar strategy recommended in various parenting books.

IV. I would like to explain reasons to my kids, but I know or sense that it will cause chaos.

What if you want to try to follow this principle more than you have in the past, or you have already tried, but find that this upsets the status quo so that for a while things seem to have actually gone downhill?

In some ways this can happen even in the natural course of things. Children slowly develop in maturity (with some steps backwards for various reasons which are totally normal). The applications of general principles have to change, too. There is a gradual "handing-over" of responsibility to the child as he shows himself capable of handling things. Sometimes there are temporary back-slides and glitches in that process, and it is helpful to be prepared for that.

But it is probably even more true when family relationships have had a lot of conflict and tension and opposition and the parents are now trying to change the pattern of interaction. It may be necessary to open the lines of explanation and concession very carefully, so the child has a chance to find the new balance. Anything that's done very differently from past behavior is going to throw off the child's equilibrium, and I've noticed that very many children who have learned a negative style of interaction find it becomes almost a drug -- they instinctively try to retrieve the more familiar dynamic when it's not there.

I remember my brother getting very angry at my mother when she was trying to use "reflective language" in responding to him. He wasn't used to it and to him, it didn't sound like his mom. He instinctively tried to goad her back to the more customary type of interaction. I should add that her style of interaction was well in the range of normal to begin with -- it was just that she wanted to improve! In the long run she was able to make the changes and cloak them with her own personality, but at first they sounded artificial and felt artificial to my brother (and probably to my mother too). So this can bring up another point.... sometimes the new ideas are only partly understood, so the mom is still working out how to make it part of her own style.

When I was first trying to put Charlotte Mason's principles into practice, there was no surer recipe for a bad day than to try to implement some new principle. I felt unsure and this threw me and the kids off balance. However, over time the ideas really did sink in and sprout and bear fruit.


  • Think about WHY rules are in place. (There is some interesting discussion here on Rules vs Principles from a radical-unschooling perspective).
  • Think about how to explain and demonstrate the principles behind rules proactively, and be willing to change if the situation changes.
  • But hasty or drastic changes are not necessary and might lead to turmoil.
  • Some of the Montessorian ideas for presentations of learning tools can be used to present new habits and procedures. The idea is preparation and patience with repetition.
  • Don't make yourself crazy about it; your own comfort level needs to be respected too. Just be willing to understand your child's perspective and work with the situation so that it is as easy as possible for him to do things in a good way.

Do you have an obstacle going on, a rule or habit that doesn't seem to be sinking in with your child, or a poor attitude? You can make a list, or just notice them as they come up.

  1. Consider the principle behind the rule (Dorothy Canfield Fisher gives the example of cleaning up after oneself -- it is agreeable to the community to have all of its members helping to maintain order and cleanliness).
  2. Start from where the child is.
  3. If you can figure out some sort of simple key phrase or object lesson to represent your reasoning process, it can make it easier for the child to remember and understand.
  4. Figure out how to make the action easy for the child by (1) demonstrating the method several times before actually expecting results (2) supporting the child by giving him user-friendly tools and plenty of encouragement.
  5. Start with a high level of support, plenty of patient repetition as needed, and then slowly back off as the child seems more ready to take over for himself.
  6. Look for win/wins.
  7. Don't forget to laugh. This probably should actually come first. Read the "Anne" books by LM Montgomery. Those are great models for perspective in parenting through all the glitches.

Aidan used to take baths frequently because of his sensory processing needs. He would take off his clothes and fling them all over the bathroom, even near the toilet. Since he was immune-compromised, I worried about the germs from the toilet. So I taught him to put his clothes on the shelf next to the bathtub.

It was boring for me to keep reminding him until he learned, so we made it into a sort of joke/chant -- hard to explain unless you know Aidan and his love for joking and little catch phrases. Eventually HE would repeat the little catch phrase as he put his clothes there, and finally he remembered completely by himself and took pride in his ability to do this. Since verbal affirmation is also important to him, I would warmly congratulate him when he succeeded, until it became such a natural thing that he didn't look for this kind of thing anymore.

Something that I need to work on now:

Uh, teaching a child to clean up after himself? It's always been a challenge for me to teach my kids this. They usually hit their early teen years and more or less figure it out for themselves, finally. I guess they realize that it is for the common good and also that if they put their own things away carefully, their prized possessions don't get stuffed in a box and shoved in a closet, or ruined by younger siblings. But there are some pretty messy years in early childhood.


Stephanie said...

(You're going to start to think I'm monitoring your blog - in a stalking way or something! lol!)

Here's a question.

Do your kids seem to associate picking up after themselves with security/relaxation? I've watched my oft messy kids (raised by oft messy parents) in situations that are not "home" to them. It's THERE where the personality shows up, and it's interesting to watch. They seem to keep their stuff as well as their reactions and manners and speech and all else more close to the vest in public. Home, then, is where we let down our guard --- and our stuff --- all over.

Stephanie said...

And now two things:

1) I love the motto "never complain, never explain." I think it ought to be breath and life to our parenting because kids aren't supposed to be responsible for stabilizing parents. We only complain or explain when we want someone else to carry our stuff.

BUT we CAN discuss. We can make conversation. We can have the exchange about the ideas of things. That's the difference, I think. Have reasons and be ready to discuss them. God isn't arbitrary, and we shouldn't be either. But do it as a kind of excuse-making to the child? Or a kind of parent-whining or bullying? Nossir. That's bad.

2) Willa, will you email me personally? I want to discuss a possible joint project with you. I'm at recollectedstephanie @ gmail dot com.

Sara said...

I read all of this for many reasons, the first and foremost is that we are moving to a new house and I want to use the move as an opportunity for some mindful, loving parenting and household/school work organizing. I "ditto" your numbered comments on the Montessori ideas. I'd add the "temperament factor"...meaning, new practices or corrective discipline ought to be informed by temperament, as well as common sense. My husband and firstborn are intraverted melancholics and I --and the other two Sullivan children-- are extraverted sanguines. We, as a family, are at our best, as Willa points out, when we have family meetings and approach things we want to change, not in the middle of opposition or conflict, but when everyone is relaxed. I want to jumpstart creative writing for my firstborn, and so needed to "hear" this discussion to "gird my loin" with prayer and thought I'd appreciate both your prayers, please. I loved the example of bathtime and playful banter and the exhortation to laughter, which, again, at our best, both these work for us...In Christ, SS

Willa said...

Stephanie, my kids are definitely introverts so in public places or when they feel it's "their job" they are much more careful to keep everything around them in order, as you describe.

Yes, I completely agree there's a difference between "justifying" or "rationalizing" things to children and actually being willing to engage in discussion without getting sucked into the child's world, so to speak..... difficult to explain the difference in words.

Sara, very true about the temperament factor. That is another thing that I had written down to mention sometime. I've seen all different "styles" of parenting that are effective. Sometimes parenting manuals can sort of encourage ONE style -- say, a choleric style or a phlegmatic style. Generally there are effective principles but a huge variety of ways to apply them, I think.

Willa said...

Stephanie, my kids are definitely introverts so in public places or when they feel it's "their job" they are much more careful to keep everything around them in order, as you describe.

Yes, I completely agree there's a difference between "justifying" or "rationalizing" things to children and actually being willing to engage in discussion without getting sucked into the child's world, so to speak..... difficult to explain the difference in words.

Sara, very true about the temperament factor. That is another thing that I had written down to mention sometime. I've seen all different "styles" of parenting that are effective. Sometimes parenting manuals can sort of encourage ONE style -- say, a choleric style or a phlegmatic style. Generally there are effective principles but a huge variety of ways to apply them, I think.