Thursday, January 15, 2009

retreat to quiet -- for little children

"The mother should make the most careful distinction between the conscious, willful action of a child, and the sort of wild irritability which results in "naughty" actions, but which is the result itself of nervous fatigue, due to injudicious treatment."

from The Montessori Manual by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
(By the way, I liked this book, one of the clearest and most practical I've read about the Montessori Method; I was regretting that I would have to give it back to the library and it is fairly expensive at secondhand, but the link above takes you to a public domain pdf of the work. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is the author of Understood Betsy).

This passage reminded me a lot of my just six year old. He's a bit more of a live wire than his siblings were, and because he is the youngest and born into a very busy large family he's been "scrambled up" (in Mrs Pepper's words) a bit more than the others were in their time. When over-stimulated by excitement, sugar or just being tired or stressed, he is very likely to act "naughty" or just plain over-the-top silly. In either case, you can almost see his conscious will get locked down as his wild self takes over.

The remedy suggested in the Montessori book is quietness. Not discipline, not a head to head confrontation. Simply taking the child off to a peaceful place, say a darkened room and letting him have a chance to calm down before he returns to his general life. He can have a blanket if he wants, or hugs, or some toys to play with quietly. I sometimes read to or just cuddle and "connect" with the child. It is in no way to be thought of as a punishment. Dorothy Fisher says that a child over time will start realizing his own need for this restoration and sometimes will ask to go to rest in order to avoid naughtiness.

Of course, it is better to catch the child before he actually does something wrong. It's usually fairly easy to see when a child is getting worked up but if you are busy doing something else or for whatever reason don't have access to a quiet peaceful place, it is much more difficult to prevent escalation. This is where I've been falling down on the job recently. Because I am psychologically in a different season of life in some ways, having no babies or very little children around, I am tempted to simply ignore the rising emotion and keep going about what I am doing. Then of course, the wave breaks and Paddy ends up hitting or shouting a rude name at a sibling or getting locked into a struggle of wills.

This can easily be forestalled by my own vigilance and preventive efforts; and it ought to be, because when a child is allowed to "go over the top" like this he gets into a habit of doing it and is no longer distressed by it. I think that children don't necessarily like to be out of control and naughty, any more than they naturally like to be dirty, but if they get used to it, it acquires a certain pleasure of its own.

Mrs Fisher recommends a peaceful, homebased life for a small child. She remarks that when a child is out shopping with mother or being taken from activity to activity it is very difficult NOT to become over-stimulated and naughty, and there is usually no way for the child to escape into peace and restoration. It is unfair to the child to be disciplined for something that comes from an overload he is incapable of controlling.

I think it would be difficult for most families of today to stick to the kind of quiet life she recommends, but it is interesting that Charlotte Mason recommends much the same thing, "a quiet unhurried growing time for children under the age of six". So even if a child does have to go to various stores and activities in the course of family life it may be wise to think about ways to contrive little retreats and escapes from stimulation for a child who tends to get overstressed by these things.


Anonymous said...

This a very good reminder. It's so easy to forget how important it is for us all to have some "down time" on a regular basis. Now I just need to write it on my hand so that I'll remember the next time the kids are acting up! ;o)

atara said...

I'm a big believer in this. My son starts our local Montessori school in June and I am so grateful!