Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wise, Harmless and Beneficial Actions

Fourth -- Necessity for Constant Activity in Early Childhood

This might be a good time to mention that the bulk of the Montessori Manual by Dorothy Canfield Fisher that I have been talking about is actually a sequential series of Montessori -type activities that you can often approximate in your own home. So in a sense the whole book is about this positive "active" side of things which she mentions in this fourth point. The child's drive for active involvement is a powerful force towards the child's own development, she says, and it ought to be fostered and helped rather than discouraged. So:

The final lesson... is positiveness, as opposed to negativeness, in their lives. The craving for constant, unceasing activity in little children is intense. This is a normal and blessed instinct of their, which does more than anything to develop them. And the mother should constantly bear it in mind. Her attitude towards her little child should be as little negative as may be; she should set her grown-up wits incessantly to work to devise wise, harmless and beneficial actions for the child, not merely to forbid him unwise and harmful ones. And here the Montessori apparatus is of inestimable value....

This sort of explains itself. Different children have different activity levels but all need a rhythm of activity and material for their activity. Outdoors, books, toys, games, and crafts are all material; the child's engagement with them provides the activity. Charlotte Mason called it "setting their feet in a wide room". That link takes you to my idea of the "primary priorities". Look here, too, if you haven't already: My Rule of Six and Whence it Came (from Melissa at Here in the Bonny Glen, and she links to other versions, too).

What are your ideas for "wise, harmless, beneficial" activities?

(I like that description because it seems to parallel St Paul's "Finally whatever is true, whatever pure, whatever is just, whatever holy, whatever is amiable, whatever of good repute, think on these things". In a child's case, often, it is often DO or HEAR or SEE these things, since children learn so much from the tangible, in stories and songs and family or liturgical customs and hands-on materials).

The details will differ from family to family, and from child to child. There might be a family of athletes, who love games and physical excursion. Another family might love to study nature. Some families are bookish and enjoy discussions and pleasant, leisurely debates. Some are great at making things with their hands. Usually it's not so much having ENOUGH activities, as having too many possibilities, that makes it difficult!

If you're not sure where to start, start with where your family is now, what the parents love and love to share with others. Build and expand from there. If you get TOO expansive and feel confused and over your head, take a look at this excellent article on Simplifying Homeschooling. As it says it's a homeschooling article, but most of the ideas relate to parenting, too, in some way or other, especially since parenting and education are inextricably entwined even if you don't homeschool.

And properly speaking, all this "positive" activity that you provide or allow for your children IS what education is essentially about (along with conversations and your example in life and your closeness with your child). Even if the child goes to school at the conventional age, you still continue with your task of guiding and deepening his academic and other endeavors in life.

In the comments of an earlier post, Stephanie mentioned:

Anyway, do you think that in those first years, what the child is doing is gathering behavioral and reaction options? ....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.
In answer I wrote:

...There (seems to be) 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 --(the child) will have a sort of habit of using that approach to filter things through.
This emphasis on the positive, active side of things that Mrs Fisher mentions in this fourth point about positive activity seems to indicate what we are doing these other things FOR. Here, Stephanie's visual of the little child on the beach is a truly evocative one. It brings to mind CM's "despise not, offend not,hinder not" the little children. Charlotte Mason talks about how when a little baby is just learning to walk we try to help him get where he wants to go in safety and freedom. We try to remove obstacles from in front of his little unsteady feet; we guide him tactfully away from the holes in the ground towards open spaces. There is that whole beach to explore, all those good things that are proper material for his new abilities and interests, that he can pick up and inspect and drop in his pail.

It is similar with very young children who are just getting their grounding in the world of customs and behavior. In general, "good" behavior -- participating in the "wise, harmless, and beneficial" -- is not just good because it's our duty, but it's our duty because it's good. As parents, it is our task to help our children realize the goodness of good things..... its delight. We give them basic support in choosing the better. We are not God, mostly certainly not, but in important ways we are inevitably His representatives and first apostles to our children, and He has delegated some of His power to us to "lead them not into temptation, but deliver them from evil".

A very good parenting book (though a bit difficult to read) is Daniel Siegel's "Parenting from the Inside Out." He says that a parent, because of being older and wiser, impresses upon a child a more adult and productive way of handling things than a child can pull out of his own tiny experience (and judgment that depends inevitably upon experience and reflection). It is perhaps a bit similar to the way Charlotte Mason recommends reading the best that has been thought and said. By reading such books and loving them we learn patterns of thought and expression that we so to speak grow into. By "reading" a mother's way of doing things and being in an intimate relationship with that mother, the child becomes part of a higher pattern of handling choices than he could access on his own. (This is why peer dependence is a scary thing, because immature children learn immature behavior patterns from each other, but that's definitely for a different post).


  • Children crave active engagement with the world and it is good for them developmentally.
  • The task of the mother is to provide "wise, beneficial, and harmless" activities for them to engage in.
  • There will be different types of activities and different types of parenting styles in different families.
  • But there are some general things that most have in common.
  • Children need access to a way of doing things that they partake of even as they grow into.

Possible Applications:

  • Perhaps you could make a list of the activities that your family already enjoys doing? Are there more you could add (or do you have TOO many possibilities, so you need to make a list to prioritize the ones you think are most important or rewarding?)
  • What is your family's natural routine in a day? Do you notice any time periods where the children seem bored and more likely to quarrel or complain or be unhappily idle? Can you (perhaps with your children) brainstorm ways to make these times more constructive and peaceful?
  • Keep your lists and look at them in a month or a year. Even if you do nothing conscious to make them happen, lots of times you find that you have unconsciously steered your life in that direction. Or at least, that happens with me sometimes!

Something I need to work on:

  • A notorious "loose" time for the kids where things are likely to get disorderly is when I stay too long over my time on the computer in the morning. Once in a while it isn't likely to cause major problems, but if I start getting into the habit the day often starts off on the wrong note.

I've enjoyed writing out all these (as you could probably tell by the length!) and hope some of you got something out of it too!


lissla lissar said...

Hmm. I think our 'loose ends' time is about 4-5. Right now we're mostly reading books, stacking things, transferring objects from one container to another, and examining new things with hands and mouth (not good if it's the cats). And singing and dancing. We should be able to start using child markers soon, and maybe playdough in a couple of months. I'm looking forward to that.

Yes, this whole series has been fascinating. Thank you.

The Bookworm said...

Just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed this series of posts. Thank you.