Every Unnecessary Help
I live three blocks from Hopworks, a local Portland brewpub. They have great beer, and the pretzels are yeasty, salty, buttery perfection. Their patio is heavenly on a hot summer’s day, and I found myself there one Saturday afternoon in August reading a book with a beer and some pretzels.
The sun-drenched patio is at the rear of the building, away from noisy Powell Boulevard. I was seated close to the stairs that lead down to the rear parking lot. The stairs are enormously fun for kids, two flights of heavy duty metal with a landing halfway up. If you stomp pretty hard you can get some great sounds out of them.
As I was enjoying my beer and roasting in the sun, I had a most unexpected surprise: I got to see some serious Montessori theory in action. I observed two events, about half an hour apart, which were incredibly similar in circumstance and outcome. Here’s what happened first:
A family has arrived in the parking lot and is walking up the stairs. There’s Mom, Dad, a little girl who is confidently toddling, and a baby. Mom’s got the baby in her arms and Dad’s got the little girl by the hand. She’s probably just shy of two, which means “stairs omg I love stairs more stairs yay stairs!” (Parents, you know what I'm talking about). Dad gently helps her with the first few steps until she gets the hang of it. She holds onto the side rails with her chubby little hands. With those short legs each step is a challenge, but she’s really trying, really laboring. She gets all the way to the landing and rests before tackling the next flight. Dad says, “You want me to carry you the rest of the way?” An unhesitating “No!” is the answer he receives. The little girl starts climbing again, step by laborious step. About three quarters of the way to the top, Dad runs out of patience (it’s taken several minutes so far). He gently scoops her up and says cheerfully, “Heeeere you go! All the way to the top!” He puts her down on the patio. She looks up at him with the most accusing expression I’ve ever seen on a child’s face, and then she has a Total. Nuclear. Meltdown.
Dad is utterly perplexed by this sudden outburst of rage, and like any caring father he’s genuinely distressed that his daughter is so upset. “What’s wrong, honey?” he says with concern, and tries to pick her up again. She shoves against him in anger, unable to verbalize why she’s so angry and frustrated. Mom comes up the stairs behind him and says quietly, “I think she wanted to do it herself”. Dad turns to the little girl again, and says, “You wanted to do it yourself, huh?” She nods at him furiously, still really crying, really angry, really offended. Dad tries to recover this moment for her, asks if she wants to go down the stairs again and come up by herself, but the moment has passed. She’s utterly disappointed and dispirited. Dad picks her up and she collapses, exhausted from crying, in his arms. Her face is screwed up in knots like an angry newborn. As they enter the restaurant, she’s still sobbing.
The second incident happened shortly after. Play by play, it was almost identical to the first. The child was slightly older, maybe a bit under three years old, and again he got most of the way up the stairs before Dad picked him up under the arms and carried him to the top, saying “C’mon buddy, Grandma and Grandpa are waiting for us inside”. Once the father put his child down on the patio concrete, the little boy (just like the little girl) began to cry and scream in pure disappointment and anger. This time, however, the boy had the words he needed to express his rage, stamping his foot to emphasize his feelings: “NO! I could do it! I wanted to do it myself!” The father was apologetic but defensive: “Sorry, buddy, but we need to get inside. People are waiting for us”.
Looking at these two incidents through the lens of Montessori theory, the children’s behavior is entirely explicable and even to be expected.
First, let’s consider the Sensitive Periods. These are times in a young child’s life when they are particularly drawn to certain experiences in service of their development. For example, it’s important that young children learn how to move their bodies in many different ways, so the Sensitive Period for Movement directs them to seek out opportunities to practice movement. There are also Sensitive Periods for Order, for Language, and for the Refinement of Sensory Perception. But here, very specifically, we are seeing a Sensitive Period event in which the child was experiencing a very strong desire to move in a certain way (in this case, climbing stairs). We've observed that children get really unhappy when a Sensitive Period event is interrupted, as happened in both these scenarios. The sensation of being pulled away from something that feels so good must be wrenching. What I saw – the rage, the frustration, the sense of an experience being stolen from them – is entirely in line with what we know about Sensitive Periods, how they work, and what happens when they are thwarted.
The second aspect of Montessori theory that came into play is concentration. In Montessori classrooms, concentration is sacrosanct. We do not interrupt concentration for any reason (the one exception being to play the Silence Game, which is in itself an exercise in rarefied concentration). We do not praise the child while she is concentrating, or give her advice, or comment on her work. We act as though she is not there so that this moment of concentration can grow and expand, becoming longer and more intense. We know that concentration is something that increases with practice. It is a powerful factor in the child coming under her own control. Without lots of experience with concentration, self-regulation never fully develops. Both these children were concentrating hard as they climbed the stairs. I’m sure it was an awful feeling to have this interrupted.
The third aspect here, and possibly even more powerful than the previous two, is the child’s insatiable drive for independence. How many parents have heard their child exclaim, “I can do it myself!” when the parent tries to assist. The strength of their desire to do things themselves cannot be understated. Anytime a child can do something, even if it’s imperfect or slow or sloppy, we must let them. This not only helps the child develop new skills and confidence in themselves, but it also helps parents who will have an increasingly able and independent child who is able to do things for himself, by himself, without being a burden to others. Many parents are concerned that independence means emotional independence or emotional distance. Fear not; children will always need their parents, but the nature of the need changes. In fact, children who are allowed to be independent often end up trusting their parents more. When encouraged, independence will always bring about positive results, not just for the child but for the whole family.
The last reason that the children at Hopworks reacted so strongly is one we can all understand, and is not exclusively a part of Montessori theory: the ownership of one’s accomplishments. Imagine you’re a runner. You’re running a long race. You’ve pushed hard, forced yourself to keep going, and after all your hard work the finish line is in sight! And as you’re almost there, so very close to victory… someone bundles you into a car and drives you to the finish line. Wouldn’t you feel that your accomplishment had been stolen from you? Wouldn’t you feel offended, frustrated and angry?
The parents I saw on that sunny August afternoon were loving and caring parents. The children were normal children, and their response to the unnecessary assistance their parents gave them was also very normal. So parents may ask, "Then what do I do? How am I supposed to know when it's appropriate to help?" Well, fortunately Maria Montessori summed up in eight perfect words the most useful piece of information most parents will ever read:
“Every unnecessary help is an obstacle to development”.
Read that again, then focus on the one word that’s really important here: unnecessary. Of course you should help your children, but only when they truly need it. Of course you assist them, but never when they’re doing okay by themselves. Even if they're struggling a bit, hold back for a time and give them the space to try and to succeed through their own efforts. The children climbing the stairs were doing fine and were only a short distance from the top, certainly not enough to disturb Grandma and Grandpa’s schedule. With a little patience, and an understanding of why it was so important to let those kids climb all the way to the top by themselves, the outcome for both children could have been very different. When we give children opportunities to be independent, to act in service to their Sensitive Periods, to concentrate, and to own their accomplishments, we actively enhance their best possible development. We show them how we respect their tireless efforts to conquer not only those stairs, but also themselves.