The Montessori Red Pill
In the movie The Matrix the main character Neo is offered a choice: a red pill, or a blue pill. Take the blue pill, and you continue your life in a state of blissful ignorance. Take the red pill and the veil of illusion is stripped away, and the world is seen for what it really is.
I took the Montessori red pill in September 2006 when I started the AMI Primary training at the Montessori Institute Northwest in Portland, Oregon. Within the first few weeks of the course, my worldview had permanently changed. I learned about human development, human needs, and the tools that we are given by nature to acquire skills and knowledge.
I also learned about the natural path of development, the potential inherent in every child, and how the actions of adults can either foster or thwart that potential. It was this knowledge in particular that was very difficult for me to accept. I had to face my own past actions towards children which, while well-intentioned, were probably damaging to their development. I also had to face the daily exposure to a culture that is actively hostile towards children and frequently oblivious to their needs.
Going to the supermarket became a traumatic experience, worsened by my now-heightened sensitivity to all things child-related: crying children being dragged or hit by their parents, little ones strapped tightly into strollers squirming to be released, a little girl who had her hand repeatedly slapped for trying to touch the colored boxes in the aisles, a little boy mocked by his dad for mispronouncing a word. I would walk out of the supermarket doing the Charlie Brown walk: head down, feet dragging, completely defeated by the magnitude of everyone’s apparent misunderstanding and inadvertent stifling of children’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm. In every slapped hand and hurt glance I saw the effects on not just this one child, but on all children everywhere. I saw how a million little moments make us who we are, for better or for worse. I observed moments that other adults did not, moments of distress or frustration that would no doubt happen again and again, compounding in that child and ultimately shaping the adult that child would become. The scope of the problem seemed so profoundly enormous that I sometimes found myself grieving for the lost potential, not only of those children, but of the entire human species.
After I finished my training, I stayed at MINW as the Primary Course Assistant. In this capacity, I watched many people adjust to a new way of thinking brought about by exposure to the Montessori theory. Sometimes a student would approach me to have a private conversation, and in my office they would dissolve into tears of despair. One student was deeply disturbed by the way her sister-in-law disciplined her children. Another student with children was wracked with guilt at her past behavior towards her own kids. I recall in particular one student who, like myself, found extremely challenging the simple act of existing in a world that is hostile towards children and doesn’t understand them. Riding the bus became intolerable. The grocery store was a minefield of trauma. The mall... unthinkable. The student began to withdraw from the world, as it became too harsh for her heart to endure.
Students would ask my advice. What should I say to my sister-in-law? How can I cope with my guilt about past actions towards my own kids? How can I live in a world where a simple trip to the mall can plunge me into despair? I wanted to help, but what did I know? I don’t have children, I’ve barely taught in the classroom, and I was struggling with the same questions myself. The best advice I could give them was the same advice I gave to myself: to model the behavior they hope to see in others, and to remember that with each child they guide in their classrooms, or each parent they talk to at a school parent night, they offer more nourishment to the spirit of the child, and more tools for parents to act in ways that further their children’s development.
Family members’ behavior towards children seemed to be a particular source of concern for some students. Those students who shared their concerns regarding that family member’s parenting techniques almost always reported receiving very negative reactions. Parenting is often called the last great taboo, because many parents take great exception to being given unsolicited parenting advice. Anyone can see why. Between the huge financial strains of parenthood, there are the time and scheduling commitments, the disciplining and schooling, the emotional and psychological needs of children that parents strive to fulfill. It’s a hugely demanding role, and one that is given little support by society or government. It’s true that most parents are doing the best they can, so when a newly-minted Montessorian begins to lecture them on all the many things they are doing wrong, it’s clear why parents might take offense.
Many students were able to come to terms with their new worldview. Many were so inspired by the Montessori theory that they felt great hope, even knowing the challenges they faced. Some even managed to have productive and fruitful conversations with family members. Occasionally, some students were unable to recover from the red pill, and continued to feel that the scope of the problem was too entrenched and was not amenable to change.
The Montessori red pill can be a tough one to swallow. Most people who come to Montessori already have a heightened sensitivity to children’s needs, and many recognize that conventional education methods often do more to stifle children’s potentials than encourage them. As challenging as it has been to adjust to this new way of looking at the world – hell, to just be in the world, sometimes – I wouldn’t trade it for the alternative. Through my work in the Montessori field, through ensuring my own behavior supports healthy child development, through simply witnessing disturbing behavior and knowing that there’s a better way, I believe that I’m creating tiny ripples of progress. I imagine that other people -- people like you -- are doing the same thing. I hope that these ripples will spread, over time and throughout the world, to create a slow and subtle sea change that will bring all adults into a state of love, respect, and partnership with children and childhood.
Especially now that the blue pill is no longer an option.