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A Spiritual Approach to
Secrets of Raising the 21st Century Child
by Marilyn C. Barrick, Ph.D.
The Inherent Genius of the Soul
How do our children learn? How can we maximize their inherent genius and capabilities? Although the answers to these questions are multifaceted, parents and children in the twenty-first century can benefit greatly from the work of a remarkable woman of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Maria Montessori.
Find a purpose in life so big
it will challenge every capacity to be at your best.
—David O. McKay, Church leader
Through careful observation and intuition, Montessori developed a unique and successful method of teaching children, which ultimately brought her fame as a world-renowned teacher and educator. Today many children attend Montessori schools, and other private and public schools are carrying on her work.
Leslie Britton and others have spoken about Maria Montessori's life. Curiously enough, Montessori did not start out to be a teacher. In fact, she absolutely refused to comply with her parents' intention for her to become an educator. Instead, she did battle with her family's opposition and in 1890 entered medical school to become a doctor. She became Italy's first woman doctor.
Maria Montessori and the Inner Teacher
Montessori began her practice as a physician in the San Giovanni Hospital in Rome, and she began volunteering in 1897 as an assistant at the University of Rome's psychiatric clinic. While working there, she came into contact with children who at that time were known as "idiot children." These children were placed in asylums with the criminally insane because their families didn't know how to cope with them. The special needs programs we have today hadn't even been thought of, much less developed.
As a doctor who was passionately concerned about social reform, Maria Montessori was touched by the children's wretched living conditions. As she watched them crawl around on the floor feeling for crumbs of food, she sensed that exploring with their hands was a way of trying to understand their environment. As she carefully observed and put two and two together, she determined to see if these children could learn through working with their hands.
Montessori's compassionate heart, intuitive understanding and intellectual courage led her to confront the standard mind-set of the times concerning these children. She started working with them in the psychiatric clinic and also began to examine the work of two now famous men, Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin.
Montessori was intrigued by Itard's book The Wild Boy of Aveyron. Itard was a French doctor who succeeded in socializing a wild, mentally retarded boy and teaching him through sensory stimulation. She also studied the work of Seguin, one of Itard's students, who developed a physiological method (exercising the muscles) to induce behavioral change and thereby teach the child.
Maria Montessori combined the two men's ideas— "education of the senses" and "education of movement"—with contributions from other educational thinkers and her own synthesis of medical and educational methods. She continued hands-on work with retarded children, observing and developing methods of teaching these youngsters.
To the surprise of many, children previously thought to be impossible to educate not only learned to read but also did extremely well in the State primary examinations. This educational phenomenon coupled with Montessori's lectures on the subject proved her expertise in education as well as medicine.
Montessori's next step was to set up "infant schools" in a project where families were being rehoused after slums were cleared. Her initial school, known as Casa dei Bambini (Children's House), opened its doors in 1906. In this school for youngsters three to six years old, Montessori was able to set up her learning environment and test her methods with children of normal intelligence. Consequently, she opened several other schools and successfully demonstrated her belief that every child is capable of learning.
As a result of her pioneering work, Montessori developed and refined what is known today as the Montessori method, a learning path that develops the mind through the work of the hands. Combining the insights she gleaned from observing children with her own inner genius and sense of practicality, Montessori focused on the child's inherent capabilities and on "how to awaken the man that lies asleep within the soul of a child."
She documented what she called "sensitive periods"—cycles of life when a child intuitively explores a particular dimension of learning. And she discovered that parents and teachers facilitate and maximize what is already built in as a readiness to learn.
Montessori demonstrated that children go well beyond what we normally expect when an observant adult helps them maximize these learning periods. Yet it takes art and skill on the part of a teacher or parent to assist the child in a way that is productive and enhances the child's sense of self-mastery.
Maria Montessori was clearly on the mark, spiritually and developmentally. She recognized the soul's potential in the child's inherent capabilities. She understood the inner teacher, an aspect of the Higher Self. And what she called sensitive periods is an accurate description of the soul's built-in readiness to learn. Even as Montessori taught that each child has inherent genius, we can think of this genius as who the person really is, the Real Self.
The Impact of Who We Think We Are
Who do you think you are? Do you identify with your own inner genius? Or are you weighed down by the opinions of others? We do well to remember these cryptic words: "You are who you are no matter who you may think you are!" In other words, our unique identity does not change as a result of human opinion. However, who we think we are does influence our lives.
Our human sense of identity tracks back to early life experiences, how we are raised and how we are treated as children. Every child's sense of "who I am" is influenced by the attitudes, mind-sets, emotions and physical behavior of parents, teachers, siblings and others who are close to the family.
As babies and young children we do not learn in a linear fashion. We simply absorb whatever is going on around us, particularly in the first five to seven years of our life. Montessori aptly labeled this period of development "the absorbent mind." We continue to develop and refine what we have absorbed, but what we take in as infants and small children remains a major component of who we think we are.
We particularly absorb whatever influences us emotionally, both the positive and the negative. When we have happy times, an exciting adventure, a glimpse of a rainbow, we laugh with glee. When we are hurt or scared or frustrated, we cry and wail.
Even if we are distracted from the pain we are experiencing, we absorb the whirl of energy at subconscious and unconscious levels. Essentially, we have no real control over what we absorb until we are old enough to avoid hurtful encounters or to put them in perspective in light of what we have already experienced and learned.
It is interesting to note that certain young geniuses do this at a very early age. They seem almost like adults in little bodies. For the rest of us, we learn at a more gradual pace as we move along in life.
Once we broaden our horizons from home to school, we have a lot more information to juggle. We model ourselves after people who are significant in our lives—parents, older siblings, teachers, friends and neighbors. How many times have we seen children consciously copying their father or mother, an older sister or brother?
I remember some years ago watching two little girls doing a ballet lesson together. Julie, age seven, was watching her sister Celia, age twelve, and doing her best to mimic her sister's performance. The teacher let it go at first because both children were performing beautifully. However, at one point she had to intervene because the older sister did a movement incorrectly and the little sister faithfully followed her example even though she had done the movement correctly earlier.
The teacher's correction seemed to come as a surprise to seven-year-old Julie. So the teacher explained that although her sister Celia was a good dancer, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. She had them watch her do the movement and then asked each of them to follow her example, separately. And they both corrected. This teacher didn't simply correct the ballet movement, she was also teaching the younger child to think for herself.
Let's think about our own formative years. As children we had our own personality and likes and dislikes, yet we also tried to copy our siblings and friends. Or if we got mad at them we decided to do the opposite. And sometimes we copied our parents by experimenting with cooking or telling our little brother to behave. And we tried to learn what our parents taught us.
When we reached the teen years, we began to reexamine our attitudes, ideas, beliefs and behaviors. Sometimes we kept them because they were comfortable and familiar. Sometimes we changed them to adapt to our expanding world. And if we went away to college, we experienced another metamorphosis as we developed a broader view of the world and its possibilities.
Many of us struck out on our own after high school or college, entering one of the trades, working for a business, or taking a professional position. We began to create our adult life, adult values and adult ways to handle the present and address the future. Maybe we married and started our own family. And now a peculiar experience occurs when we return home for a visit.
Almost as quickly as we go through the front door of the old family home, we find ourselves reacting pretty much the same way we always did when we lived at home. We may think we have our adulthood well in hand, but when we interact with our birth family we might as well be twelve years old again. We find ourselves teasing our sister, taking a backseat to our father, and feeling uncomfortable if we don't volunteer to help our mother. And we have emotional reactions coming up that we haven't felt for years!
Why? This is the hidden power of the absorbent mind and the influence of our family life experiences. However, these reactions are not indelible behavioral traits. As mature adults we can make it a point to change our knee-jerk reactions. We can train ourselves to relate to our family in a mature and congenial manner.
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