Monday, November 24, 2008

Montessori's Stealth Grace and Courtesy Lessons

While still mulling around my ramblings about authoritarian parenting and the toppling of totalitarian political regimes, I ran into a friend who has a company that endeavors to teach children social graces in a "fun, engaging way". We talked a little about the importance of grace and courtesy to a Montessori model of education, and she aked me for a consult. I hope I will be able to give her a good one, but while I love white-glove tea parties as much as the next girl, I worry that many of my ideas about grace and courtesy might not be marketable as fun and engaging.

As it happens, I ran into her in just the kind of social situation we would like to prepare young people to enjoy, and as I looked around the room at all the very well-behaved ladies, I mused that, while it's all well and good to learn how to pour tea, putting on manners is rather less than what we want in graceful and courteous people.

Somebody said that fashion is for people who lack style, and manners are for people who lack breeding. This is how, I hear, social climbers of the hoi-polloi are tsk-ed about by their (our) betters at the tables to which they (we) are not invited. This is also where Montessori has it all over modern parents who want their pre-teens to learn how to act in public where there are no interactive electronic media available to occupy them. The breeding in question is more a matter of cultivating habits. The catch is that habits of grace and courtesy are meant to be invisible. In the company of "cultivated" people, only the mistakes show.

The core of grace and courtesy in the Montessori philosophy is respect. It is the mutual respect between child and teacher, and among children. This is also the core of Montessori's philosophy of self-discipline. I am amazed that I don't see more of this around on parenting sites. Aren't you? There was plenty of advice to be found about making sure you model good table manners at the dinner table each night (like we all do, right?), and about how you should never ridicule or put anyone down in your child's presence (as if it might be ok if the child were out of earshot?), and plenty of how you should let your child "practice" thoughtfulness, such as pulling out chairs for people (could be dangerous without sufficient practice!)

I looked all over the internet for comparisons of discipline strategies for an idea of respecting children, and I kept coming up with the same tired trifecta: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Authoritative is the preferred style by, well, by just about everyone. While I do think the "Authoritative" parent sounds much better than the other two (I don't know which of the bazillion of these articles to link to , just google parenting style), I think there should be a fourth option--the "Respectful" parent.

Here's a brief outline of what I think are Montessori's most important lessons in grace and courtesy. Primary teachers and Assistants to Infancy may note that these lessons in respect are not always filed under the Grace and Courtesy tab in your binder, but then Grace and Courtesy are hard to define in lots of situations, aren't they?

1. Teach, Don't Correct.
The cardinal rule of good behavior is that you never, ever call someone out on a faux pas. (Some day I'll tell you about the fancy business lunch at which I goofily put my bread on the charger instead of the bread plate--thus flummoxing the waitress who wanted to deliver my soup into making this very grave error. Poor thing. ;-) ) Montessori teaches that the way to teach children is by modeling and positive direction, and that the graceful way to handle a mistake is to overlook it, and re-introduce the correct behavior. ("See, I can chew with my lips closed, like this. Can you?" not "Close your mouth when you chew. It's disgusting to chew with your mouth open.") In all areas, Montessori cultivates this model of teaching. Graceful! Courteous!

2. Defining one's space.
The cross-legged posture and the work mat are two of the most sublime peacekeeping tools in the Montessori arsenal. It is the very beginning of "Mind Your Own Business" to define what is one's own business. The mat clearly indicates to the self and to others what is the child's business at hand. The cross-legged posture allows the child to sit comfortably while taking up a minimum of space on the floor, thus avoiding collisions and conflicts. Is there anything more completely polite than to mind one's own business and, by absence of intrusion, to facilitate the business of others?

3. Walking on the line.
Walking on the line goes hand in hand with defining one's space. Children carefully walk along a line drawn on the floor as an exercise. They do it slowly, quickly, to music, carrying objects, alone, and with friends. The idea is to develop a kinesthetic sense (that is, knowing where all your parts are located at any given time) and a sense of balance. Great for ballerinas and basketball players, but also great for grace and courtesy. It's the preventive part of politeness--the ability to avoid upsetting other people's things, and so their feelings. Doesn't it conjure images of girls in finishing school walking around with books on their heads? Good posture and balance aren't just for looks, see?

Montessori goes on to develop a whole curriculum of politeness, including the art of introductions, holding up one's end of the conversation, ceremonious meals, offering and receiving things, and a whole host of other etiquette lessons which are extremely useful, but I keep coming back to the above three as the base that holds the whole thing up. After all, a charming person can make charming mistakes, and "correctness" can be obnoxious without its underlying community spirit.


Amy said...

oh man... you need to hold a workshop. We are at a complete loss when it comes to this stuff. If I could get my kids to SIT at the table, that would be a great victory.

Testdriver said...


I know your kids can walk on the line, sit criss-cross applesauce, and even overlook other people's mistakes (er...sometimes?)

They are delightful people, and that's my point. All the rest is just p's and q's.


Amy said...

Aww thanks Amanda.... I seriously need to stop getting hung up on stuff, huh?

Kiss those kids for me.

jasi said...

Hi there. Your blog is fantastic. I'm a Philly 'burb Mama interested in Montessori for my 2 y/o and 5 mo/o. I'd love to pick your brain about learning environments and sleep. If you ever have the time please mail me. jasileet at hotmail. Thanks so much!

NOLA mom said...

This is so timely! I'm having the devil of a time with my 4.5 quirky kiddo. He definitely has trouble with personal space and body awareness, even though he is learning to share and ask for things somewhat politely.

To make matters worse, ghosts of my own upbringing are coming to surface, and I sometimes hear myself (and feel myself) espouse those tactics I've rejected, while my carefully considered ideals get swept up with the emotion and baggage.

As usual your reasoning is superb, but what about details? How does one go beyond criss-cross applesauce and walking the line? Montessori principles make such good sense to me, but then I trip over execution. I have an extra challenging case here in my 4 yr old, but the 17 month old (though typical so far) is turning into a force to be reckoned with too. His actions are age-appropriate but STILL! Mama is exasperated. I just want to raise good people, never imagined how hard it would be!!

Testdriver said...

NOLA Mom--

This is why all the world loves a guru! It's so easy to talk philosophy (or strategy!), and so hard to feel like you're translating your plans well in reality. Same principle as the military (right, Lee? ;-) )

Don't be too hard on yourself--we all have baggage, and it always conflicts with our principles. As for your big boy, (Wow. He was 3 when we first started this conversation!) I think it's important to reiterate the point that Montessori did this with children who had problems with socio-emotional integration. It's also hard to argue that Montessori herself was free of emotional baggage...

I think what made it work was her initial acceptance of the limits of the child's ability to understand, and of her role as both model and modeler. The children were not asked to be polite and respectful, they were asked to walk on the line and keep their personal space contained. Montessori taught teachers philosophy, and children lessons.

I guess my point is that you have to teach the concrete (body awareness, personal space, invit/offer/accept/decline, etc.), and let the child make abstractions about respect and courtesy when they become apparent to him, whenever that is.

I often catch myself asking Nuvy to make decisions that reflect an understanding of the underpinnings of behavior that I know she isn't capable of, and the cue that lets me know I'm doing it is my own frustration that she hasn't "learned the lessons" I'm trying to teach her about how to be a good person. I have to take a deep breath and go back to the teaching part, and remember to try to teach only the things she can learn from me. So much of what's beneath it all she can only put together for herself.

Not very specific on execution, I know, but it's the best I have been able to do for our house, maybe it'll translate in yours.

Nice to hear from you! Hope everyone's well ;)

NOLA mom said...

Accepting the limits of what my child can understand -- Bingo! I need to learn some patience. (Any Montessori tips for that?) This is a work in progress, and one can hardly model grace and courtesy by losing one's cool. Maybe I should practice walking the line!

Any recommendations for reading up on Montessori's complete curriculum of polite behavior that you mentioned in your post?

It's nice to hear from you too. I'm so glad you are busy blogging again!

Testdriver said...

As I started to dive into the Montessori deep-end again, I started to think about your post about grace and courtesy, and a parent's patience, and then your next post asking about a complete curriculum for this, and I had a sort of mini-revelation.

Of course, the thing everyone needs, in order to facilitate patience is a road map! It's so much easier to be patient when you are confident that your methods are leading you where you want to go, and you don't have to second-guess your child's success or failure (and by association, your own). Especially if your child seems to have social challenges, you can really feel like you're stumbling around in the dark with grace and courtesy! I have noticed that my own frustration is somewhat alleviated (somewhat!) by having a guide--my Montessori albums!

So I found a couple of sites with very comprehensive teaching manuals, which lay out individual lessons and activities very precisely, and include philosophy essays to tie all the lessons together. I have really enjoyed reading them. I get reminders, fresh perspective, and information I never had before from each one.

I'm going to link to these on the main page, but here they are for you:

Meg Hicks (the secret of childhood), who follows this blog is also working on an online philosophy project, which I'm following. (you're up, Meg!)

good luck, and keep us posted!