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.