Early Obedience as Tyranny

I fiiiiiinally finished Maria Montessori’s The Montessori Method. Boy, am I ever glad that our local library has decided to drop late fees. Something about the lack of punitive measure actually encourages me to finish the book and return it before I’m charged for the whole price of the book. (If you’re interested in that sort of psychology/economics, I believe Levitt and Dubner wrote in Freakonomics about how punitive measures often backfire, although their example was in parental punctuality and daycares).

Bit of an oldie by now but still a goodie.

And I am glad that I chose to read all the way to the end. The Montessori style initially appealed to me because it promoted independence, self-initiative, freedom to learn, all alongside a respect for the child as a whole person, rather than the child as someone who must be subjected to adult dominance. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that all people need boundaries. Yet I’ve always questioned just how much boundary a child needs, excluding all matters of safety and harm. Just how much “no” do I really have to say at the tender age of 2?

I’m writing this, by the by, at the end of a trying day. The toddler was quite opposed to everything we typically did in the morning: brushing teeth, making breakfast, eating breakfast, trying new activities, going out (first she didn’t want to go out, and then she did, and then she didn’t again, and finally we did go out after a nap and a half). On days like these (lately, every other day) I am left frustrated and wondering in equal parts whether I am being overbearing or whether I have been too lax in my discipline, to merit such behaviour.

However, Montessori’s words in her chapter on child discipline struck a chord in me as I was reflecting over the day’s events.

We often hear it said that a child’s will should be ‘broken’ that the best education for the will of the child is to learn to give it up to the will of adults. Leaving out of the question the injustice which is at the root of every act of tyranny, this idea is irrational because the child cannot give up what he does not possess (p. 366).

Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori method: The book that introduced Montessori to America. Schocken Books.

My previous studies in children’s cognitive development have taught me well that my toddler is not yet master of her own self, nor does she have the capacity or executive functioning to self-regulate. I see evidence of it as well. So if I believe (which I that the toddler is still in the early stages of individuation, learning to form her will, then I cannot expect her to submit or obey well either. For the same reasons that I know she is not able to fully empathize with me as an adult, I can also assume that she is not being defiant for the sake of defiance, disobedience, or some other unsavoury label.

This may well be all theory to me, being as new a mother as my toddler is young. I’m sure some grey-haired auntie is out there shaking her head over my naivete. Still, this understanding of the child assuages the questions that arise internally when I tell my toddler she’s being naughty. I don’t doubt that she understands, but I do think that she is not master of herself yet. Such an understanding is significant. No longer will I consider her refusal to be a test of my will (wherein I, more likely than not, would be harsher than necessary because I fear losing control and thus would be a “bad parent”). Instead, my job then must be one of patience and persistence in modeling and reminding her what is helpful and right. And even if the theory is incorrect, this seems more right than to ask her to submit what she does not yet have.

Knowing that I probably have some part of this still wrong makes me hesitate to say that this will work, or that I’ll be able to follow through. Still, these words come to mind as I ponder parenting on a whole:

You are an imperfect parent covered by the perfection of Christ (p. 33).

Cunnion, J. (2014). Parenting the wholehearted child. Zondervan.

I am like every parent before me, and no parent has ever had it right (or if they thought they did, then they were sorely mistaken). The knowledge of this every day, staring me in the face as surely as my toddler’s tears or the myriad of toys that are a new carpet for our apartment, is counteracted for me only by the assurance that Christ loves my child more than I possibly can.


Featured photo by the toddler at dinnertime.

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