A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XXI." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
From: The Montessori Method (1912) by Maria Montessori, translated by Anne Everett George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912. pp. 346-370.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 346] 



THE accumulated experience we have had since the publication of the Italian version has repeatedly proved to us that in our classes of little children, numbering forty and even fifty, the discipline is much better than in ordinary schools. For this reason I have thought that an analysis of the discipline obtained by our method–which is based upon liberty,–would interest my American readers.

Whoever visits a well kept school (such as, for instance, the one in Rome directed by my pupil Anna Maccheroni) is struck by the discipline of the children. There are forty little beings–from three to seven years old, each one intent on his own work; one is going through one of the exercises for the senses, one is doing an arithmetical exercise; one is handling the letters, one is drawing, one is fastening and unfastening the pieces of cloth on one of our little wooden frames, still another is dusting. Some are seated at the tables, some on rugs on the floor. There are muffled sounds of objects lightly moved about, of children tiptoeing. Once in a while comes a cry of joy only partly repressed, "Teacher! Teacher!" an eager call, "Look! see what I've done." But as a rule, there is entire absorption in the work in hand.

The teacher moves quietly about, goes to any child who calls her, supervising operations in such a way that any [Page 347]  one who needs her finds her at his elbow, and whoever does not need her is not reminded of her existence. Sometimes, hours go by without a word. They seem "little men," as they were called by some visitors to the "Children's House"; or, as another suggested, "judges in deliberation."

In the midst of such intense interest in work it never happens that quarrels arise over the possession of an object. If one accomplishes something especially fine, his achievement is a source of admiration and joy to others: no heart suffers from another's wealth, but the triumph of one is a delight to all. Very often he finds ready imitators. They all seem happy and satisfied to do what they can, without feeling jealous of the deeds of others. The little fellow of three works peaceably beside the boy of seven, just as he is satisfied with his own height and does not envy the older boy's stature. Everything is growing in the most profound peace.

If the teacher wishes the whole assembly to do something, for instance, leave the work which interests them so much, all she needs to do is to speak a word in a low tone, or make a gesture, and they are all attention, they look toward her with eagerness, anxious to know how to obey. Many visitors have seen the teacher write orders on the blackboard, which were obeyed joyously by the children. Not only the teachers, but anyone who asks the pupils to do something is astonished to see them obey in the minutest detail and with obliging cheerfulness. Often a visitor wishes to hear how a child, now painting, can sing. The child leaves his painting to be obliging, but the instant his courteous action is completed, he returns to his interrupted work. Sometimes the smaller children finish their work before they obey. [Page 348] 

A very surprising result of this discipline came to our notice during the examinations of the teachers who had followed my course of lectures. These examinations were practical, and, accordingly, groups of children were put at the disposition of the teachers being examined, who, according to the subject drawn by lot, took the children through a given exercise. While the children were waiting their turn, they were allowed to do just as they pleased. They worked incessantly, and returned to their undertakings as soon as the interruption caused by the examination was over. Every once in a while, one of them came to show us a drawing made during the interval. Miss George of Chicago was present many times when this happened, and Madame Pujols, who founded the first "Children's House" in Paris, was astonished at the patience, the perseverance, and the inexhaustible amiability of the children.

One might think that such children had been severely repressed were it not for their lack of timidity, for their bright eyes, for their happy, free aspect, for the cordiality of their invitations to look at their work, for the way in which they take visitors about and explain matters to them. These things make us feel that we are in the presence of the masters of the house; and the fervour with which they throw their arms around the teacher's knees, with which they pull her down to kiss her face, shows that their little hearts are free to expand as they will.

Anyone who has watched them setting the table must have passed from one surprise to another. Little four-year-old waiters take the knives and forks and spoons and distribute them to the different places; they carry trays holding as many as five water-glasses, and finally they go from table to table, carrying big tureens full of hot soup.

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The tables are set in the grounds of the school of the Franciscan Nuns, in Rome.

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The two girls at the left are constructing the big stair and the tower. The boy in the center has constructed the long stair, and is placing the figures beside the corresponding rods. The child to the right is tracing sandpaper letters.

[Page 349]  Not a mistake is made, not a glass is broken, not a drop of soup is spilled. All during the meal unobtrusive little waiters watch the table assiduously; not a child empties his soup-plate without being offered more; if he is ready for the next course a waiter briskly carries off his soup-plate. Not a child is forced to ask for more soup, or to announce that he has finished.

Remembering the usual condition of four-year-old children, who cry, who break whatever they touch, who need to be waited on, everyone is deeply moved by the sight I have just described, which evidently results from the development of energies latent in the depths of the human soul. I have often seen the spectators at this banquet of little ones, moved to tears.

But such discipline could never be obtained by commands, by sermonizings, in short, through any of the disciplinary devices universally known. Not only were the actions of those children set in an orderly condition, but their very lives were deepened and enlarged. In fact, such discipline is on the same plane with school-exercises extraordinary for the age of the children; and it certainly does not depend upon the teacher but upon a sort of miracle, occurring in the inner life of each child.

If we try to think of parallels in the life of adults, we are reminded of the phenomenon of conversion, of the superhuman heightening of the strength of martyrs and apostles, of the constancy of missionaries, of the obedience of monks. Nothing else in the world, except such things, is on a spiritual height equal to the discipline of the "Children's Houses."

To obtain such discipline it is quite useless to count on reprimands or spoken exhortations. Such means might perhaps at the beginning have an appearance of efficacy: [Page 350]  but very soon, the instant that real discipline appears, all of this falls miserably to the earth, an illusion confronted with reality–"night gives way to day."

The first dawning of real discipline comes through work. At a given moment it happens that a child becomes keenly interested in a piece of work, showing it by the expression of his face, by his intense attention, by his perseverance in the same exercise. That child has set foot upon the road leading to discipline. Whatever be his undertaking–an exercise for the senses, an exercise in buttoning up or lacing together, or washing dishes–it is all one and the same.

On our side, we can have some influence upon the permanence of this phenomenon, by means of repeated "Lessons of Silence." The perfect immobility, the attention alert to catch the sound of the names whispered from a distance, then the carefully co-ordinated movements executed so as not to strike against chair or table, so as barely to touch the floor with the feet–all this is a most efficacious preparation for the task of setting in order the whole personality, the motor forces and the psychical.

Once the habit of work is formed, we must supervise it with scrupulous accuracy, graduating the exercises as experience has taught us. In our effort to establish discipline, we must rigorously apply the principles of the method. It is not to be obtained by words; no man learns self-discipline "through hearing another man speak." The phenomenon of discipline needs as preparation a series of complete actions, such as are presupposed in the genuine application of a really educative method. Discipline is reached always by indirect means. The end is obtained, not by attacking the mistake and fighting it, but by developing activity in spontaneous work. [Page 351] 

This work cannot be arbitrarily offered, and it is precisely here that our method enters; it must be work which the human being instinctively desires to do, work towards which the latent tendencies of life naturally turn, or towards which the individual step by step ascends.

Such is the work which sets the personality in order and opens wide before it infinite possibilities of growth. Take, for instance, the lack of control shown by a baby; it is fundamentally a lack of muscular discipline. The child is in a constant state of disorderly movement: he throws himself down, he makes queer gestures, he cries. What underlies all this is a latent tendency to seek that coordination of movement which will be established later. The baby is a man not yet sure of the movements of the various muscles of the body; not yet master of the organs of speech. He will eventually establish these various movements, but for the present he is abandoned to a period of experimentation full of mistakes, and of fatiguing efforts towards a desirable end latent in his instinct, but not clear in his consciousness. To say to the baby, "Stand still as I do," brings no light into his darkness; commands cannot aid in the process of bringing order into the complex psycho-muscular system of an individual in process of evolution. We are confused at this point by the example of the adult who through a wicked impulse prefers disorder, and who may (granted that he can) obey a sharp admonishment which turns his will in another direction, towards that order which he recognises and which it is within his capacity to achieve. In the case of the little child it is a question of aiding the natural evolution of voluntary action. Hence it is necessary to teach all the co-ordinated movements, analysing them as much as possible and developing them bit by bit. [Page 352] 

Thus, for instance, it is necessary to teach the child the various degrees of immobility leading to silence; the movements connected with rising from a chair and sitting down, with walking, with tiptoeing, with following a line drawn on the floor keeping an upright equilibrium. The child is taught to move objects about, to set them down more or less carefully, and finally the complex movements connected with dressing and undressing himself (analysed on the lacing and buttoning frames at school), and for even each of these exercises, the different parts of the movement must be analysed. Perfect immobility and the successive perfectioning of action, is what takes the place of the customary command, "Be quiet! Be still!" It is not astonishing but very natural that the child by means of such exercises should acquire self-discipline, so far as regards the lack of muscular discipline natural to his age. In short, he responds to nature because he is in action; but these actions being directed towards an end, have no longer the appearance of disorder but of work. This is discipline which represents an end to be attained by means of a number of conquests. The child disciplined in this way, is no longer the child he was at first, who knows how to be good passively; but he is an individual who has made himself better, who has overcome the usual limits of his age, who has made a great step forward, who has conquered his future in his present.

He has therefore enlarged his dominion. He will not need to have someone always at hand, to tell him vainly (confusing two opposing conceptions), "Be quiet! Be good!" The goodness he has conquered cannot be summed up by inertia: his goodness is now all made up of action. As a matter of fact, good people are those who advance towards the good–that good which is made up [Page 353]  of their own self-development and of external acts of order and usefulness.

In our efforts with the child, external acts are the means which stimulate internal development, and they again appear as its manifestation, the two elements being inextricably intertwined. Work develops the child spiritually; but the child with a fuller spiritual development works better, and his improved work delights him,– hence he continues to develop spiritually. Discipline is, therefore, not a fact but a path, a path in following which the child grasps the abstract conception of goodness with an exactitude which is fairly scientific.

But beyond everything else he savours the supreme delights of that spiritual order which is attained indirectly through conquests directed towards determinate ends. In that long preparation, the child experiences joys, spiritual awakenings and pleasures which form his inner treasure-house–the treasure-house in which he is steadily storing up the sweetness and strength which will be the sources of righteousness.

In short, the child has not only learned to move about and to perform useful acts; he has acquired a special grace of action which makes his gestures more correct and attractive, and which beautifies his hands and indeed his entire body now so balanced and so sure of itself; a grace which refines the expression of his face and of his serenely brilliant eyes, and which shows us that the flame of spiritual life has been lighted in another human being.

It is obviously true that co-ordinated actions, developed spontaneously little by little (that is, chosen and carried out in the exercises by the child himself), must call for less effort than the disorderly actions performed by the [Page 354]  child who is left to his own devices. True rest for muscles, intended by nature for action, is in orderly action; just as true rest for the lungs is the normal rhythm of respiration taken in pure air. To take action away from the muscles is to force them away from their natural motor impulse, and hence, besides tiring them, means forcing them into a state of degeneration; just as the lungs forced into immobility, would die instantly and the whole organism with them.

It is therefore necessary to keep clearly in mind the fact that rest for whatever naturally acts, lies in some specified form of action, corresponding to its nature.

To act in obedience to the hidden precepts of nature–that is rest; and in this special case, since man is meant to be an intelligent creature, the more intelligent his acts are the more he finds repose in them. When a child acts only in a disorderly, disconnected manner, his nervous force is under a great strain; while on the other hand his nervous energy is positively increased and multiplied by intelligent actions which give him real satisfaction, and a feeling of pride that he has overcome himself, that he finds himself in a world beyond the frontiers formerly set up as insurmountable, surrounded by the silent respect of the one who has guided him without making his presence felt.

This "multiplication of nervous energy" represents a process which can be physiologically analysed, and which comes from the development of the organs by rational exercise, from better circulation of the blood, from the quickened activity of all the tissues–all factors favourable to the development of the body and guaranteeing physical health. The spirit aids the body in its growth; the heart, the nerves and the muscles are helpful [Page 355]  in their evolution by the activity of the spirit, since the upward path for soul and body is one and the same.

By analogy, it can be said of the intellectual development of the child, that the mind of infancy, although characteristically disorderly, is also "a means searching for its end," which goes through exhausting experiments, left, as it frequently is, to its own resources, and too often really persecuted. Once in our public park in Rome, the Pincian Gardens, I saw a baby of about a year and a half, a beautiful smiling child, who was working away trying to fill a little pail by shoveling gravel into it. Beside him was a smartly dressed nurse evidently very fond of him, the sort of nurse who would consider that she gave the child the most affectionate and intelligent care. It was time to go home and the nurse was patiently exhorting the baby to leave his work and let her put him into the baby-carriage. Seeing that her exhortations made no impression on the little fellow's firmness, she herself filled the pail with gravel and set pail and baby into the carriage with the fixed conviction that she had given him what he wanted.

I was struck by the loud cries of the child and by the expression of protest against violence and injustice which wrote itself on his little face. What an accumulation of wrongs weighed down that nascent intelligence ! The little boy did not wish to have the pail full of gravel; he wished to go through the motions necessary to fill it, thus satisfying a need of his vigorous organism. The child's unconscious aim was his own self-development; not the external fact of a pail full of little stones. The vivid attractions of the external world were only empty apparitions; the need of his life was a reality. As a matter of fact, if he had filled his pail he would probably have [Page 356]  emptied it out again in order to keep on filling it up until his inner self was satisfied. It was the feeling of working towards this satisfaction which, a few moments before, had made his face so rosy and smiling; spiritual joy, exercise, and sunshine, were the three rays of light ministering to his splendid life.

This commonplace episode in the life of that child, is a detail of what happens to all children, even the best and most cherished. They are not understood, because the adult judges them by his own measure: he thinks that the child's wish is to obtain some tangible object, and lovingly helps him to do this: whereas the child as a rule has for his unconscious desire, his own self-development. Hence he despises everything already attained, and yearns for that which is still to be sought for. For instance, he prefers the action of dressing himself to the state of being dressed, even finely dressed. He prefers the act of washing himself to the satisfaction of being clean: he prefers to make a little house for himself, rather than merely to own it. His own self-development is his true and almost his only pleasure. The self-development of the little baby up to the end of his first year consists to a large degree in taking in nutrition; but afterwards it consists in aiding the orderly establishment of the psycho-physiological functions of his organism.

That beautiful baby in the Pincian Gardens is the symbol of this: he wished to co-ordinate his voluntary actions; to exercise his muscles by lifting; to train his eye to estimate distances; to exercise his intelligence in the reasoning connected with his undertaking; to stimulate his will-power by deciding his own actions; whilst she who loved him, believing that his aim was to possess some pebbles, made him wretched. [Page 357] 

A similar error is that which we repeat so frequently when we fancy that the desire of the student is to possess a piece of information. We aid him to grasp intellectually this detached piece of knowledge, and, preventing by this means his self-development, we make him wretched. It is generally believed in schools that the way to attain satisfaction is "to learn something." But by leaving the children in our schools in liberty we have been able with great clearness to follow them in their natural method of spontaneous self-development.

To have learned something is for the child only a point of departure. When he has learned the meaning of an exercise, then he begins to enjoy repeating it, and he does repeat it an infinite number of times, with the most evident satisfaction. He enjoys executing that act because by means of it he is developing his psychic activities.

There results from the observation of this fact a criticism of what is done to-day in many schools. Often, for instance when the pupils are questioned, the teacher says to someone who is eager to answer, "No, not you, because you know it" and puts her question specially to the pupils who she thinks are uncertain of the answer. Those who do not know are made to speak, those who do know to be silent. This happens because of the general habit of considering the act of knowing something as final.

And yet how many times it happens to us in ordinary life to repeat the very thing we know best, the thing we care most for, the thing to which some living force in us responds. We love to sing musical phrases very familiar, hence enjoyed and become a part of the fabric of our lives. We love to repeat stories of things which please us, which we know very well, even though we are quite [Page 358]  aware that we are saying nothing new. No matter how many times we repeat the Lord's Prayer, it is always new. No two persons could be more convinced of mutual love than sweethearts and yet they are the very ones who repeat endlessly that they love each other.

But in order to repeat in this manner, there must first exist the idea to be repeated. A mental grasp of the idea, is indispensable to the beginning of repetition. The exercise which develops life, consists in the repetition, not in the mere grasp of the idea. When a child has attained this stage, of repeating an exercise, he is on the way to self-development, and the external sign of this condition is his self-discipline.

This phenomenon does not always occur. The same exercises are not repeated by children of all ages. In fact, repetition corresponds to a need. Here steps in the experimental method of education. It is necessary to offer those exercises which correspond to the need of development felt by an organism, and if the child's age has carried him past a certain need, it is never possible to obtain, in its fulness, a development which missed its proper moment. Hence children grow up, often fatally and irrevocably, imperfectly developed.

Another very interesting observation is that which relates to the length of time needed for the execution of actions. Children, who are undertaking something for the first time are extremely slow. Their life is governed in this respect by laws especially different from ours. Little children accomplish slowly and perseveringly, various complicated operations agreeable to them, such as dressing, undressing, cleaning the room, washing themselves, setting the table, eating, etc. In all this they are extremely patient, overcoming all the difficulties pre- [Page 359]  sented by an organism still in process of formation. But we, on the other hand, noticing that they are "tiring themselves out" or "wasting time" in accomplishing something which we would do in a moment and without the least effort, put ourselves in the child's place and do it ourselves. Always with the same erroneous idea, that the end to be obtained is the completion of the action, we dress and wash the child, we snatch out of his hands objects which he loves to handle, we pour the soup into his bowl, we feed him, we set the table for him. And after such services, we consider him with that injustice always practiced by those who domineer over others even with benevolent intentions, to be incapable and inept. We often speak of him as "impatient" simply because we are not patient enough to allow his actions to follow laws of time differing from our own; we call him "tyrannical" exactly because we employ tyranny towards him. This stain, this false imputation, this calumny on childhood has become an integral part of the theories concerning childhood, in reality so patient and gentle.

The child, like every strong creature fighting for the right to live, rebels against whatever offends that occult impulse within him which is the voice of nature, and which he ought to obey; and he shows by violent actions, by screaming and weeping that he has been overborne and forced away from his mission in life. He shows himself to be a rebel, a revolutionist, an iconoclast, against those who do not understand him and who, fancying that they are helping him, are really pushing him backward in the highway of life. Thus even the adult who loves him, rivets about his neck another calumny, confusing his defence of his molested life with a form of innate naughtiness characteristic of little children. [Page 360] 

What would become of us if we fell into the midst of a population of jugglers, or of lightning-change impersonators of the variety-hall? What should we do if, as we continued to act in our usual way, we saw ourselves assailed by these sleight-of-hand performers, hustled into our clothes, fed so rapidly that we could scarcely swallow, if everything we tried to do was snatched from our hands and completed in a twinkling and we ourselves reduced to impotence and to a humiliating inertia? Not knowing how else to express our confusion we would defend ourselves with blows and yells from these madmen, and they having only the best will in the world to serve us, would call us haughty, rebellious, and incapable of doing anything. We, who know our own milieu, would say to those people, "Come into our countries and you will see the splendid civilisation we have established, you will see our wonderful achievements." These jugglers would admire us infinitely, hardly able to believe their eyes, as they observed our world, so full of beauty and activity, so well regulated, so peaceful, so kindly, but all so much slower than theirs.

Something of this sort occurs between children and adults.

It is exactly in the repetition of the exercise that the education of the senses consists; their aim is not that the child shall know colours, forms and the different qualities of objects, but that he refine his senses through an exercise of attention, of comparison, of judgment. These exercises are true intellectual gymnastics. Such gymnastics, reasonably directed by means of various devices, aid in the formation of the intellect, just as physical exercises fortify the general health and quicken the growth [Page 361]  of the body. The child who trains his various senses separately, by means of external stimuli, concentrates his attention and develops, piece by piece, his mental activities, just as with separately prepared movements he trains his muscular activities. These mental gymnastics are not merely psycho-sensory, but they prepare the way for spontaneous association of ideas, for ratiocination developing out of definite knowledge, for a harmoniously balanced intellect. They are the powder-trains that bring about those mental explosions which delight the child so intensely when he makes discoveries in the world about him, when he, at the same time, ponders over and glories in the new things which are revealed to him in the outside world, and in the exquisite emotions of his own growing consciousness; and finally when there spring up within him, almost by a process of spontaneous ripening, like the internal phenomena of growth, the external products of learning–writing and reading.

I happened once to see a two-year-old child, son of a medical colleague of mine, who, fairly fleeing away from his mother who had brought him to me, threw himself on the litter of things covering his father's desk, the rectangular writing-pad, the round cover of the ink-well. I was touched to see the intelligent little creature trying his best to go through the exercises which our children repeat with such endless pleasure till they have fully committed them to memory. The father and the mother pulled the child away, reproving him, and explaining that there was no use trying to keep that child from handling his father's desk-furniture, "The child is restless and naughty." How often we see all children reproved because, though they are told not to, they will "take hold of everything." Now, it is precisely by means of guiding and developing [Page 362]  this natural instinct "to take hold of everything," and to recognise the relations of geometrical figures, that we prepare our little four-year-old men for the joy and triumph they experience later over the phenomenon of spontaneous writing.

The child who throws himself on the writing-pad, the cover to the ink-well, and such objects, always struggling in vain to attain his desire, always hindered and thwarted by people stronger than he, always excited and weeping over the failure of his desperate efforts, is wasting nervous force. His parents are mistaken if they think that such a child ever gets any real rest, just as they are mistaken when they call "naughty" the little man longing for the foundations of his intellectual edifice. The children in our schools are the ones who are really at rest, ardently and blessedly free to take out and put back in their right places or grooves, the geometric figures offered to their instinct for higher self-development; and they, rejoicing in the most entire spiritual calm, have no notion that their eyes and hands are initiating them into the mysteries of a new language.

The majority of our children become calm as they go through such exercises, because their nervous system is at rest. Then we say that such children are quiet and good; external discipline, so eagerly sought after in ordinary schools is more than achieved.

However, as a calm man and a self-disciplined man are not one and the same, so here the fact which manifests itself externally by the calm of the children is in reality a phenomenon merely physical and partial compared to the real self-discipline which is being developed in them.

Often (and this is another misconception) we think all we need to do, to obtain a voluntary action from a child, [Page 363]  is to order him to do it. We pretend that this phenomenon of a forced voluntary action exists, and we call this pretext, "the obedience of the child." We find little children specially disobedient, or rather their resistance, by the time they are four or five years old, has become so great that we are in despair and are almost tempted to give up trying to make them obey. We force ourselves to praise to little children "the virtue of obedience" a virtue which, according to our accepted prejudices, should belong specially to infancy, should be the "infantile virtue" yet we fail to learn anything from the fact that we are led to emphasize it so strongly because we can only with the greatest difficulty make children practise it.

It is a very common mistake, this of trying to obtain by means of prayers, or orders, or violence, what is difficult, or impossible to get. Thus, for instance, we ask little children to be obedient, and little children in their turn ask for the moon.

We need only reflect that this "obedience" which we treat so lightly, occurs later, as a natural tendency in older children, and then as an instinct in the adult to realise that it springs spontaneously into being, and that it is one of the strongest instincts of humanity. We find that society rests on a foundation of marvellous obedience, and that civilisation goes forward on a road made by obedience. Human organisations are often founded on an abuse of obedience, associations of criminals have obedience as their key-stone.

How many times social problems centre about the necessity of rousing man from a state of "obedience" which has led him to be exploited and brutalised!

Obedience naturally is sacrifice. We are so accustomed to an infinity of obedience in the world, to a condi- [Page 364]  tion of self-sacrifice, to a readiness for renunciation, that we call matrimony the "blessed condition," although it is made up of obedience and self-sacrifice. The soldier, whose lot in life is to obey if it kills him is envied by the common people, while we consider anyone who tries to escape from obedience as a malefactor or a madman. Besides, how many people have had the deeply spiritual experience of an ardent desire to obey something or some person leading them along the path of life–more than this, a desire to sacrifice something for the sake of this obedience.

It is therefore entirely natural that, loving the child, we should point out to him that obedience is the law of life, and there is nothing surprising in the anxiety felt by nearly everyone who is confronted with the characteristic disobedience of little children. But obedience can only be reached through a complex formation of the psychic personality. To obey, it is necessary not only to wish to obey, but also to know how to. Since, when a command to do a certain thing is given, we presuppose a corresponding active or inhibitive power of the child, it is plain that obedience must follow the formation of the will and of the mind. To prepare, in detail, this formation by means of detached exercises is therefore indirectly, to urge the child towards obedience. The method which is the subject of this book contains in every part an exercise for the will-power, when the child completes co-ordinated actions directed towards a given end, when he achieves something he set out to do, when he repeats patiently his exercises, he is training his positive will-power. Similarly, in a very complicated series of exercises he is establishing through activity his powers of inhibition; for instance in the "lesson of silence," which calls for a long con- [Page 365]  tinued inhibition of many actions, while the child is waiting to be called and later for a rigorous self-control when he is called and would like to answer joyously and run to his teacher, but instead is perfectly silent, moves very carefully, taking the greatest pains not to knock against chair or table or to make a noise.

Other inhibitive exercises are the arithmetical ones, when the child having drawn a number by lot, must take from the great mass of objects before him, apparently entirely at his disposition, only the quantity corresponding to the number in his hand, whereas (as experience has proved) he would like to take the greatest number possible. Furthermore if he chances to draw the zero he sits patiently with empty hands. Still another training for the inhibitive will-power is in "the lesson of zero" when the child, called upon to come up zero times and give zero kisses, stands quiet, conquering with a visible effort the instinct which would lead him to "obey" the call. The child at our school dinners who carries the big tureen full of hot soup, isolates himself from every external stimulant which might disturb him, resists his childish impulse to run and jump, does not yield to the temptation to brush away the fly on his face, and is entirely concentrated on the great responsibility of not dropping or tipping the tureen. A little thing of four and a half, every time he set the tureen down on a table so that the little guests might help themselves, gave a hop and a skip, then took up the tureen again to carry it to another table, repressing himself to a sober walk. In spite of his desire to play he never left his task before he had passed soup to the twenty tables, and he never forgot the vigilance necessary to control his actions.

Will-power, like all other activities is invigorated and [Page 366]  developed through methodical exercises, and all our exercises for will-power are also mental and practical. To the casual onlooker the child seems to be learning exactitude and grace of action, to be refining his senses, to be learning how to become his own master, how to be a man of prompt and resolute will.

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. We prevent him in this way from forming his own will-power, and we commit the greatest and most blameworthy mistake. He never has time or opportunity to test himself, to estimate his own force and his own limitations because he is always interrupted and subjected to our tyranny, and languishes in injustice because he is always being bitterly reproached for not having what adults are perpetually destroying.

There springs up as a consequence of this, childish timidity, which is a moral malady acquired by a will which could not develop, and which with the usual calumny with which the tyrant consciously or not, covers up his own mistakes, we consider as an inherent trait of childhood. The children in our schools are never timid. One of their most fascinating qualities is the frankness with which they treat people, with which they go on working in the presence of others, and showing their work frankly, calling for sympathy. That moral monstrosity, a repressed and timid child, who is at his ease nowhere except alone with his playmates, or with street urchins, [Page 367]  because his will-power was allowed to grow only in the shade, disappears in our schools. He presents an example of thoughtless barbarism, which resembles the artificial compression of the bodies of those children intended for "court dwarfs," museum monstrosities or buffoons. Yet this is the treatment under which nearly all the children of our time are growing up spiritually.

As a matter of fact in all the pedagogical congresses one hears that the great peril of our time is the lack of individual character in the scholars; yet these alarmists do not point out that this condition is due to the way in which education is managed, to scholastic slavery, which has for its specialty the repression of will-power and of force of character. The remedy is simply to enfranchise human development.

Besides the exercises it offers for developing will-power, the other factor in obedience is the capacity to perform the act it becomes necessary to obey. One of the most interesting observations made by my pupil Anna Maccheroni (at first in the school in Milan and then in that in the Via Guisti in Rome), relates to the connection between obedience in a child and his "knowing how." Obedience appears in the child as a latent instinct as soon as his personality begins to take form. For instance, a child begins to try a certain exercise and suddenly some time he goes through it perfectly; he is delighted, stares at it, and wishes to do it over again, but for some time the exercise is not a success. Then comes a time when he can do it nearly every time he tries voluntarily but makes mistakes if someone else asks him to do it. The external command does not as yet produce the voluntary act. When, however, the exercise always succeeds, with absolute certainty, then an order from someone else brings [Page 368]  about on the child's part, orderly adequate action; that is, the child is able each time to execute the command received. That these facts (with variations in individual cases) are laws of psychical development is apparent from everyone's experience with children in school or at home.

One often hears a child say, "I did do such and such a thing but now I can't!" and a teacher disappointed by the incompetence of a pupil will say, "Yet that child was doing it all right–and now he can't!"

Finally there is the period of complete development in which the capacity to perform some operation is permanently acquired. There are, therefore, three periods: a first, subconscious one, when in the confused mind of the child, order produces itself by a mysterious inner impulse from out the midst of disorder, producing as an external result a completed act, which, however, being outside the field of consciousness, cannot be reproduced at will; a second, conscious period, when there is some action on the part of the will which is present during the process of the development and establishing of the acts; and a third period when the will can direct and cause the acts, thus answering the command from someone else.

Now, obedience follows a similar sequence. When in the first period of spiritual disorder, the child does not obey it is exactly as if he were psychically deaf, and out of hearing of commands. In the second period he would like to obey, he looks as though he understood the command and would like to respond to it, but cannot,–or at least does not always succeed in doing it, is not "quick to mind" and shows no pleasure when he does. In the third period he obeys at once, with enthusiasm, and as he becomes more and more perfect in the exercises he is [Page 369]  proud that he knows how to obey. This is the period in which he runs joyously to obey, and leaves at the most imperceptible request whatever is interesting him so that he may quit the solitude of his own life and enter, with the act of obedience into the spiritual existence of another.

To this order, established in a consciousness formerly chaotic, are due all the phenomena of discipline and of mental development, which open out like a new Creation. From minds thus set in order, when "night is separated from day" come sudden emotions and mental feats which recall the Biblical story of Creation. The child has in his mind not only what he has laboriously acquired, but the free gifts which flow from spiritual life, the first flowers of affection, of gentleness, of spontaneous love for righteousness which perfume the souls of such children and give promise of the "fruits of the spirit" of St. Paul–"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness."

They are virtuous because they exercise patience in repeating their exercises, long-suffering in yielding to the commands and desires of others, good in rejoicing in the well-being of others without jealousy or rivalry; they live, doing good in joyousness of heart and in peace, and they are eminently, marvellously industrious. But they are not proud of such righteousness because they were not conscious of acquiring it as a moral superiority. They have set their feet in the path leading to righteousness, simply because it was the only way to attain true self-development and learning; and they enjoy with simple hearts the fruits of peace that are to be gathered along that path. [Page 370] 

These are the first outlines of an experiment which shows a form of indirect discipline in which there is substituted for the critical and sermonizing teacher a rational organisation of work and of liberty for the child. It involves a conception of life more usual in religious fields than in those of academic pedagogy, inasmuch as it has recourse to the spiritual energies of mankind, but it is founded on work and on liberty which are the two paths to all civic progress.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom