Uniqueness is messy.

This American Life’s recent episode on middle school mentions Maria Montessori’s belief that the appropriate environment for a child of middle school age is a farm school.

What I’ve read about this idea and many other Montessori ideas sounds wonderful: young people at work and play alongside respectful adults who can teach them to do things as well as to know things, to apply their knowledge, to be physically active in the course of it… the list of desirables goes on.

But this and every other idea that seem delicious in the abstract start to feel a little less solid when mapped onto actual specific children.  Whether or not they could benefit from the activities proposed, whether or not the values instilled would be useful to them, all people are not equally available for all endeavors and pursuits.  And the timing of one person’s availability for something, their ability to receive and absorb it, is not likely to be the same as everyone else’s.  But that’s what we expect.  We want children to be unique, but at the same time, we’re wary of specialization.  It’s as though we want them to be unique sometimes, or later.  Not when it gets in the way.  If they get too interested in something too early, we tell them they’re not well-rounded.  We want a checklist that will be the same for all of them, of things they should all do first.  When that’s done, we expect them to be ready to be unique and to distinguish themselves. Of course, it often doesn’t happen that way.  Uniqueness and individuality is a tough thing to temporarily shelve.  Kids’ actual uniqueness, which is a messy, unpredictable, impossible to control thing, confounds us. Come to think of it, so is our own.

I think this is why it’s so hard to see the potential that kids already have, the capacities that are already in development when they’re 3, 7, 11 years old.  We might have trouble, for example, seeing that all of the time they spend with their Legos is building skill they might need for engineering, because we’re think that first they need to sit still and add columns of numbers; engineering is for later.  We might have trouble seeing that they’re learning how to think deeply and analytically because we think that first they need to be practicing their spelling; philosophical inquiry is for later.

We know that what we’re doing is not working, not making the most of kids’ potential, but we’re so fixed in this belief that we have to put the many through the one thing (even though it so often doesn’t come out right and is a struggle the whole way) that we can’t see all the things we’re shutting down that could launch individual kids on paths that are well-suited to them and their specific capacities. If the outcomes of educational efforts are to shift in any meaningful way, it’ll be because we confront our biases about what has to happen when, and our attachment to giving everyone the same thing at the same time.

And as we’re retraining ourselves to look at what’s actually there and what kids might do with it – the evidence of potential that may not fall into the traditional, recognizable categories – we’ll also need to stop laughing amongst ourselves at kids’ resistance.  As long as we’re behaving toward children as though the discomfort that drives their resistance is funny or cute, they’ll keep it up.  Because that resistance is not the personal attack on parents and other adults that we treat it as. Young peoples’ defiance is a plea – a plea with us to realize how profoundly we’re not seeing them – not letting them get as full and as strong as they can because we’re too busy trying to make them like they aren’t.  It’s not only disrespectful, this way we laugh them off and roll our eyes at them (“we always get tears when it comes to spelling!” and “boy, she always fights me on the boring parts of math!”).  It undermines our relationships with kids.  It lets them know in no uncertain terms that we are not available for communication; we are only interested in conveying our curriculum, whatever it may be and whether or not they take it in, whether or not they can use it. Any objections children may express that push us to reach beyond the scope of what we think they should know and do, we tend to dismiss as immature prattling.  We more or less laugh it off.

We don’t do it maliciously.  It was done to many of us, and so it comes naturally.  It feels natural and usual.  But that doesn’t mean it’s what we want for kids, and if it’s not, it’ll be well worth the effort it takes to leave it behind, to build  new, empowering, edifying traditions in its place.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for this wonderful reminder. So true!

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