“My dad told me I can only do math today.” This, or something like it, is a statement that every teacher has heard too often – whether in a Montessori classroom or not. We know our children best. So it may seem perfectly reasonable to send them to school with instructions on the type of work they should and should not do. However, doing so can severely limit your child’s development by creating a bias against learning important skills.
Here’s an example of just how easy it is to devalue a child’s work. Many years ago, as our faculty discussed the role of the teacher in the classroom, we decided to test the results of referring to certain works as “challenging” work. The work was specific to each child as opposed to just picking works at random. We had assumed that, by establishing a positive definition of the word and attaching it to the work, children would be encouraged to choose it on their own.
Our assumption was correct. We heard children telling us and their friends how proud they were at successfully completing “challenging” work. Children were choosing works that they were unsure they could complete at all and were empowered by overcoming the challenge. Parents were delighted with their children’s work. Confidence seemed to grow in some children overnight. However, there was one side-effect which, after discovering it, led us to drop this word from our classrooms almost entirely. Suddenly, if the work wasn’t challenging, it wasn’t worth doing. By assigning this label to work, we imposed our adult opinions and created an external motivation for the lesson. We changed the child’s reason for working with one simple word.
Now imagine the effect on your child when you, the most important person in his life, tell him he can only do math today.
You may well accomplish your goal. He’ll do math today and perhaps every day for the rest of the month, or year, but what will he miss in the process? That’s just it, he (and you) may not even notice the things he left behind until he really needs them later in life. Remember, many of the jobs that will be available to our children in 15 years haven’t even been invented yet. To say nothing of the day-to-day society in which they will live. So narrowing their exposure into any particular field is not the way to prepare them for that, regardless of how important you think it is right now. Instead, we should encourage children to explore and create possibility rather than limiting it right from the start. This includes exposing them to things that even we may not understand or appreciate at the moment.
There’s another reason to reconsider how you share your work priorities with your child. Repetition. Many concepts in life cannot be mastered after one attempt. Therefore, repetition of work is absolutely crucial. Dr. Montessori knew this more than 100 years ago. Repeated success with one lesson allows the concept to fully take root so it may be applied to future learning. There’s a big difference between mastery and simply moving up to the next lesson. But we all know “practice makes perfect.” So if a child thinks that the priority should always be new, more challenging work or one genre of work over another, repetition suffers -and with it, the child’s opportunity to achieve mastery.
If you find yourself heading down this road with your child, there is an easy fix. We all send our children off to school each day with a parting thought; “Have a great day!” “Work hard!” “Be kind!” We all want to encourage our children to learn and grow. We want them to achieve and accomplish – to be the best they can be. Sure, math, reading, being a good friend, following directions; all of these things are important. But no one learns without making mistakes. That’s where a parent’s focus should be. So tomorrow, instead of the usual morning send-off, try a different angle. One day I would love to hear a child walk through the door and confidently say “My dad told me to make some mistakes today!”
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