“The will has begun to develop and this process continues henceforth, but only as a result of experience. Hence, we are beginning to think of the will not as something inborn, but as something which has to be developed and because it is part of nature, this development can only occur in obedience to natural laws…
A will in agreement with what the individual is doing finds the path open for its conscious development. Our children choose their work spontaneously, and by repeating the work they have chosen, they develop an awareness of their actions. That which at first was but a vital impulse (horme) has become a deliberate act. The little child’s movements were instinctive. Now he acts consciously and voluntarily, and with this comes an awakening of his spirit…
Will and obedience then go hand in hand, in as much as the will is a prior foundation in the order of development, and obedience is a later stage resting on this foundation…
Obedience is seen as something which develops in the child in much the same way as the other aspects of his character. At first it is dictated purely by the hormic impulse, then it rises to the level of consciousness, and thereafter it goes on developing, stage by stage, till it comes under the control of the conscious will.”
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 25- The 3 levels of obedience
Will = Intelligence + Action
You want to go to a park with your children but you cannot go to the park by just desiring to. Movement on your part is needed to make it happen; so you pack your picnic basket and leave. You have to act on your thought. This is a kind of will which is driven by impulse.
You are relaxed, sitting on the couch and watching a movie with your partner in your home with a bag of hot chips, enjoying the moment thoroughly. The knock interrupts you and you get up to see who it is. Lo and behold, it’s a neighbour who has come to meet you! What do you do? You are not really in the mood to entertain anyone but you switch the television off and invite your neighbour in. You make some more chips and sit down to chat. Here, you inhibit your impulse to continue watching television and send your neighbour away. You then make further arrangements to ensure your neighbour’s stay is comfortable.
The development of the will
So we can summarise that certain impulses cause social and fruitful activity and inhibition of certain impulses help to curb social disorder or acts of destruction. All our actions are a result of impulse and inhibition- a fine balance must then be achieved!
Life cannot go on without will. Will cannot be without movement. Movement cannot be without purpose. So now, let us see how this will is developed.
The developing will of a baby
Let us look at a new born infant. Does a baby have a well developed will when he is born? No! The baby has to develop it to the extent of being able to entertain a guest when he does not feel like it at all. Can a baby be expected to do that? How does a baby develop a will? He moves his hands and legs, opens and closes his fingers on objects, opens his mouth and moves his tongue to make sounds. He then gets a feedback from the environment upon his movement. This process continues endlessly. What happens during this process? A baby talks and you respond- does he talk more? A baby moves and you give him space to move- does he move more? Now, what happens if a baby talks and no one responds? What happens when a baby moves and his movement is blocked? The normally developing impulse (which cannot be wrong yet) is stopped. This urge that is inside the new being which causes his development is hindered.
What was needed for this new baby to develop his movement and speech without hindrance? Freedom!
The developing will of a child
Let us look at the baby again and this time he is slightly grown. The child is hungry and we have given him freedom to move and get food, say porridge. The same food, porridge, is kept at the same place everyday and the child moves, and takes his food himself and eats it with the freedom we have given him. He does this everyday. What happens? The child grows up and says he wants to only eat porridge and nothing else. Wherever he goes, he only chooses porridge and eats it. Do we only give the child one type of food? We don’t. The reason is simple: we want the child to be able to eat a variety of food so that he is be able to adjust with another food when something is not available. How can we do that? We give the child a choice. Without this choice, will a child be able to utilise his freedom to benefit himself?
Can the child develop a will without freedom and choice? Let us look at what we do with our children, and this is true of majority of the educated world! We have expected the child to be able eat whatever is provided to him at whatever time. We have expected the child to go wherever we have planned with least resistance. We have expected the young child to have developed this fine balance between impulse and inhibition almost equal to ours without providing freedom or choice. How will it work?
It is clear that to develop will, one would require movement, freedom and choice and have lots of practice with it. Let us examine the Montessori environment.
Supporting the developing will in a Montessori environment
The first element of the environment is movement. You see movement everywhere for every work. There is not a single activity in the environment that does not require movement on the part of a child. You will rarely see a child getting an oral-only lesson from a guide while he sits motionless to listen.
The next element is freedom. The child is free to move in the environment and exercise his impulse to do something. At the same time, he has to exercise his inhibition on an impulse to take something his friend is working on or to stop himself from hitting or shouting based on his impulse of anger. Freedom within limits allows children to develop inhibition which is also required for the will to develop.
The third element is the child has a choice of what to work on from options that are developmentally appropriate to him. As we would not expect a newborn baby to walk immediately, we also do not expect a 3-year old to write fluently. The choices are only from what he is capable of doing which the Guides have determined by observation.
Only when a child has enough experience with movement, freedom and making choices and being held responsible for those choices, will he develop into a person with a well-developed will.
So as adults in the life of these children, we can do our best by making sure that the children have the three elements at home as well. It starts with the simplest of things- providing opportunity of movement for a purposeful activity freely chosen by the child. At home his needs are simple: hunger, cleanliness, sleep, stimulation of intelligence and love. Provide food that is appropriate for your child at your child’s reach. Allow him the opportunity to clean up himself and his space of work/play. Provide him open-ended toys that stimulate his intelligence rather than provide the intelligence. Give him love whenever he is sad and otherwise too! Create limits so that he gets enough rest/sleep as his impulses may act wrongly due to lack of rest. Just go back to the basics and you will know exactly what to do.
Working on children after their rightful impulses have been hindered, is much more difficult. It requires a lot more effort on the part of the child, and sometimes, becomes a vicious cycle of wrong behaviour for children and something they are unable to help themselves with. Many require therapy and treatment as older children or adults! So when something is happening that is unsettling to you, take a deep breath, pause, think and then act!
Anjum is one of the founders of Lodestar Montessori School. She wishes that everyone discovers Montessori the way she did. She lives in Singapore with her husband and son.