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The Rights of Children to Develop
Physically, Intellectually and Morally

June 10, 1915 — Los Angeles CA


One might say that we are in the same epoch concerning the social rights of the child as under Roman law since Roman laws have been adapted to the times, such as paternal rights. Although paternal rights have changed, the principle remains the same for us as it did for the Romans. The Roman principle is: the child has received the gift of life, should be thankful and submit to us. This concept that the child should be a grateful subject has never been changed or differentiated from the fact that the child comes into the world as a man who has the right to life.

This second principle, that the child comes into the world as a man who has rights is the concept about which we are beginning to be conscious, but our laws and customs do not recognize it. We said the other day that the child was not recognized as the patron of his legitimate nourishment, that is, his right to nurse at his mother’s breasts. We still consider the child as a being who owes all devotion and possibilities of his life to us (adults). We express our affection to children by trying to have them imitate us quickly and even resort to violence to make them like us. When the child cannot imitate us as quickly as we would wish, we feel a form of impatience and many times blame the child harshly. But, this is the same with all subjected people: the one who subjects considers himself superior and his idea of the greatest good is to make the subject as nearly like him as possible.

It is true that a child in a certain way is inferior to the adult and to perfect himself he has to become an adult. However, we should look at this criterion both from the point of view of t liberty as well as from the point of view of slavery. Instead of considering the child as a being who owes everything to adults, consider him as free, with his own rights. To clarify the concept, we need to look in detail at the social world which we allow the child.

Let us think back ten years amongst people who are not the most highly civilized, the world in which we raise our children. As children, we found nothing prepared for the convenience of us as children in the material world. No smaller beings existed who were also men with the same way of living as we. We looked for small chairs, tables, sofas, brushes, dishes and other things. But we found nothing for a child. Contrast this with the luxury of things which are available for a doll. The children before now must have thought: ‘There are only two fortunate classes of society, adults and dolls. We, alone, are not provided for’.

Yet one sees children troubled independently of the possessions of adults and dolls. We know that the child would like to live as the adult; we know that the child tries to imitate the adult and is apt to destroy the dolls’ possessions. The child has such a desire to live the life of the adult that he has adapted to the use of objects not made for children but objects made for adults. In order for a child to sit upon a chair, the child must climb up using hands and feet, then (get down the same way and) work very hard to move that chair. Let us see ourselves in the child’s place; consider ourselves as we are, with human needs, then add to this the needs of the intelligence which the child has. We are not to imagine ourselves as we imagine the child, as being part from and different from ourselves. We are inclined to think of the people we subject as a different race!

Let us imagine ourselves among a race of giants who differ from us in proportion as we differ from the child and we ourselves are forced to use the g giant’s furniture, dishes and possessions. If we want to sit down, we have to climb on to a chair with our hands and feet. If we want to move the chair, we have to climb down the same way and move this great weight. We want to wash our hands but the wash-basin is like a big bathtub. When we want to empty the basin, it is too big and too heavy to empty it. It takes to hands to use a hairbrush. Everything is so high that we cannot use anything (without asking for held), doors to open, hooks on which to hang our clothes and other things. We are unable to do things we need to do and we feel the humiliation resulting from our failure to act. We certainly would disdain these giant people and not wish to live with them, if we knew they had prepared nothing so we might act.

I have found in the Casa dei Bambini that it suffices to prepare the environment, adapting to the size of the child, to open the child up to a new social life. Joy and enthusiasm, as well as awakened intelligence result and the children show that providing them with such an environment is a need which must be satisfied. To make believe (as when playing with dolls) is not the same as to do the act; doing actions gives the child a reason for life. I once visited a kindergarten where the head people, serious and educated people, told me that the children did the exercise of practical life, setting tables, eating, cleaning up, and so forth. I watched them and they set the table for dolls, with doll utensils.

If in that land of giants, we were given dolls and their outfits, although we had nothing for ourselves, we would say, ‘This is an irony; we are men and want to do things for ourselves’. This situation lessens our liberty: if we had to have everything done for us, if our faces were washed, clothes buttoned, hair brushed for us! The child has a far greater desire to do these acts than we have because we have only an external interest in doing them, but the child does not do them only for the doing of them but also to develop himself!

The child must develop everything in life, coordination of his eyes, hands and feet, sensorial activities, coordinating his seeing, hearing and feeling, psychic acts, all these things which exist only potentially for the child until he actualizes them. In accomplishing these acts, the child is entirely different form us. The child has not mastered coordination and is slower than we are. We have not the patience to wait for the child to do in a long time what we can do in a short time. To us it is a waste of time, but to the child it is reflective learning. We see the object of our action to be accomplished, the external accomplishment of washing, of walking, of picking something up. But we forget that the development of these actions, washing the hands, walking across the room, picking up a glass of water, comes through doing them, not having them done for us.

Think of our pleasure in accomplishing tasks in a space of time suited to us. We speak of doing our tasks in peace. We speak of going out and having an hour in which to dress and sigh with relief when we are finished dressing within that time. We go to the table and rejoice in eating slowly and comfortably. We like our own homes because we can use our time as we need to. What if we went with great rapidity. Instead of doing tasks in peace, the giants made us eat too fast, dress too fast? We would be in a constant state of rebellion. What if we were unable to explain our rights, explain our desire and ability to do things? We would be filled wit anger. Then, if we could not explain, we would strike out, throw ourselves on the ground, as the deaf and dumb children do. Then the giants would say: ‘What an ingrate; the more we do for them, the more disagreeable, capricious and unwilling to follow us they become!’ ‘They are bad by nature’, the giants would say.

Teachers wishes to know how to eradicate these disagreeable qualities born into the child! We heard mothers say, ‘How can I correct the caprice? My child becomes all the more capricious’. But I see here the clumsy against the slave, adults against children. The one in subjection rebels. But the child who rebels is not like the angry man who rebels. The child rebels because he feels the need of developing the activities of life. The child’s mission is to make a man and he tries to liberate himself so that he can fulfill his mission. The child’s rebellion is different from an adult’s rebellion because the child never feels hatred. Let us look at the fights between mothers and children who are not well educated. The mother does everything for the child and thinks she is doing the child a kindness. He answers in violence. The child must feel a great injustice, firs being prevented from doing life’s activities, then is treated with violence when he rebels, but he still embraces his mother. The greater the battle, the greater grows the love and the caprice. Both are instincts. Defending his rights to do life’s activities, although angry and capricious, the child does not have hatred toward her. The child would say, ‘I allow you to live, but why do you not allow me to live and to do what you do all day in front of me?’

The needs of the child’s development includes intellectual development so the child tries to exercise his senses But, as no one has prepared material for him to use in this sense development, he is like a hunger man who gets into a house where nothing is prepared for him. The hungry man finds and begins to eat something when the person of the house says, ‘Leave that alone’. The child feels the need to help his eye which is not yet able to adapt itself to distinguish distance from form, form from color, as well as other things. So, the child tries to help his eye by the sense of touch. He wants to develop his sense of touch by touching everything. Here begins his moral education. He is trained not to touch and the desire to touch is called a fault of children. The mother slaps the child and says, ‘Teach me a way to teach children not to touch things’. But this activity of the child cannot be prevented.

Existing in children is a constancy which makes them incorrigible in insisting on continuing to do things and in disobeying. Modern science has proven that in certain criminals who repeat the same crime in spite of penalties some force exists which impels them toward the act. When the child repeats the acts over and over in spite of punishment and criticism we are led to believe that a hidden impulse exits in children which pushes the child to act and that impulse is not harmful but useful. We can see the battle which begins between the child and the adult. The child wants to live in his own way and the adult suffocates this attempt to live.

It is true that the rights and instincts belonging to the child and to us adults differ in the form of their expression. An example is the fact that a child needs a long time in which to do things. When the child does not do as we do, we would have him stay outside of society until he has reached the same stage in doing the act as we adults have. It is as if the adult gave an order, ‘Become as I’, and then prevented the child from acting or growing. The child will become more like a man as he has a chance to act, grow and live and is given objects adapted to his use.

We put the great part of moral education in mistaken social relations between the adult and the child. We are the producers of children’s reactions and then we try to solve the problem of those reactions. Our reasoning is simple: “To make the child good, he must become like me, the adult, imitate me, obey me’. We put obedience above all else and say, ‘When I have made him obedient, all else will be easy’. We can compare our subjecting the child to the father when he left for work in the morning and said, ‘See how tall I am and how broad, and so forth,’ then commanded the child to have grown physically to be like the father by the evening when the father returns home! This makes us laugh because it takes a long time to grow and the same is true of the time it takes for the inner growth of the child. The solution lies in giving the child every possibility of growing in the best way possible. Man is neither a horse nor a cow, but in growing he will become a man. To make him an adult, we do not stretch his legs, but give him food, let him walk and let him grow. The same is true of the child’s inner growth. We must prepare an environment fitted to the child’s needs, recognizing tights adapted to his needs, for the social man to grow.

So, the first step in achieving moral education for the child is to prepare a social environment suited to the child’s rights and needs. Men’s rights are sacred and we should continue to give the child the rights to grow and to live. We must bring to birth civil laws and customs for the child which are not the same both for adults and children. To do this, it is sufficient to place ourselves in the position of the child. If someone were to pat me on the head and say, ‘Oh, how pretty’, I would say, ‘Who speaks to me in this way?’ No one has scruples about interrupting a child and, yet, a child is doing an inner work by which he is creating himself. It is as though I were a poet writing a poem and someone interrupted me to say, “Come and have tea’. I would say, ‘How dare you interrupt me. Now, my inspiration is gone.’ Thus is the good growing in the man lost when the child is interrupted. The same respect accorded to the adult and to the poet should be shown to a child. We used to smile at the thought of slaves being called people. But it is slavery which prevents the child from becoming a man.

We must prepare a social life for the child not permitted by the present customs. It is not the philosophical but the social principle of liberty from which springs the life of man. This social principle of liberty for the child is a question which should be looked at seriously and gravely as are all questions which affect humanity. We should study this question as profoundly as sociologist study the adult social principle of liberty. Since a child cannot express his needs as adults can, science must study the child and find out his needs. Since the child cannot ask for his rights, we must give them to children. Giving the child liberty is not the same as giving the slaves freedom. Giving slaves freedom is an act of law, but giving the children liberty involves giving the child the complex liberty of life. A long study is necessary so that this help for children may become a science.

Liberty and pedagogy go together, but always begin from the common basis of social liberty. All say it is necessary to develop the social life, but only in a superficial way, yet study shows that children are kept outside real living. It is incredible and almost pains me to repeat that criticism which has been made about my method, that is, that the social side of the children has not been developed because all the children do not sing together, no hold hands and dance together. My critics say that I do not develop the social side of the child. Bu the social sentiment does not develop when all children sing or all dance at the same time. When we speak of developing the social side of the children, we speak of elevating and completing human life and this is very different from feeling the experience of chorus girls singing and dancing together. If the social life of the child depended upon all holding on to the same ribbon at the same time no one would be happier than the prison chain gang. We know that social life is something very high, complex and difficult of attainment, but it is attained only through the liberty which permits the child to perfect itself.



Source:  Montessori, Maria, “The rights of children to develop physically, intellectually, and morally,” in The California Lectures of Maria Montessori, 1915: Collected Speeches and Writings, (Oxford: ABC-CLIO), pp. 23-29.