The inherent human love of self-mastery
Happy Friday, everyone.
When my daughter was 9 months old, she would explore in the way that all babies do: by putting everything in her mouth. And I would do what all parents do: prevent her from choking to death.
At first, and for some months, this was just a matter of taking things away from her. I’m sure you’ve seen (or done) this many times, but here’s a typical example:
But about a month after I took this video, she went through a change in her behavior.
She started inhibiting herself. She would grab something, move to put it in her mouth, and then stop herself. Sometimes she would even sort of tell herself no:
Why did she start doing this?
I don’t think it’s because she finally understood that the world is full of dangerous choking hazards, that she was discovering that it is an objectively bad idea to put things in her mouth that might get lodged in her throat. Such a discovery was beyond her ken. (She’s now approaching 3 years old, and I still don’t think she understands this.)
I also don’t think it was because she was worried about me punishing her or being upset. As you can see from the first video, I was pretty neutral when I took things away from her. Sometimes she was upset because she wanted to keep exploring, but she never seemed particularly worried about my reaction.
The answer is almost more perplexing than the question. I think she inhibited herself because she could.
A fundamental motivator for children is that they enjoy exercising their faculties. All of their faculties. Children want to exercise their powers of locomotion, their powers of communication, their powers to manipulate the world in countless ways. Sometimes, even often, they have goals. But, really, they do these things for their own sake. And even when there are goals, the goals that a child becomes interested in are often the result of an “inner teacher” making salient an affordance that allows the child to practice the exercise of some faculty.
One of the powers that children start to develop is the power to deliberately control themselves. It’s what psychologists, including Montessori, call the power of inhibitory control. It’s the power to refrain from acting, even in the face of incentives to do so.
This, too, is a faculty. It’s a critically important one. And even though it means stopping yourself from doing something that some part of you wants to do—children still enjoy exercising this power. They want to try, to practice, to exercise the power of not doing something.
This can seem counterintuitive. Children want to not do something they want? But it’s a powerful lens to bring to human motivation, and especially the motivation of children. And examples abound.
If I buy my now-almost-3-year-old a cake pop from Starbucks, she will, without me even queuing her or even expecting it of her, hold it in her hands and refrain from eating it until we get home. She enjoys the process of not eating it, of holding it and experiencing her own self-restraint, for the duration of the car ride.
The need and desire of children to practice inhibitory control is given full expression in Montessori classrooms. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the silence game, an exercise in collective inhibition. Children, prompted by the guide, achieve perfect, collective silence. They do this, not for some reward, but because the inhibition is very active and incredibly interesting. Montessori:
In order to have silence, you must simply not move. And in order not to move, you must think about everything that could possibly move. So you must keep your legs and feet quite still, and your hands, and your whole body. You have to control your breathing. (Advanced Montessori Method, vol. 1)
And the result of this exercise is a kind of elevated pleasure:
The children, after making these efforts and experiencing the joys of silence, were like ships sailing into port. They were happy about everything, about having learned something new, about having won a victory. This was their recompense. They forgot the promised sweets and did not bother to take the objects which I had imagined would attract them. I thus gave up these idle incentives and saw to my amazement that when the game was repeated it was carried out with ever increasing perfection, so that three-year-old children remained motionless in the silence during all the time it took to summon more than forty others out of the room. Then I realized that the soul of a child also has its spiritual joys and rewards. (The Discovery of the Child)
What, precisely, is this spiritual joy and reward? It’s progress on the road to self-mastery.
Ultimately, the value of inhibitory control, and the many other human faculties, isn’t expressed in their isolated exercise. It’s that they add up being able to live fully and intentionally. The power of inhibitory control is key: it allows one to decide consciously what to think and do, by enabling one to inhibit competing feelings and motives that one does not consciously endorse.
Montessori believed that the desire to live consciously was deeply human, as or more an intrinsic part of our nature as the desires for love or belonging or safety. And as such it comes with its own distinct pleasures. As her son Mario Montessori put it,
The greatest possible satisfaction one can have is to become the conscious master of oneself. (“The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education”)
Have a great weekend,
Executive Director, Montessorium