The unpleasant effort
Happy Friday, everyone.
Here’s a common concern amongst parents and educators: How do I get a child to do things that they dislike?
Children need to develop inner discipline, the thought goes, and life does indeed involve at least occasionally doing unpleasant things. We train a child’s capacity for inner discipline by training her capacity to do things she doesn’t want to do. One of the questions most commonly raised about Montessori, a highly child-centered approach, is: how it can accommodate the need to develop inner discipline, to make the unpleasant effort, given that it is based on the child’s choices and interests?
This is an issue that Montessori just cuts straight through. Inner discipline is important—profoundly so. But, she thinks, there’s no separate mental muscle for “I hate it but I’ll do it anyway.” What there is instead is a more general capacity to exert effort, exercise inhibitory control, and keep the wider context in mind. And this capacity is deployed in more as well as less pleasant cases.
“The effort put into work, study and learning is the result of interest and nothing can be achieved without effort. I do not want to discuss the argument raised by many regarding interest and effort here; contrasting these two faces of the same coin. In fact, many have said that it is necessary to choose between interest and effort in education—calling interest pleasant execution, and effort unpleasant execution. However, effort is implemented actively, using one’s own energy: and this is done when there is interest. Man is not a machine. He acts when his interest, generosity or enthusiasm is aroused. Furthermore, this living, active and strong man will also know how to make the unpleasant effort.” (Montessori, Psychogeometry)
The right way for a child to build discipline is by its pleasurable, chosen exercise. A child who joyfully tries something over and over, using concentration and self-control, is practicing to be able to later choose to do something unpleasant.
The small child that can focus for ten minutes on peeling an orange becomes the adult who can manage the seeming infinity of less pleasant chores related to, say, hosting Thanksgiving dinner. The child who skip-counts to 1,000 with beads becomes the lawyer studying for the bar.
The capacity to manage negative feelings associated with effort and self-control gets gradually expanded as one's scope of interests and concerns get expanded. So it's always linked to a broader positive affective and voluntary state. There’s no need for a child to practice motivation by duty, guilt, and white-knuckling. More concisely:
“That wherein the weak gain strength is that wherein the strong gain perfection.” (Montessori, The Advanced Montessori Method, vol. 1)
Have a great weekend,
Executive Director, Montessorium