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Time enough for childhood

Little children perform slowly and deliberately many complicated actions which they love—dressing and undressing themselves, setting the table, eating, etc. In doing all these things they show extreme patience, and they carry on to a conclusion their laborious tasks, overcoming every difficulty which arises from an organism being still in the process of development…

Always animated by the same prejudice that the object to strive for is the completion of an external act, we clothe and wash the child, take out of his hands the things which he loves to handle, pour the soup into his basin for him, feed him, set the table for him. And after rendering such services, we most unjustly judge him to be incapable… We often consider the child impatient just because we cannot find the patience to wait for the conclusion of these doings of his which are obeying time-laws different from ours.

Dr. Maria Montessori

The Discovery of the Child

Patience, they say, is a virtue.

It is also particularly hard to summon when you’ve got a three year old dawdling while you are try to rush out the door. “Please hurry or Mommy’s going to be late to work” just isn’t a very compelling argument to motivate a young child. A child’s interest darts here and there, and though just a moment ago putting on their shoes was a monumental and fascinating task, now there is an interesting bug crawling along the floor and the shoes lie there forgotten.

Our clock-driven society allows us to synchronize activities all over the world, to coordinate great works across continents. It is also unimaginably foreign to our natural experience, and quite alien to the way young children experience life.

It must seem a preposterous notion, that there is this exterior quantity, this “time”. This thing that keeps happening at the same rate whether you are having fun or bored, that keeps it’ own silent rhythm even when you are asleep. To a young child, every moment is “now”. “Let’s go to lunch,” you might say. “I’m not hungry, I’m having fun,” comes the response. Then they learn to anticipate being hungry, so there is a future. Maybe they can remember being hungry, so there is a past. Eventually children distinguish the near past from the far past – I went to the fair yesterday vs. We went to grandma’s a long time ago (maybe last month).

Every step along the way, the child must learn to connect and correlate their own internal experience to the ways we break up time. In the Montessori environment we keep regular schedules and always communicate the relationship between the clock and the activities of the day. We connect natural rhythms of the day to our notion of time: we’ll go outside when the clock says such and such, we’ll have lunch when the clock says a certain time, Dad will come pick you up at this time. The clock really must seem a tyrant to a young child! More than a few children have asked why we can’t just change the clock so they can go outside now.

So try to be patient with them – it just isn’t natural for a child to experience urgency just because a clock says “hurry!”

The tragedy is that, as much as they do truly need to adapt to the adult world, the tyranny of clock-time robs us of the ability to experience the natural flow of one moment to the next. Every religious tradition I’m familiar with has a monastic tradition that emphasizes the need to be in the present moment, whether to experience god, or to reach some higher level of consciousness.

Of course, when you need to hurry – hurry. But I hope you will look for opportunities for compromise. I encourage you to think of your young children as your personal gurus. They have so much to teach us as they explore the world and fully experience every moment.

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