I was thinking today about what we know to be concrete Church teaching about how to educate children. What I whittled it down to (in my head for the moment at least) is that:
Our final goal in education is the child's salvation
Children have free will and a fallen nature
Jesus said "Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of God."
The final goal is somewhat obvious, I think, but an important point to remember is that this goal should influence every aspect of their education in some way (directly or indirectly).
The thing that struck me today was the contrast between "Children have a fallen nature" and "Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of God." The contrast seems almost contradictory at first glance, and yet I think Jesus' statement about being like little children can help us to interpret and temper our understanding of fallen nature (and we as parents and teachers should be empathetic to some degree since we struggle with fallen nature ourselves!)
Consider this statement for a minute. Adults and children both have fallen natures, but there is something in children that adults should try to emulate. This seems to me a very significant statement regarding education and for me a reminder to be humble. I need to remember that Christ is present in my children. I should be open to learning from them and seeing the world and its beauty through their eyes.
I do think Maria Montessori was onto something in her ideas of respecting the child. To me this includes things like respecting the attention they pay to a particular task they are wrapped up in and not disrupting that task unnecessarily (this includes even a toddler who is trying something - poking a stick into a hole, or looking at a picture book, or whatever). These intellectual ideas help me to remember to be loving and affectionate to my little ones even when I'm cranky and would rather be doing something else.
The idea of fallen nature keeps some of this from getting too carried away. I try not to pick up my three year old when she whines. We don't give children anything they want or let them make every decision for themselves. I love Montessori's idea of freedom within limits. "If you talk to me nicely, I will try to help you." We set boundaries, goals, requirements, rules, but allow them the opportunity to make choices and take some responsibility where they are able. This might include letting a three year old pick her own clothes from the weather-appropriate choices you have left in her drawer. It could involve letting a child spend extra time in subject of special interest (while still covering the basic requirements set down ahead of time).
Here is one of my favorite Montessori quotes (favorite because it is both beautiful and challenging - and I need to be reminded of these things):
"Who does not know that to teach a child to feed himself, to wash and dress himself, is a much more tedious and difficult work, calling for infinitely greater patience, than feeding, washing and dressing the child one's self? But the former is the work of an educator, the latter is the easy and inferior work of a servant. Not only is it easier for the mother, but it is very dangerous for the child, since it closes the way and puts obstacles in the path of the life which is developing."
(Maria Montessori The Montessori Method)
There is a great deal of truth in this quote and it applies well beyond self-care or the toddler years. A very great part of educating our children is, not just to force them to be good and to be a Catholic (although these may be required interim steps) but to help them want to be good (and develop habits, virtues and willpower to follow through on that desire). And so, this quote always brings me back to the following one by Fran Crotty in Implementation of Ignatian Education in the Home:
It should be the objective and is definitely the responsibility of every rational Catholic mother and father to see that the child is educated, so that he can be truly Catholic with the consent of all his faculties.