In Her Words
In her book, The Absorbent Mind first published in 1949, Dr. Montessori touches upon the concept that the development of self control occurs in increments over time. Her insights into the child’s three distinct stages of obedience during the process of developing his own capacity for willful compliance and intentional action can guide those of us working with very young children. In excerpts from Chapter 25: The Three Levels of Obedience, we explore her thoughts on the first level of obedience.
“…What we have been able to observe in children under conditions of life designed to help them in their natural development, has shown us very clearly the growth of obedience as one of the most striking features of the human character. Our observations throw much light on this subject.
Obedience is seen as something which develops in the child in much the same way as the other aspects of his character. At first it is dictated purely by the hormic*impulse, then it rises to the level of consciousness, and thereafter it goes on developing, stage by stage, till it comes under the control of the conscious will….
…if we study the natural unfolding of this obedience, we find that it occurs in three stages, or levels. At the first level, the child obeys sometimes, but not always, and this may strike one as capricious, but it has to be subjected to a deeper analysis.
Obedience does not depend solely on what we are accustomed to call “good will.” On the contrary, the child’s actions in the first period of his life are controlled by horme alone. This is manifest to all, and it is a level lasting till the end of the first year. Between the first and the sixth year, this aspect becomes less marked, as the child unfolds his consciousness and acquires self control. During this period, the child’s obedience is closely connected with the stages of ability that he happens to have reached. To carry out an order, one must already possess some degree of maturity and a measure of the special skill that it may need. So obedience, at that time, has to be judged in relation to the powers that exist….Hence we first have to know whether the child’s obedience is practically possible at the level of development he has reached.
Before the child is three he cannot obey unless the order he receives corresponds with one of this vital urges. This is because he has not yet formed himself. He is still busy in the unconscious building up of the mechanisms needed by his own personality, and he has not yet reached the stage when these are so firmly founded that they can serve his wishes and be directed by him consciously. To exercise mastery over them is to have reached a new level of development….
…Yet obedience is not always negative. It consists, above all, in acting in accordance with the will of someone else. While the life of a slightly older child is no longer in the primitive preparatory phase of the child from 0 to 3 (conducted, as we have seen, in the sanctuary of his inner life) nevertheless, in this later period we still meet with similar stages. Even after three, the little child must have developed certain qualities before he is able to obey. He cannot, all of a sudden, act in conformity with another person’s will, nor can he grasp from one day to the next, the reason for doing what we require of him. Certain kinds of progress come from interior formations which have several phases to pass through. While these formations are going on, the child may sometimes succeed in performing an action on request, but this means he is using an interior acquisition which has only just been formed, and it is only when the acquisition is firmly established that his will can always make use of it…..
…The child’s obedience in this stage is dependent, above all, on the development of his powers. He may succeed in obeying an order once, but he cannot do it next time. This is often thought to be due to malice, and the adult’s insistence or scolding may easily impede the development that was going on. …There is nothing more harmful than discouragement just when new formations are being made. If the child is not yet master of his actions, if he cannot obey even his own will, so much the less can he obey the will of someone else. That is why he may succeed in obeying sometimes but not always. Nor is it only in infancy that this may happen… So what we call the first level of obedience is that in which the child can obey, but not always. It is a period in which obedience and disobedience seem to be combined!
*Editor’s Note: Horme or hormic impulse, a psychological term, is defined as a fundamental vital energy or activity directed toward a goal; purposive effort. The term is drawn from the Greek word Horme which means impetus or impulse.