Chapters 4-6: The Spiritual Embryo

Chapter 4: The Newborn Child

To newborn children, all the world is strange and magnificent. They undergo the enormous task of adapting themselves to this environment. Dr. Montessori was in awe of this. She believed that newborn children must be handled gently to nurture that effort.

Children aren’t born into a natural environment, amidst trees and birds and other animals. Instead, they are born into environments that we, as a society, have created. They are brought into this world in buildings and rooms furnished for our comfort. 

At the time of writing “The Secret of Childhood,” the environments Maria Montessori saw newborns in were not well suited for their needs. Since 1936, many improvements have been made, but there is still much to learn from her observations.

Dr. Montessori felt that in the same way we care for new mothers, we should care for newborn children. We should shield newborns from harsh sounds or light. The hands that care for them should be gentle and directly trained to care for infants. Clothing should be light and loosely fitting, a newborn child’s warmth should come externally, from their caregiver’s embrace.

Although Dr. Montessori believed progress had been made, she also believed much needed to be done. “A newborn child should not simply be shielded from harm, but measures should also be taken to provide for psychic adjustment to the world about it” (p. 23).

Chapter 5: The Natural Instinct

When other mammals care for their young, they often go through great lengths to shield them from the world. They nurture their young in some protected place, such as a cave, or the hollow of a tree. Only in captivity or other dire circumstances do we see these instincts fail to appear.

Acting on its natural instincts, the mother cares for not just the safety of their newborn, but also the “development of its natural instincts.” This best takes place in a calm, secluded place. Only after the preliminary skills are developed will the mother introduce her young to the world. In the same way, Dr. Montessori asks that we give our children the peace and calm needed to develop their own natural skills.

Chapter 6: The Spiritual Embryo

Dr. Montessori believed “a child’s education should begin at birth.” As evidence of a child’s psychic development, she looks to the length of time it takes newborns to develop physically. Other animals can run, walk, communicate in a fraction of the time it takes humans to do the same. The reason humans take so long is our ability to be individualized. “Every man has his own creative spirit that makes him a work of art. But there is need of much toil and labor.”

Those movements, which take longer to master, are voluntary and not instinctual. “A child develops not simply as a member of the human species, but as a person.” Children are capable of becoming anything and that potential is present from birth.

Look at the wide eyes of a baby. They absorb everything, preparing to speak and to walk. These impulses to absorb and learn are as delicate as the child.  “Just as a physical embryo needs its mother’s womb in which to grow, so the spiritual embryo needs to be protected by an external environment that is warm with love and rich in nourishment, where everything is disposed to welcome and nothing to harm it.”

Children mold themselves by interacting with their surroundings. By taking seriously the notion that children shape themselves, our roles as caretakers shifts from the shapers of children to being their guides. Rather than pointing out where they should go, we must listen to where the child wants to go, and help them to arrive safely.

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