The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 25: The Three Levels of Discipline

NAMC Montessori Studying Absorbent mind chapter 25 Three levels of discipline. Three children smiling.
Conscious will is a power which develops with use and activity.
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind, p. 254.

When my son was young, I always knew by his behavior when he was getting sick. Normally a sweet and gentle boy, he would turn into a mean-spirited, hard-to-please child that was unrecognizable. Bedtime was a welcome reprieve for all, only to be followed the next morning by a fever and malady of some sort. Extreme ‘naughty’ behavior soon came to be followed by the adults in his life giving each other a knowing look and saying, “He must be getting sick.” He was not acting out willfully; it occurred because of a disturbance of his physical person.

Montessori says that “the will does not lead to disorder and violence. These are signs of emotional disturbance and suffering.” (p. 253) When the environment and conditions are right, the will leads the child to activities to help him develop.

The Three Levels of Discipline — Studying the Works of Montessori: The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 25

“…Confusion springs from the belief that children’s natural actions are bound to be disorderly and even violent. Usually this belief is based on the fact that people, seeing a child act in a disorderly way, always assume that these actions proceed from his will.” (p. 253) How often do we hear adults laughing off undesirable behavior with expressions like “boys will be boys”? Montessori argues that nothing could be further from the truth, even though “education is … largely directed toward the suppression or bending of the child’s will, and the substitution for it of the teacher’s will, which demands from the child unquestionable obedience.” (p. 252)

Montessori states that one of the major prejudices in education is the idea that children are receptive rather than active beings.

Adults tell children the truths of the world, but though children give the impression of understanding, they do not have the ability to properly and constructively imagine such truths without actively experiencing them. When we use this method for shaping the child’s will; we obstruct his development and he rebels, thus creating an endless cycle of admonishment and rebellion.

It is wrong to think that a child’s will must be broken. We must allow the child to develop his will, which in turn matures and manifests itself as obedience. We must prepare the child’s environment to nurture this natural development.

The Three Levels of Obedience

In the first level of obedience, the child is able obey at times but not always. Before the age of three, Montessori tells us that the child cannot obey unless what is requested is the same as what he wishes. He may be able to obey one time but not another. Adults are easily frustrated by this and call the child willful. Clashes over will and obedience bring fits of temper as the child struggles to control natural urges. How can a child who cannot obey his own will be expected to obey the will of others?
Arriving at the second level of obedience, the child begins to exert some self-control over her urges. The child understands the wishes of others and can translate them to her own behavior. This, says Montessori, is where most education stops: “The ordinary teacher asks only that she be obeyed.” (p. 260)
There is, however, a third level of obedience: that which Montessori called joyful obedience. It is only in this third level that the child understands the thrill of being obedient. It is the desire to obey those for whom we feel a certain amount of intimacy.

The Silence Game

We often think of Montessori’s Silence Game as being only about getting children to focus. However, its very roots are founded in introducing collective obedience. “Perfect silence can only be obtained if all of those present are willing. A single person can break it. Success therefore depends on conscious and united action.” (p. 261) The Silence Game is more about the inhibition of impulse than it is about concentration.

Obedience is the last portion of the will to develop. Nurture it and it grows strong. Abuse or exploit it, and it is destroyed.

Works Cited
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate


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