Grace and Courtesy

“What is social life if not the solving of social problems, 
behaving properly and pursuing aims acceptable to all?
~Maria Montessori

“Grace and Courtesy” is the traditional Montessori term for all the aspects and details needed to live and work together every day in relative peace and harmony.  It involves an extended process of development for your children, piece by piece, over time. They are primed to learn, because social interaction is such a core part of our humanity.  So every year in the fall we pay special attention to very specific lessons in many different areas of our interdependent relationships in this children’s house.  Our goal is for each child to feel comfortable, respected, and secure in his or her interactions with others, and for each child to support other children in feeling the same way.  So we model, and they practice, and learn, one day at a time.

These lessons in grace and courtesy are broken down into categories.   First must come caring for oneself – how to get a drink of water, how to hang a coat, how to put on a jacket independently, how to handle inside-out sleeves, how to wash hands, how to use a tissue and dispose of it, how to cough into one’s elbow, and so on.  Each of these basic activities is presented as a lesson, and then another slightly different lesson, and then practice, and daily life unfolding, and help from one another.  For instance, did you know we ask the kids to use the little loops in their jackets to hang them up?  This is helpful for two reasons:  the jacket hangs more securely, and it doesn’t hang so low, so as not to obscure their view of the boots.  Of course, every coat doesn’t have that handy loop, and that’s on our list as a sewing project.

The next category of Grace and Courtesy is caring for our environment – how to clean up a spill using a sponge, how to dust, how to fold our simple laundry, how to sweep using a table crumber,  how to sweep using a broom, and ah, how to sweep cooperatively with another person.

These two really worked at this sweeping, practicing how to make a little pile and then use a dustpan.  Let’s just say, it was not an effort without some argument, some small power struggle; I stayed very close by. They’ll have many chances to practice some more.

Each of these activities gets specific attention from us, and each needs focused practice by the child.  None just come naturally.  We can’t expect a child to know by osmosis how to sweep, or how to clean a table.  Just learning to rinse and squeeze a sponge effectively takes time.   “Oh look, your table is all wet.  Let me remind you how to squeeze out that sponge better.  Do you know where the green cloth is for drying tables?  That’s what you should do next…..”  Many such mini-lessons happen every single day.

Then there is learning to engage in their shared and separate work with respect and cooperation.  A whole series of lessons is included here:  how to use the work rugs, how to walk around rugs, how to put away an activity ready for the next child, how to let one another do their work without interfering or interrupting, and so on.

Here you see a very young boy, happily using the “ferrous/non-ferrous” magnet sorting work.  Notice how the older boy was watching him with his hands behind his back.  There’s a whole set of grace and courtesy lessons embedded here.  First, he will ask, “Can I watch you work?”  He remembered to do this on his own – he’d been here more than a year, and come to understand how important this is.  The younger boy could have said yes or no.  In this case, he said yes, so the older boy put his hands behind his back; this helps him remember not to touch or interfere.  He watched for a while, and then moved on. So think of it – as he played with the magnet,this little boy also experienced that respect for his work, which then became part of his own developing awareness of others.

Finally, and so important, we address the interpersonal courtesies which inform and shape our social relationships. How to greet one another, how to say “excuse me”or “thank you,” how to ask a teacher for help, how to ask for a hug, how to offer a snack to a friend, how to listen to one another in group, how to share a conversation.  

This four-year-old has done the banana serving many times now – he thrives with the independence of preparing the banana for serving, and he loves walking around offering pieces to his friends.  He is learning to ask politely and not just shove the plate into another child’s field of vision.  This is huge for him, to ask,  “Would you like a piece of banana?”  And then in response he hopefully hears, “yes, thank you.”  Finally, he completes the cycle by washing his dishes, getting it all ready for the next person.

Learning how to care for one another in such concrete and specific ways, how to interact in a respectful manner, how to co-create a peaceful classroom, might be the most critical life skill the children are learning here. Grace and courtesy.  Together they are creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts – a daily experience of a warm, loving, safe, and kind learning community.  And with support, that learning will stay with them, as a part of their being, from here on into adulthood.