Maria Montessori’s Lesson: Don’t Steal Another’s Confidence

Maria Montessori: “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

What a beautiful and true statement! It has implications for children, for education, and so much more.

I’d like to enlarge the idea by putting it this way: “Never help anyone at a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

We talk about “empowering” others. I have come to discard that term, because it has been used by so many who actually want to control others and use this word under false pretenses. It’s better simply to say, “Don’t help someone when he or she doesn’t need help.”

Our world is filled with compulsive helpers. Everywhere you turn, there is somebody — in your family, in your household, in the community, or in the government — who stands ready to “help.” As a result, many never obtain the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

Psychologically, this breeds anxiety. When you constantly do things for children, or for grown ups, you convey to them: “You cannot do this.” Well, sometimes they cannot. But often they can, or they should at least first try. But they seldom get the chance. As a result, they not only develop anxiety. They also fail to develop confidence.

It’s widely recognized that there’s a “self-esteem” and self-confidence crisis in our society. If this is true, there has to be a reason. There has to be a reason why this problem is not getting better and, if anything, is only getting worse.

The amazing thing about Maria Montessori’s statement is how refreshing and how unusual it is. It shouldn’t be. Something is deeply wrong with the way most people go about things, for this statement — a simple statement of almost self-evident fact — to be so revolutionary.

It’s hard to imagine a more loving challenge, to a child or any loved one, than, “I think you underestimate yourself. Why don’t you give it a try?” Of course, control freaks who will never do this — not with their children, not even with strangers — have irrational beliefs about mistakes. My own attitude about mistakes is that any honest mistake which doesn’t kill you means you now know more than you did before. With each success, you’re stronger; yet with each mistake — which involves learning new knowledge — you’re stronger as well.

A control freak cannot stand looking at it this way. As a result, the control freak, especially if a teacher or a parent, projects this attitude on to his or her child. The emotion, if it were honestly allowed to speak, would say something like: “No child of mine is going to make that mistake. I’ll do it for him! That way it will reflect well on me.”

You see, if the truth be told, this attitude of compulsive helping is really all about the helper. This is why you should always be wary of people rushing to help you. What about people who genuinely value you, and stand ready to be there for you IF you request it? That’s one thing. But people who seem to need to help, and who don’t even wait for a request…beware! They’re indiscriminate helpers and they cannot truly help you.

Of course, not everyone who makes this mistake is a pathological, compulsive helper. Some people mean well, but just haven’t thought it out all the way. If you’re one of these people, then take a moment to reflect on what you’re doing when you “help” someone do something they can really do for themselves.

Don’t ever steal another’s confidence. It’s the most important thing they have.

Maria Montessori is one of those rare souls who comes along once or twice a century. In the field of education, we haven’t ever seen anyone quite like her. Take her wisdom for what it’s worth, because it’s worth a whole lot.