Classic Kirk Essays
Stones for Breakfast
Children’s House, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1973)
Maria Montessori understood the imagination of children, and their creative powers. And, as this latest book by Mr. R. C. Orem reminds us, she taught us how to direct that imagination and those powers toward what T. S. Eliot calls “the high dream.” Bad schooling for little boys and girls betrays them life-long to “the low dream.”
Permit me an illustrative anecdote. Up where I dwell, snowdrifts persist into April. About two years ago, upon the first day of spring, my three little daughters began to gambol: Persephone had waked their imagination and their talents for creation.
Like the beasts that perish, little children become intoxicated by the coming of spring. On our first warm and bring morning, my Monica (aged three), Cecilia (aged two) and Felicia (aged eleven months) could not be kept indoors. Though still in their pajamas, they burst outside and commenced to caper and sing.
Monica, emulated enthusiastically by Cecilia, began piling stones on our back steps. “Stones for breakfast!” she shouted. “We’re going to have stones for breakfast tonight!” Not to be outdone in fantasy, Cecilia tried to feed pebbles to Felicia, exclaiming “’Tones for b’eckfast!” Felicia endeavored to escape from her father’s clutch and crawl down to the wan grass.
“Hush!” said Monica. “I hear a bird.” Cecilia spied out a venturesome insect. Only my prompt exertions prevented Felicia from devouring the pebbles in earnest.
As the year pass, too many of the rising generation are given not bread, but a stone. In the spring of life nearly everything is wonderous. The fortunate are those who, like Maria Montessori, never lose their sense of wonder, who subsist upon the bread of spirit, and laugh at the stones of dullness and materialism. It is a good omen that a very little girl should be fanciful enough to set out stones for breakfast; that quality may save her, years later, for mistaking stones for bread.
With my three playful daughters, that first spring morning, I enjoyed one of those moments in which time and the timeless intersect—a glimpse of immortality. Heaven may be perpetual spring. Those people who fail to perceive timeless moments are the prisoners of time and circumstance. It is only by transcending the ravenous ego, and sharing joy with others, that we realize our true and enduring selves. Hell, I suspect, is imprisonment within the ego, through the perpetual winter of discontent.
Monica, Cecilia, and Felicia, like all children, some day must put away childish things, and must come to know the ills to which flesh is heir. Yet the resurrection of the flesh and spirit is promised to those who become as little children.
Evil, too, is childish—in the sense that the evil person is trapped in the selfishness, the wrath, and the hasty appetites which are childish vices. The evil man is one who never has learnt to order his soul. Yet in learning to restrain and to discipline themselves, little girl-daughters need not lose that love of proliferating life which breaks out in the spring. To the end, wonder and joy can be found by those whose senses truly perceive; and to such, after travail, spring returns. Because Maria Montessori knew both how to impart self-discipline and how to rouse the love of life, she succeeded in ordering the souls of many. Mr. Orem’s several books about her imaginative work have done us good service.
Recently a lady author whom I know happened to converse with the editor of the juvenile department of a big New York publishing firm. My friend inquired what sort of books this firm was turning out for children—fantasies, adventure yarns, lively verse? No, nothing like that, the female editor informed her. “We give them new books about love, sex, abortion, and subjects like that—things the modern child is interested in.”
That mode of publishing seems an efficient way of producing neurotic children and, eventually, neurotic or psychotic adults. For an early obsession with personal and social “problems” of this character does not result in precocious wisdom: it produces, at best, only an abstract precocious world-weariness—which is quite different from wisdom.
The world of the child rightfully is a world of wonder. If that yearning for the wonderous is denied in childhood, that lack will be manifest later in life. At best, that deficiency will produce a dull adult, easily bored; or, worse, it may lead the young adult to seek a substitute for the legitimate realm of fancy—to seek that substitute in the narcotic trance, for instance, or in obsessive sexuality, or in the kind of fanatic political fantasy we call ideology.
Through creation and fantasy, the mind of the child is led to apprehend reality. Allegories, parables, myths, legends, and tales of marvels are not silly; rather, they enable the little boy or girl to grasp certain truths about the human condition, without the painful and sometimes ruinous direct experience of human error. (Indeed, even the wisest and most experienced of us can apprehend ultimate truths only through symbols.) The parables of Hans Christian Andersen, say, are no more false than the parables of Jesus of Nazareth are false.
Pinocchio now is my little daughters’ favorite book. They understand the moral aphorisms of the Talking Cricket; they grasp the consequences of the Puppet’s misbehavior; they come to perceive in the Fox and the Cat the power of malice in this world. They take a dreadful joy in the perils of their hero, and a quick pleasure in his redemption. With childish intuition, they apprehend something of order in the soul and of temptation in the world. And that sort of learning is pleasurable.
Would it be better for these little girls to be reared up on the dreary real-life doings of Dick, Jane, and their dog Spot, in real-life suburbia? Nay, not so: that would only convince them that the realm of literature is a domination of dullness. Or would it be better for them to develop an infantile “social consciousness” expressed in slogan or cliché, long before they are full members of society? Why, that would be a course of study calculated to develop the priggish busybody. Give the child wonder, and much in creation will remain wonderful always.
Similarly, give direction and discipline and purpose to the child’s creative impulses, and the child becomes a genuine human being quite soon: for man is distinguished from brute by his power of orderly creation.
Tutor the reason and the senses, and the child will come to serve the divine and the human. But thrust mere abstractions upon the little boy or girl—even if those abstractions are meant to produce the “informed citizen”—and mind and conscious must lie dormant.
Knowing these truths, Maria Montessori skillfully developed means for waking imagination and creative talent that have blossomed for six decades. If every child could be touched by her spirit and her techniques, we would make speedy headway against our present discontents.