Last year, a friend introduced me to A.E. Stallings’ poem “Containment,” and I have since been reminded of it regularly. Its imagery—especially now that my three-year-old son has learned how to use the fridge’s water dispenser—has played out in my own living room many times.
The narrator likens herself to a small child, who Carefully, carefully . . . / . . . With too much water in a real glass / Clasped in two hands attempts to cross a space as vast / As two living rooms. The tension builds as gazes watch how waves . . . slap against its cliffs’ transparency. The water sloshes, the little waves double their amplitude, / Harmonizing doubt from many ifs.
The next line convicts me: Distant frowns like clouds begin to brood.
The onlookers’ doubt in the small child causes him to falter: Soon there is overbrimming.
The rest of the poem is heart-wrenchingly familiar:
Soon the child
Looks up to find a face to match the scolding,
And just as he does, the vessel he was holding
Is almost set down safely on the bookshelf.
By contrast, Dr. Maria Montessori, in an essay titled “The Life of the Child within the Church,” describes a nearly identical scene as that of the poem—small children carrying water in a fragile vessel—but the outcomes are strikingly different:
[The children] carried fragile objects with care, such as candles without spilling wax on their clothes . . . or vases of water to be filled with flowers and placed at the foot of the altar. Such things, therefore, must appeal to their tender minds as the end of effort patiently sustained, giving them a pleasing sense of joy and of new dignity.
In the poem, the result is harmonizing doubt, a scolding, and failure; aside from the spilled water and broken glass, there is unspoken shame and regret. Yet, in the children under Montessori’s tutelage, there is a pleasing sense of joy and of new dignity.
What accounts for the difference? It seems not to be the degree of care taken by the children, but the gaze of the onlookers.
I think about how Montessori would have gazed upon the children in her care—hardly with a doubtful frown expecting failure, but with a smile of great confidence and love. Indeed, she gazes on children as she gazes on the Christ Child, and encourages us in her essay “God and the Child” to do likewise. She explains that the Child Jesus of Christmas, with his weakness and tenderness, disarms us in a different way than the adult Jesus of Easter: Let us then see Christ and the Father in the child, and our attitude toward him will be profound and sacred.
Thinking of the Christ Child we can learn how to abandon our own tyrannical behavior toward children. In the strength of our respectful love—which we now at times consider to be weakness—we shall see the true significance of being an adult. . . . Imitating our Divine Master we shall not let ourselves be motivated by the impulse to pomp and power, but by the respect for Christ-in-the-child, who—with our help—must grow into the fullness of his personality.
Montessori reminds readers that, as adults who imitate Christ, we aid children in growing into the fullness of their personalities. God has given them gifts for the work of his vineyard, and we can help bring those gifts to fruition if we look upon them with due respect. Again, I am struck by the contrast of Montessori’s words to Stallings’ poem, for “Containment” is not about a child per se, but about an adult who still feels like a child surrounded by tyrannical gazers. She has not grown into the fullness of her personality but has been contained and kept small.
What a difference, then, we could make in the life of our children if we cultivate Montessori’s perspective as our own, that we must respect children as the Divine Friend of children respects them and keep the image of the Child Jesus ever before our gaze. In doing so, we will offer them opportunities for joy and the realization of their own dignity.