WORKING parents around the world would agree with me – Robert Adler is our hero.
In 1956 the engineer and prolific inventor created a button that would save ears from the distress of offensive sounds.
It was intended to block the noise of television ads, but during the pandemic, it has been the ultimate tool to silence the untimely convulsions of a 21-month-old toddler during work video meetings.
Thank God for the mute button.
But the time has come to put the mute button into early retirement.
This week, The Catholic Leader staff, including myself, will be returning to the office in accordance with the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s return to work plan.
I will admit, since the agreed scheduled was announced to employees two weeks ago, a little part of me died thinking the comfort of my own home won’t be my primary work space any longer.
But while I’ll be heading back to work, my home won’t be retiring entirely from being a workspace.
The scientific research of Italy’s first female doctor, Dr Maria Montessori, is making sure of that.
Dr Montessori was a revolutionary educator (but without formal training) who for a decade before 1909 scientifically observed that children, given the right environment and stimulus, were internally motivated to work on their learning and development with intense focus and concentration (codewords for quiet).
She created special equipment to aid their learning, which she tested on a range of children with different backgrounds, including those who were hospitalised for being mentally handicapped, right through to children with illiterate parents and, finally, those from affluent families.
She observed that all children, despite their financial circumstances or their perceived intelligence levels, could learn things that trained educators deemed impossible to teach just by manipulating and working with the special equipment.
For instance, children as young as four from illiterate parents could teach themselves to write simply by tracing their fingers over letters made of sandpaper.
Later, Dr Montessori’s classrooms would evolve to include child-friendly furniture, complete with low-shelves and miniature chairs and tables, to further allow the child to seek their learning independently.
Dr Montessori concluded that children didn’t need to be entertained by toys – in fact they preferred learning the process of activities reserved for adults, like cleaning or cooking.
What looked like child’s play was in fact children at work.
Their work was considered important, valuable, and necessary for personal and developmental growth, and they needed an environment that respected their constant desire to work on themselves.
In 1909 Dr Montessori published the first comprehensive report on her observations in The Montessori Method.
There was also a spiritual dimension to her ongoing research.
Dr Montessori was a devout Catholic, and believed that all children were inherently spiritual beings who possessed a great desire to be religious as well as playful.
This led to the development of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, co-founded by an Italian catechist who received training in the Montessori method by Dr Montessori herself.
At the time of her initial research, Europe was undergoing a radical transformation, as the Industrial Revolution caused significant class tensions between workers and employers.
Pope Leo XIII criticised governments for allowing these injustices, which turned workers into mere slaves, in his foundational encyclical Rerum Novarum, which called for the protection of workers’ rights and just wages, among other recommendations.
It was nine decades later, for the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, that Pope John Paul II finally echoed and in many ways confirmed Dr Montessori’s scientific research in Laborem Exercens.
In this encyclical, the future saint wrote that work “is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.”
“And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances.”
Here Pope John Paul II was echoing the observations that Dr Montessori made about work one century earlier, and amazingly, it was revealed to her by young children.
My home does not apply Montessori principles perfectly – my idea of low shelves is a repurposed change table and any floor space that won’t cause inhabitants to trip in the middle of the night, and most of my daughter’s activities are handmade because I’m a millennial with a mortgage.
Even still, I’ve learnt a lot about life from my child because I allow her to work at her own pace, in an environment that stimulates her craving for work.
When I look at my toddler busily working on drawing “a helicopter” or attempting to tip milk into a bowl but somehow managing to get it on every other surface, I see what Dr Montssori and St John Paul II taught about the development of the human person – that the manipulation of stuff, of doing work, is helping my daughter become more human, more herself.
As Our Lord once said, praise you Father, for revealing these things to little children.
There are many lessons we can take from working from home.
For me, in the context of the Montessori method, the most important lesson has been the value of work – both paid and domestic – in helping us become better humans, indeed, better versions of who God created us to be.
And when our children see us becoming better versions of ourselves through the good work we do for our communities, our homes, our marriages, our friendships, and our personal lives, it might inspire them to reach these high standards too.
To do it all without the need for a mute button would be glorious.