Cultivating Gratitude and Generosity in the Children’s House

photo credit: Melinda Smith

This time of year many of us find ourselves struggling to keep a hold of gratitude and generosity; they slip so easily out of our daily lives when things get hectic. The holidays give us the opportunity to renew these virtues by actively practicing them with our families and friends. We voice what we’re grateful for and remind our children to say their pleases and thank-yous. We send cards or letters, give and receive gifts and keep our people in our thoughts. We exercise the gratitude and generosity muscles with the ultimate goal that they stay with us always.

For our youngest children, the concepts—the abstract ideas—of gratitude and generosity are still out of reach because they are concrete, literal thinkers. So, how do we teach them? In the Villa di Maria Children’s Houses, our guides lay the groundwork for gratitude and generosity through grace and courtesy.

It is not necessary for them to possess the ability to consider abstract concepts. The child begins at birth to become a citizen. They are working to become human beings of the community. It is our responsibility to offer them the best example of being good citizens of the world.

Reghan McAuley, P1 Children’s House Guide

Guide Reghan McAuley from our P1 Children’s House explains, “The young child, 0 – 6, is observing, absorbing and self-constructing continuously. This is their work in the first plane of development. The child simply absorbs all aspects of their environment without bias, discrimination or ability to filter. They absorb and take in how to be among others in a group through the amazing powers of the mind. The child learns This is how we do here. Therefore, it is essential that we, the adults in their lives, always model optimal grace-and-courtesies of the child’s culture. The child 100% absorbs these grace-and-courtesies. It is not necessary for them to possess the ability to consider abstract concepts. The child begins at birth to become a citizen. They are working to become human beings of the community. It is our responsibility to offer them the best example of being good citizens of the world.”

Exercises in grace and courtesy are part of the Montessori practical life curriculum. These are lessons to help children become aware of the other people in their surroundings. They learn how to greet someone with a handshake and eye contact, how to ask for a turn with a material that’s being used, what to say and do when they have accidentally (or otherwise) hurt a friend, and how to introduce themselves. These lessons give young children tools they need to interact respectfully with the people in their lives.

And since we want our children to not just exercise behaviors of grace and courtesy, but to learn how to live with these virtues in their lives, our Children’s House guides and assistants also consistently model kind, gracious, courteous and respectful behaviors. In fact, all of the adults at VdM strive to treat all of the children with respect and kindness. Mind you, this is not a difficult thing to do—these children are interesting, funny, thoughtful, serious, kind, loud, quiet… they are amazing children on their way to becoming amazing grown-ups. We have genuine affection and respect for each of them.

photo credit: Melinda Smith
photo credit: Melinda Smith

By simply being kind and respectful to each other and our children—by practicing grace and courtesy ourselves—we are modeling what it means to be kind and respectful people. For the youngest child, the absorbed, learned behaviors might just start as imitation; the child says “thank you” because she hears us say it. But over time, the behaviors become a practice, a way of relating to people in her world.

Then, as children get older and begin to ask why, they begin to link the behaviors of grace and courtesy to the abstract concepts. They begin to reason out the significance of showing respect to the people in their lives. They learn empathy and understanding. Grace and courtesy, gratitude and generosity, become things they can feel and experience, a part of their social and emotional development as they move toward adulthood. The solid groundwork of grace and courtesy they’ve received in the Children’s House strengthens this development, gives children a sort of muscle memory for kind and respectful behaviors, so they can concentrate on the hard work of internalizing the concepts.

photo credit: Shannon O’Connell

At Villa di Maria. we are fortunate to watch the evolution of grace and courtesy in our children as they move from the earliest years in the Children’s House toward Elementary, from the first to the second plane of development. As they grow, they instinctively begin to take on the role of modeling kindness and respect for their younger classmates. It is a virtuous cycle and a beautiful thing to see.