Little Rich Girl
A spirit of poverty brings treasures to family life
By Mary Rose Bacani Valenti
I was nature’s child.
I biked most afternoons as far as I could go, feeling the wind in my face, my heart pumping fast. I played in our backyard dirt, digging holes and making wonderlands for frogs. I ran through the rain freely, paper boats in hand to release in running rainwater.
I had a wonderful childhood in the Philippines. My parents couldn’t afford to give their five children at the time too many things, so I turned to the natural world to amuse myself. When I was 12, we moved to Canada, and my world changed. Commercialism, technology, the web – these were among the many factors that drastically changed the way children played and interacted with the world. And honestly, I felt sad for children. I was happy as a child in a way that I couldn’t see on their faces. Providentially, I met a man with a simple soul. We got married and promised ourselves to live as simply as we could to make our lives and our children’s lives rich.
When Chiara was born, we decided she would have only a few simple toys. Her favorite right now is a bag of hand-me-down finger puppets. One time, I watched her lay out more than a dozen of them on the floor. She called their names and asked them about their experiences at the zoo. Apparently they were responding because she would nod and make more comments. She then brought them to her dollhouse and prepared a meal for them. She played with her little friends for over an hour. Sometimes I can’t even get her out of the house. She’ll say, “I'm still playing with my friends.” And if we are out, she might say, “When are we going home? I want to be with my friends.”
Another time, she asked me to be the doctor to help a few of them who were sick. I asked, “Where is my stethoscope?” She looked around and said, “Here it is,” handing me a child-size kitchen ladle. “How about my needle for the injection?” “Here you go,” she said, handing me one of her long wooden blocks. “I need a bandage next,” I tell her. She said, “I'll do it, I'll do it.” And she pressed an imaginary bandages onto their arms.
In her writings, Dr. Maria Montessori speaks about the importance of the environment for a child. Discipline and order are key to helping a child develop a deep spiritual life. To contemplate God requires discipline, mental and physical. If a child has only a few toys of good quality, then she can practice order and show respect for the little she has. Not only that, a single thing can become different things in her imagination. Aside from simple materials, children must be given the uninterrupted time and space to play. By becoming immersed in what she is doing, Chiara learns to contemplate. In a way, her soul can fly to God unburdened because it is poor.
Sometimes I get nervous. Are Chiara's days too simple? Should I make sure she is busy with more activities? Instinctively, I resist. After reading The Child in the Family by Maria Montessori, I feel reassured. In it, Dr. Montessori makes a powerful statement: “The greatest discoveries that have fostered the progress of humanity have arisen not so much from the culture or knowledge of scientists as from their total power of concentration, their near-isolation from the world.” So in order to make a real contribution to our society, our children need to be allowed to play, uninterrupted and unhurried. We shouldn’t worry about filling them up with knowledge if it is at the expense of lots of time to play and develop their power of concentration. Many incredible scientific discoveries came out of hours, days, even years of deep thought and experimentation, not from stored knowledge. I realized it is more important to give my daughter time and space for concentration in a “work” of her choosing in order for her to have a more fulfilled life.
As a stay-at-home mom, I spend most of my time doing housekeeping and cooking. I used to question the value of my labor. Am I wasting time that can be spent elsewhere? But even here, I use my power of contemplation. When I wash my dishes by hand or sweep the floor, I slow down my movements and my days. I provide a daily rhythm in the home that’s important for me as a human being. Manual labor, involving my whole person, connects me to reality, fulfills me wholly because I’m using my body. And if I move slowly and rhythmically, almost prayerfully, my child absorbs this, too. She imitates not only what I do, but the spirit with which I do it.
When Chiara was born, I stopped “working.” I now have a work that demands my whole being. Aside from my love, the greatest thing I can offer is a spirit of poverty that enriches her life.
Mary Rose Bacani Valenti was a producer and host for Salt and Light Television, based in Toronto, Canada, from its founding in 2003 until 2011. She is expecting her second child with her husband, Richard, who is senior editor at Salt and Light.