Montessori Children Don’t Throw

When my son was around 14 months old, he started throwing things: toys, silverware, food, you name it (although he wisely never threw a glass!).  My first instinct should’ve been to stop and observe him to find out why he was throwing.  But instead, my ego got the best of me and I began thinking: “You shouldn’t be throwing; you’re a Montessori child!”  As if a floor bed, cloth diapers, and a weaning table were a vaccine against normal infant developmental phases.

It took many throws before I stopped wallowing in the disappointment of having raised an imperfect child despite all my education, and then I finally started to pay attention – because of my education (ah, the irony).  I discovered that Zachary would throw when he was frustrated with a challenge but didn’t know how to ask for help; when he was tired but didn’t know how to tell me; and when he was done but didn’t know what to do about it.  After much observation, it became clear that throwing was a way of communicating.

With this newfound awareness, I got to work.  If he threw something, I immediately pointed out the reason I perceived was behind his action.  “You don’t want any more food, you’re all done.  You can say ‘all done‘.”  Or, “That train isn’t staying on the track!  You seem frustrated.  You can say ‘help‘.”  Or, “You seem to be feeling tired.  You can come sit on my lap for a bit.”  And always, I would add, “Let’s not throw the train/fork/grape.  I’m going to put it away now.”

Later, as I got better at predicting when he’d throw, I’d sometimes be able to catch him before he pitched an object across the room.  In these cases, I would hold his hand and start with, “I’m not going to let you throw the grape/train/fork.  You seem to be full/frustrated/tired… You can say ‘all done’/ask for help/sit on my lap.”

It sounds so straightforward and easy.  It was anything but.  His behavior tested my ego (because he was throwing at school, too!!!); it tested my patience; it tested my reflexes; but mostly it tested my ability to respond consistently and without negativity, no matter what.  Yelling or punishing him would have been so easy, such a cathartic and instinctual way to react.  It was a lot harder to stay cool and stop what I was doing to help him develop a new skill.

It took more than a year for Zachary to stop constantly throwing things.  When did he stop?  When his language flourished, right around 2 1/2.  He still throws occasionally, when he’s very tired.  But then he looks up as if to say, “Oh crap.  I shouldn’t have done that.  But I really need help and don’t know how to deal with this feeling.”

About a year into our throwing experience, I overheard someone telling another parent, “You know, a lot of children throw.”  At that moment, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.  It wasn’t anything I had done or had failed to do.  Children throw.  Following a Montessori parenting approach isn’t an insurance policy against “negative” childhood behaviors; it is a window into the child’s psyche that allows us to better understand and respond to these behaviors as part of normal human development.

Montessori: It’s happening

All right, fellow mom, put down that glue gun. Step away from that laminator. I have some news for you:

Montessori happens.

You can spend all your time making adorable “Montessori-inspired” activities that you found on Pinterest. But do you know what’s going to give your child the concentration, self-discipline, and self-esteem that you ardently desire for them?

Here’s a hint: it’s not pom-poms.

It’s the focus your two-year old excerts during those ten minutes he takes to buckle his own shoes. It’s the pride your three-year old feels when you invite her to set the table with real china and glassware. It’s the respect your baby intuits when you show him that he doesn’t have to sit in his own bodily waste but can instead eliminate on the potty.

Montessori happens when you read together; when you go for a walk outdoors at your child’s pace and stop to look at snails; when you spend the morning with your baby on a blanket under a tree.

Montessori means letting your child experiment with different ways of filling a bird feeder; it means breathing through spills and breakages; it means dinner napkins that might not be folded the way you envisioned.

You can create all sorts of cute Montessori-inspired activities, but don’t forget that Montessori is what happens while you’re busy cutting felt.

Teach By Teaching

My friend Alice has a 4-year old son, and she often wonders how to encourage her child to do at home what he quite willingly does at Montessori school.

She asked him to set the table for brunch, and with some nagging encouragement, he agreed. However, as she pointed out to me, he folded the napkins a little differently than she would’ve, with an extra fold that made them into thick squares instead of flat rectangles.

Alice was very prudent and didn’t correct him, but she asked me a very important question: “How do I let him know that that’s not how I want the napkins folded? Should I point it out after the fact, or should I wait until the next time he sets the table and show him what I expect?”

Alice had zeroed in on one of the most important elements of Montessori: teach by teaching, not by correcting.

If she had chosen to point out to her son that the napkins were not to her liking, he’d probably never help to set the table again. Little children’s egos are very delicate, and our opinion matters the world to them. However, they are also very eager to learn. By sharing her expectations in the form of a “presentation” the next time the little boy agrees to help set the table, she’ll be setting him up for success without a struggle.

These are the words you can use: “This is how we fold our cloth napkins.” Then, without speaking, and with slow, calculated movements, you can fold a napkin the way you like it. Finally, you can invite the child to take over.

And here’s where it gets tricky. Because chances are, he won’t do it like you showed him. Not because he wants to tick you off, but because he has his own way of doing things and maybe wants to experiment. You need to decide: Do I let him fold napkins the way he wants, and thank him for his contribution? Or do I present again the next time he sets the table?

Because, at the end of the day, what’s more important: how the table looks or how your child feels?

Slowing Down at 500 MPH

My father-in-law has a rule: “No flying with children under 5″. He was a pilot, so he should know. But, he doesn’t like to fly now, so the only way for Zachary to spend time with his grandparents is for us to make the three-hour flight to Washington every summer.

If you’ve never flown alone with a toddler, just imagine trying to keep a child with the energy of a labrador puppy confined to a 2ft. by 2ft. seat for three hours. Now, pretend that this “puppy” can chuck crayons 12 feet in front of him. And he can demand to go “caca” repeatedly at the top of his lungs during a particularly bumpy spell of turbulence. Put all that together, and suddenly my father-in-law’s rule doesn’t seem so draconian.

But despite his advice, there we were, squeezed in like sardines in a can, hurtling through the air at 500mph. I had prepared several activities to keep Zachary engaged: stickers, crayons, books, snacks. I doled each item out like sips of water in a desert, trying to make the entertainment last for the duration of the flight.

When you’re stuck on an airplane for several hours, you’ll do anything to keep your child occupied. Watching Zach engage with the items I provided, I quickly realized that if I didn’t interfere at all, Zachary would stick with each activity a lot longer than if I set a goal (such as, “Let’s draw a dog!”)

He seemed to have his own goals, and some of them seemed more developmental than practical. He would take his time opening the box of crayons, remove them one by one, say what color they were, and then put them all back facing the same direction. He’d spend several minutes opening and closing the food containers, peeling his boiled eggs, or trying to open his granola bar. He didn’t get frustrated once, and he eventually managed to do everything he set out to do.

He didn’t need tons of activities, and he didn’t need me directing his work or giving him ideas on what to do. He just needed me to butt out, so that he could move at the natural pace toddlers adopt when they’re focused on their work and nobody’s pressuring them.

It struck me that, in our fast-paced world, even the most well-intentioned parents do things for their children that the little ones can – and should – do for themselves. Look, I know the feeling of frustration when everyone’s late for school or work and your toddler is trying to put on his socks by himself. There are times when we just need to provide some help to speed up the process and just Get. On. With. It.

But what if, once a week, we instituted an “airplane day”? Heck, even an “airplane hour”. A time where you and your toddler don’t have to be anywhere or do anything. A time when she can take 20 minutes to put on her underwear by herself; where she can pull the dishwasher rack in and out for as long as she wants; where she can browse through your sewing basket and study all of the interesting buttons and threads you keep there.

And what can you do during this time? Slow down. Observe without hovering. Notice what you may have missed before: that your little one is an extremely capable and self-reliant human being who has her own interests and moves at her own pace.

“Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.”
- Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family

My Work

As the daughter of a Buddhist and a healer, I grew up surrounded by messages of “being in the Now”.  But then, somehow, I became entangled in the slimy tentacles of modern life, which seemed determined to drag me away from the present moment.

There was always something I should be doing but wasn’t, because I was busy doing something else that was just as “important”.  If I was loading the dishwasher I was fretting about the next day’s lunches.  If I was working with my students I was thinking about who would take care of Zachary during staff meeting.  If I was grocery shopping I was stressing about the mess I had to deal with at home, the husband who didn’t help enough, or the time I couldn’t take for myself.

This treadmill was so much a part of my life that I didn’t even notice I was on it, running at full speed.  I spent 27 months of my life – and my son and husband’s lives – this way, growing more tired and irritated each day.  Spring Break came, and while I was grateful to spend more time with my son, it was hard to step off the hamster wheel.

Four days into our break, I took Zachary to a children’s store to get some summer clothes.  While I shopped, he settled himself at a low table and quietly played with the wooden toys the store provided.  After I paid, I walked over to where he was sitting and did my best imitation of a peaceful Montessori mom observing her focused toddler.

This charade lasted about a minute, because the reality was that my brain was on hamster-wheel mode, already thinking about getting back home.  To do what, you ask?  NOTHING.  I had nothing planned except putting my son down to nap.  But the tentacles were pulling, and I could feel the treadmill speeding up – time to go, go, GO!

I tried to distract Zach away from his toy, but he declared: “My work.”

“Yes, I see you are playing with that toy, and it’s time to go home,” I said, in my best “I acknowledge your desire, but my needs (obviously neurotic) trump yours (clearly developmental)” tone.

“My work,” he protested again.

“Do you want to walk or would you like me to carry you?” I challenged, consumed with my goal of staying on the treadmill.

“My work!” he cried.  So I picked him up and left the store, oblivious to his protests.

I got him into his carseat, telling myself that his whining and grumbling were due to his need for a nap.  I closed his car door, opened mine, and sat down.  Then, I heard a tiny, defeated voice from the back seat.

“My work…”

With those two words, he hit the emergency stop button on my treadmill and I flew off, slamming into a wall of consciousness.  This child, this tiny person who had only been walking the Earth for two years, was fighting for his right to live in the Now and was teaching me a PROFOUND lesson.  Was I humble enough to accept it?

My throat tightened and I fought back tears, but they came.  Two little words released me from two years of anxiety and self-loathing – of feeling like I wasn’t a good enough mother, wife, teacher, daughter and friend.

I looked back at him and said my own two words: “I’m sorry.”

Then I looked in the mirror and apologized to myself.  And that night I apologized to my husband.

The Buddha said: “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

I used to think my work was being the most capable mom, the most supportive wife, and the most dedicated Montessorian.

Now I understand that my work is to live in the present moment.  Because what else is there but Now?

 

The One Thing I’ll NEVER Do as a Parent

When I was pregnant, people who knew I was a Montessori guide would say: “Wow, you’re going to be such an amazing mom!” My standard, humble reply was: “I’ll be a mom, like any other mom.”

But deep down inside, I had my list of things I was sure I would NEVER do, buy or use as a parent. That list was long and it was judgemental.

My mom and her best friend took me shopping for baby items. “You’ll need bottles,” they said. Of course not, I’ll breastfeed on demand.

Sippy cups? Waste of money, my child will go from breast to glass.

Pacifiers? My child is not a sink that needs plugging. How would YOU like a piece of plastic inserted in your mouth?

Stroller? I’ll babywear, thank you very much. And I’ll make my own wraps while I’m at it.

Co-sleeping? Goes against the child’s need for independence and will interfere with my marriage!

Puffs? Who would feed their child little bits of cardboard?

Disposable diapers? Only cloth for my child!

You get the picture. And, if you are a parent, you can probably tell what happened next. (You can stop laughing now.)

Zach came into our lives, and my “Never” list went out the window.

No disposable diapers? I was on bedrest for two weeks after giving birth, so they were out of the question until I was able to do laundry. And traveling with cloth? You’ve GOT to be kidding me.

No pacifier? After eight weeks of the “nurse baby until he falls asleep, then unlatch and watch in dismay as baby wakes up, rinse and repeat” routine, I bought five different brands of pacifiers. Zach took a pacifier for three merciful nights, and then started sucking his index and middle finger. Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

No stroller? Sure, I made my own slings and wraps, got an Ergo, and wore my baby religiously (front, side, and back carry) – until he got so freaking heavy that my back started giving out. Now I love our BOB almost as much as I love coffee. And that’s a lot.

No bottles? Zach demanded breast milk ferociously every 90 minutes, day and night, for the first three months of life. I still remember the first day I pumped and was able to leave my baby with my husband for more than an hour while I went to get a haircut. The clouds parted, the angels sang, and I bought stock in Tommee Tippee.

No sippy cups? Because taking IKEA glasses to the park makes perfect sense, right?

No puffs? Take a hungry 99 percentile toddler with no capacity for delayed gratification to a restaurant and you’ll be throwing puffs at him faster than you can say “we’ll take our food to-go”.

No co-sleeping? While Zach has been sleeping in his own room since he was about 6 weeks old, there are plenty of nights (especially when he’s teething or sick) where he’ll come into our room at 2:00am. Thank goodness for king-sized beds, is all I can say.

So, after two years of parenthood, is there anything I will absolutely NEVER do? Yes.

I will absolutely NEVER say never again.

10 Quick Tips for Baking with Your Toddler

Note: You’ll find our fabulous, healthy, and toddler-approved recipe at the end of this post! Try it out and let us know if you like it!

I love to cook, and I’d love to include Zach every time I’m in the kitchen.  But as a working mom, I rarely get more than 15 minutes to cobble together a semi-healthy meal during the week.  Instead of pressuring myself to involve my toddler in weeknight dinner preparation, Zach and I bake muffins on the weekends, and we’ve been making the same recipe for the past couple of months.

IMG_0239

I didn’t have in mind the Montessori principle of repetition when I decided to repeat the same recipe over and over.  It was simply a tasty and healthy recipe that worked well, and I didn’t have time to research new ones.  However, it soon dawned on me that revisiting the same recipe was EXACTLY the right thing to do.  Through repetition, both Zach and I have honed our skills and get more enjoyment from the activity.  Since I know the recipe, I can be well-organized, which allows me to observe Zach more closely.  I can notice what skills he needs to work on and which new responsibilities I can delegate to him.  Zach, meanwhile, becomes more confident in his abilities and his self-esteem increases with each achievement.

Here are a ten things I’ve learned from baking with my two-year old:

1. PREPARE: I try to pull out all the ingredients and equipment before I start, and leave them out of arm’s reach of my toddler. Children have a natural impulse to explore with their hands, and you really don’t want your child to test the law of gravity on a carton of eggs or a bag of flour while you’re searching for the muffin tin.

2. KNOW YOUR RECIPE: If there are any time-consuming preparation steps that don’t involve your toddler (such as defrosting), do them ahead of time.

3. BUSY HANDS: If you need to divert your attention from the cooking process (to put things away, wash an item, etc.), give your toddler something to do with his hands. I like the recipe that I use because it involves a lot of stirring, which Zach happily does while I put items back or grab a cleaning rag.

IMG_02414. MODEL AND TRUST: Our recipe involves cracking two eggs. I crack the first one slowly into a small bowl, pausing after each step, while Zach watches. Then I ask him if he wants to do the second egg. The first couple of times, he said, “Mommy do it”. The last two times we’ve made muffins he’s cracked the egg on his own, exclaiming “Zachy did it!”.

5. TALK, TALK, TALK: Baking is the ideal time to increase your toddler’s vocabulary. I give Zach the names of the equipment and ingredients, and isolate the name of each action as I am doing it (e.g. “CRACK the egg”, “stir”, “grate”, etc.). However, if Zach is engrossed in an activity, I hold my tongue until he’s done so I don’t break his concentration! I can always point out what he did afterwards: “You cracked the egg by yourself!”

6. TAKE TURNS: If there’s something that your toddler is not quite able to do yet (like for Zach, grating carrots effectively) take turns. Show him how to do it, then tell him it’s his turn. Give him a chance to try and then say, “When you are finished, it’s my turn again”. If he’s struggling or doesn’t feel capable, you’re giving him a pressure-free way of passing the baton back to you without having to say “I can’t do it”. And when he wants to take charge, you’ll know because he’ll exclaim: “My turn!”

7. INSPIRE, THEN RETIRE: When your child is ready to take charge, let him. I used to spoon the batter into the muffin cups and have Zach use the spatula to help scrape the batter from the spoon to the cups. Eventually, he decided he wanted to take charge: now he scoops the batter with the spoon, and I’m his helper with the spatula!photo (10)

8. CLEAN UP: As soon as those muffins make it into the oven, I give Zach a wet rag and ask him to wipe down the counter. Then he gets down from his Learning Tower and I give him the bag of flour, the carrots, and the carton of eggs to take to the fridge (one at a time). Then I tell him to take the measuring spoons and the platic mixing bowl to the sink. I also tell him to throw the egg shells and carrot tops into the trash. Finally, he uses the dustpan and brush to clean up any flour that fell on the floor. I don’t ask if he wants to help clean up; I tell him with a smile: “It’s time to clean up now.” I also don’t ask, “Can you wipe the counter?”. I show my confidence in him by stating, “You can wipe the counter.”

9. SHARE HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS: When my husband comes home, Zachary serves us all muffins and we tell daddy everything we did to make them. I point out to my husband the steps in which Zach was involved, and make note of any new achivements (i.e. “Today Zach cracked an egg by himself!”). This, more than praise, helps a child understand that his contribution to the family is appreciated and sets the foundations for meta-cognition (self-evaluation of one’s own learning process).

And above all…

photo (11)10. CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE: You might think that baking with your toddler is a cute and endearing activity, but for your child it is serious business. He’s mastered a wide range of skills in his first two years of life, and now he’s being driven to understand: “What is my place in this family? How do I fit in? How do I contribute?” Practical life for your toddler is not about looking cute in an apron; it’s about self-reliance and contributing to the well-being of his social group (in a toddler’s case, his immediate family).  Make sure your approach reflects the importance of the activity!

Be patient, maintain a healthy perspective, and HAPPY COOKING!

Whole Wheat Carrot-Pineapple Muffins

(makes 12 small or 7-8 large muffins)

Ingredients:
1.5 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cinnammon

2 eggs
2/3 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup vegetable or coconut oil (melted)
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup grated carrot (about 1 large or 2-3 small carrots)
1 cup crushed pineapple (drained)

OVEN TEMP: Pre-heat to 350F

1. Work with your toddler to scoop each of the dry ingredients into a small mixing bowl (flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnammon)
2. Let your toddler stir the dry ingredients to his heart’s content, showing him how to hold the bowl with one hand and stir with the other.
3. Show your toddler how to crack an egg into a small bowl. Ask him if he’d like to have a turn. Remove any shells that fall into the bowl.
4. Let your toddler transfer the eggs into a larger mixing bowl. Work with him to add the following ingredients: brown sugar, oil, and vanilla extract.
5. Let your toddler stir the wet ingredients to his heart’s content (one hand on the bowl!)
6. Show your toddler how to grate carrots and ask if he wants a turn. Try not to be paranoid about him grating his fingers off. If he’s not into grating, take a turn and finish the job.
7. Drain the pineapple and measure it.
8. Take a turn stirring the dry and wet ingredients in their respective bowls, to ensure they are well mixed.
9. Have your toddler transfer the dry ingredients into the bowl with the wet ingredients.
10. CAUTION: This batter should NOT be over-mixed, or your muffins will be too dense! Let your toddler stir three or four times and then you should “take a turn”. Gently fold the ingredients until JUST mixed (some dry flour should still be visible) and then ask your toddler to add in the carrots and pineapple.
11. Finish folding in the carrots and pineapple gently. Did I mention not to over-mix?
12. Have your toddler put the muffin cups into the muffin baking tray.
13. Show your toddler how to spoon batter into the cups, using a spatula to scrape off the sticky mixture from the spoon. Your batter should stick to the spoon pretty well, making it easy for a toddler to transfer it to the cups without dribbling it everywhere. The cups should be no more than 3/4 full.
14. Put the muffins into the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until you insert a toothpick and it comes out clean. When the muffins are ready, take them out and let them cool IN THE BAKING TIN for 10-15 minutes.
15. Clean up with as much enthusiasm as you cooked.