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.


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)

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.

The Truth About Elimination Communication

Warning: This post uses the word “poop”.  A lot.  It’s a post about toddlers and Montessori and early toileting awareness.  You’ve been warned.

There’s been some press lately about elimination communication (aka, early toileting awareness): the practice of identifying your baby’s signals for pooping and peeing and taking them to the potty to eliminate.  The moms that are interviewed for these pieces (or at least the way the articles and videos are edited) make it sound like it’s a walk in the park: Your baby makes a funny sound, you put them over the potty, and they pee or poo quickly and peacefully.  You soon develop a routine, and life becomes a crunchy diaper-free dream.

I don’t doubt that some babies take to eliminating on the potty with ease, just like I don’t doubt that some infants start sleeping through the night at 8 weeks old.  But for most of us, the path to our child’s toileting independence (just like the road to a full night’s sleep) is bumpy, winding, and often discouraging.

The only way you and your child will develop a successful relationship around toileting is if your expectations are in line with reality.  And the reality is that, in most cases, early toileting awareness requires A LOT of hard work, dedication, and patience.

The first time I put Zach on the potty, at 7 months old, he peed.  I was so excited, I took a picture of the potty and its contents and sent it to my husband.  (Oddly, he was not amused.)  I continued to “catch” a few pees here and there, but it took Three. Long. Months. before my son realized that poop also goes in the potty (which coincided with his ability to pull up to a standing position).

And just because he understood where poop went didn’t mean it always made it there.  He often waited until I helped him off the potty and then decided it was the perfect time to poop – on my hands, my pants, his pants, the floor, my shoes, his shoes, his blanket, a book… You name it, and chances are it has been covered in poop at some point.

And the whole “communication” thing?  Well, I was never able to identify a special cry, grumble or grunt, so I just set up a schedule around his naps and meals.  Zach started communicating his elimination needs at around 14 months old (using sign language), but most of the time he would let us know AFTER the fact.  As if the puddle around his feet wasn’t a clear enough sign.

We used a combination of cloth diapers when we were at home and disposables for going out, until he turned one.  At that point I sucked it up and replaced the cloth diapers with cotton training pants.  And at around 15 months we dropped the disposables completely (for daytime).

“You’ve saved so much in diapers,” my friends coo enviously.  Yeah, um, no.  What I’ve saved in diapers I’ve spent in pants (and detergent, and water, and electricity), because sometimes he’d go through seven pairs of pants in one day.  Changing wet underwear?  Not fun.  Changing poopy underwear?  MAJORLY not fun.

Then comes the challenge of getting your child to sit – and stay – on the potty.  The first few weeks were easy, but then the novelty wore off and Zach realized he could arch his back and refuse to sit.  We tried books, singing, and toys.  When he wanted to sit, he would stay on the potty for-freaking-ever.  And when he was feeling willful, there was no power on earth that would change his mind.  And then he’d pee and poop on me for good measure, before I had a chance to put his underwear back on!

Then there’s traveling with the potty.  And the dog who ate the poop from the potty.  And hours on your knees singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” next to the potty.  And ALL the people who think you’re nuts because your life revolves around a darn potty.

But then one day, before your child is even two years old, it hits you.  There’s rarely a wet pair of pants anymore.  And when you’re stuck in traffic and your toddler needs to poop and you tell him to hold it until you get home… He holds it.  And you see the quiet self-confidence that develops within your child when he is allowed to exercise his free will, experience consequences, and learn from them, all the while knowing that there’s a loving adult by his side, never judging, just waiting.

And you realize it’s ALL been worth it.  Every single stinky, poopy, knee-busting, back-breaking moment.

Will I do it again if I have another child?  In a heartbeat.

Am I looking forward to it?  Not so much.

And there you have it: The truth about early toileting awareness.  When it’s good, it’s very very good.  And when it’s bad… It’s still worth it.



Tips From the Toddler Whisperer

In the past few months, Zach’s picked up a few bad habits due to a lack of awareness and consistency on my part.  His amazing Montessori guide – a veritable toddler whisperer – gave me some suggestions to minimize our struggles and support Zachary’s development.  I thought I’d share them with you, in case you find yourself in the same boat…

1. Make it fun

As some of you already know, bedtime is the toughest part of the day for us.  Zach is tired and I’m beyond exhausted.  I want to get him ready for bed as efficiently as possible, and he wants to do everything BUT go to bed.  I work all day with elementary-aged students, who for the most part do what you ask and don’t run away with their underwear on their head (although you’d be surprised…).  So, I forget that Zach is not even two yet, and for him life is one giant party.  

His guide told me to make things fun – make the bedtime routine into a game.  My first thought was, “I don’t have the energy for that.”  But I also don’t have the energy to chase him around and get angry, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Of course, it worked!  We sang, played body part peek-a-boo, and before he knew it he was ready for bed and we were both in a better mood.  

This is not my style at all; I’m a very matter-of-fact, “git er done” kind of person, which is why I work with elementary children and not with toddlers.  But it’s also been a reminder that the adult has to meet the child where they are, in order to guide their development.

2. Encourage independence

A few months ago, Zach learned how to say “help” in English and Spanish, which quickly evolved into “help me”.  It is the cutest darn phrase coming from a tiny tot, and of course my husband and I melt every time we hear it and obligingly come to the rescue.  We were reacting as any caring parents would; he was learning that the more he used the phrase, the less he had to do on his own. 

During our parent-teacher conference, Zach’s guide pointed out that our son was quick to say “help me”, even for challenges he could easily overcome on his own.  I had the sinking realization that, despite all my training and experience, I wasn’t encouraging my child’s independence!  All the Montessori training in the world does you no good unless you take the time to observe yourself and the child, and analyze how your choices are impacting his behaviors.

I decided to approach Zach’s desire for help the same way I do in the classroom: stay busy!  When a Montessori guide has 25 or more students in one class, there’s no possible way she can help them all.  She’s always busy giving lessons, and the children see this, so they quickly learn to work through challenges creatively and independently.  Only truly insurmountable problems are brought to the guide, and even then, she only provides the minimum help necessary.

Zach had plenty of struggles yesterday, including peeling a mandarin, stacking a pile of Legos onto a wheeled Lego car, and putting together a puzzle.  I heard his plea for help and each time replied with an encouraging smile: “Try by yourself a little longer while I finish folding clothes/making dinner/doing the dishes.”   If help was truly needed, I acknowledged his request with genuine pleasure but gave the least assistance possible, retiring the moment my participation became obsolete.  Not surprisingly, he was perfectly capable of doing everything on his own or with minimal intervention.  My hope is that soon the words “help me” will be replaced with the words “I did it by myself!”

3. Stop the “evil” and re-direct

When Dr. Montessori coined her famous phrase, “Follow the child”, she meant we should follow the child’s DEVELOPMENT, not let the child do whatever he pleased.  Along with following the child, she also stressed that we should “stop the evil”, or put an end to any behavior that is not conducive to positive development.

Zach has started throwing things, mostly when he’s frustrated, tired, or can’t find the words to express what he wants.  The behavior began gradually, so it escaped my over-burdened radar until Zach’s guide brought it up.  She recommended asking Zach to look me in the eyes, telling him that his behavior is not acceptable, and re-directing him to a different activity.

I’ve put it into practice at home and it looks something like this: “I notice you’re feeling angry because the puzzle pieces won’t fit.  I won’t let you throw puzzle pieces.  I’m going to put this puzzle away.  Would you like to throw a ball outside or help me wash the dishes in the sink?” 

With my words, I’m telling Zach that I understand his feelings and their source.  I’m also establishing a limit and letting him know what happens if he oversteps it.  And I’m giving him two manageable alternatives: one that will satisfy his need to throw and the other that will provide a calming experience that requires focus and self-control.

I find it useful to have pre-established phrases or prompts so I always know what to say in the heat of the moment.  Here’s my version:

“I notice you are feeling _________________ because ________________.  I won’t let you ____________________.  I’m going to _______________.  Would you like to __________________ or ________________?”

 Here’s what I’ve learned this week:

  • The preparation of the adult is an on-going journey that requires you to stop, look, and listen – to yourself, your partner, and your child.  
  • It takes a village to support a parent and raise a child.  
  • Your child’s Montessori guide can provide a clear and objective window into your child’s development.  Don’t be too proud to listen and learn.  (And please don’t give her the old “Well, do YOU have children?” excuse.  You know she’s right.  Suck it up and do it.)
  • Mistakes only become failures if you don’t learn from them.
  • If you want your child’s behavior to change, modify your own first.

And finally, remember this:

“Parenting without a sense of humor is like being an accountant who sucks at math.”



Nothing To Fear… But Fear Itself

Almost invariably, if I tell a parent that my son has been in underpants since he turned one, they look horrified and ask: “But… What if he has an ACCIDENT???”

Uh, I change him and wipe the floor?

I get the same horrified look when I say that he’s been drinking from a real glass and using porcelain plates and glass bowls since he was six months old: “But… What if he BREAKS ONE???”

Uh, I sweep up the pieces and throw them away?

And don’t even get me started on using forks with sharp tines or potato peelers without “safety guards”…

We all want our children to grow up to be responsible, self-aware, and self-disciplined.  Yet, for fear of a little puddle, a tiny nick on the finger, or a couple of smashed $3 plates, we are denying them the very experiences that will help them get there.

What are we afraid of?  A Biblical flood of urine overtaking our homes?  The destruction of our heirloom Limoges glassware and porcelain china?  A severed artery or amputated limb?

Or are we just afraid of the inconvenience of wet underwear, broken plates, and finger scrapes?

In my view, you can either deal with the hassles of letting your child experience real consequences now… Or later.   If you avoid the messes now, they’ll just get bigger and harder to clean up the older your child gets.  And guess who’ll still be doing the clean-up?



All in Good Time

Dr. Montessori realized early on that young children were concrete thinkers.  This means that their brains have a hard time interpreting concepts that cannot be isolated and experienced through the five senses.  Color is one such concept.  Hues are almost always connected to an object: “red” apple, “blue” sky, “yellow” duck.  The very young child struggles to separate the name of the color from the object it belongs to, and this can bring about imprecise impressions that take time and effort to sort out.

tabletsTo support the child’s precise assimilation of these concepts, Dr. Montessori developed the Sensorial materials.  She isolated the concept – in our example, color – and made everything else about the material the same.  The Color Tablets vary only in color and can be sorted and classified, allowing the child to have a clear and tangible experience of an otherwise abstract concept.   We in Montessori refer to these tangible experiences of abstract concepts as “materialized abstractions”.

There are some abstract ideas, however, that can’t be completely “materialized”, and which only become accessible through daily life experiences once the brain reaches a certain level of maturity.  One of these is time.  In Elementary, we have a material that the children use to learn to read an analog clock.  We also provide children with experiences that allow them to “feel” and “see” the passage of time, but the concept can only be truly grasped when the brain is ready to do so.  timer

Cooking gives children many opportunities to experience the passage of time, and it’s one reason why it’s one of my favorite developmental tools.  During our recent Thanksgiving feast preparation, a six-year old and a seven-year old were making cornbread in a crock pot.  The recipe called for the bread to be cooked in the slow cooker for two hours.

The seven-year old took one of our two kitchen timers, the type that goes up to 60 minutes and is set by twisting a knob, and turned to me: “The recipe says ‘two hours’.  Our timer only goes to sixty minutes.  How do we time the bread?”

I said, “Hmmm, what could you do?”

The boy thought for a second and his face lit up.  “We can turn the timer to 60 minutes and when it rings, we can turn it to 60 minutes again!”

The six-year old, who had been listening quietly to the exchange, suddenly got very agitated.  He took the other kitchen timer, ran over to us, and cried out with excitement: “No, I have a better idea!  Let’s set BOTH timers!  One hour and one hour makes TWO hours!!!”