Making Memories

Salt dough ornaments are an easy and fun way to get your toddler involved in holiday festivities.  They make great keepsakes, as well as touching gifts that any grandparent is sure to cherish.  And best of all, with a little planning and patience, your toddler can do most of the work, which allows him to experience concentration, delayed gratification, and a feeling of accomplishment!

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The most important thing to remember when crafting with toddlers is that the process is more important than the outcome.  Breathe through the messes, laugh when things don’t go according to plan, and if you feel like you have to take control, ask for a turn.

The recipe we used is very simple:FullSizeRender 2

1 cup flour

1/2 cup table salt

1/2 cup water

Note: We did this activity in four parts over four days – 1) making the ornaments; 2) painting; 3) decorating; 4) inserting the ribbon

Before you start, pre-heat oven to 250F.

1. Prepare all your ingredients so your child doesn’t spill the bag of flour on the floor while you’re getting the water.

2. Help your child measure out the flour and salt into a bowl.

FullSizeRender 33. Let your child stir to his heart’s delight.

4. Let your child pour the water into the flour/salt mixture and stir.

5. Sprinkle some flour on your working surface and transfer the dough.  If it’s very sticky, sprinkle a tablespoon of flour at a time and work it into the dough until you can roll it out without it sticking.

6. Help your child make a ball and show him how to press it down with his hands.  Show him how to roll out the dough with the rolling pin until it is about 1/2″ thick.

7. Use cookie cutters to cut out the shapes and help your child transfer them to a cookie sheet with a spatula or your hands. (This is hard, you’ll probably have to help a lot if you want any of the ornaments to look like anything more than blobs of dough.)FullSizeRender 4

8. Use one end of a straw to poke one hole in each ornament (to string ribbon through).  Or, if you’re my son, poke two holes and call them “eyes”.

9. Bake at 250F for 2-3 hours, then allow to cool for at least a couple of hours or overnight.

10. Put a small amount of acrylic paint (found at any craft store) in a dish and show your child how to paint the front side of each ornament.  I used a piece of sponge because it doesn’t pick up too much paint, but you can also use a small paint brush.  Allow to dry for a few hours or overnight.

FullSizeRender 511. Put glossy Mod Podge on one dish and glitter on another dish.  Show your child how to apply the Mod Podge to an ornament with a brush, followed by a sprinkling of glitter with his fingers.  Allow to dry a few hours.

12. Apply a coat of Mod Podge to the glitter side of the ornaments to seal the glitter in.  Allow to dry.  Write your child’s name and the year on the back of each ornament with a Sharpie, then apply a coat of Mod Podge to the back of each ornament.  Allow to dry.

13. Cut a piece of ribbon about 6″ long and show your child how to insert it in the hole (very thin wired ribbon works best).  Optionally, you can string a small jingle bell for a festive look (and to hide the hole).  Make a knot or bow.

Celebrate because you now have lovely ornaments and beautiful memories!  Happy crafting!

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.