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?

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