On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning, Theory and Practice

The Good Struggle

This morning, let’s talk about compassion (identifying our common struggles) and empathy (letting others know they’re not alone).

Raise your hand if you want your child to show compassion and empathy for others.  OK, that’s pretty much everyone in the audience.  Put your hands down.

Now, raise your hand if you want your child to suffer.  Anyone?  Anyone?  *crickets*

Most of us agree that it’s painful to watch our child get hurt (physically or emotionally). So painful, in fact, that it triggers the Mama or Papa Bear in us and we come out swinging against the person or situation that is causing our child pain.

But, what if I told you that suffering is at the root of compassion and empathy?  

Really. Uncomfortable. Thought.

I get it.  So, let’s leave our children’s suffering aside for a moment, because I have a story to tell you about my own journey towards compassion.  Before I became a mom, I thought that parents who, in my lofty opinion, didn’t have their act together deserved zero compassion.  ZERO.

I had a long list of parenting choices I would never make (screens, junk food, yelling at my kids) and I had an even longer list of behaviors my children would never exhibit (because they were going to be Montessori children).  I looked down my nose at those “hot mess” moms and their unruly kids who broke my rules for a perfect life.

And so, of course, the gods sent me two beautiful, loud, demanding, free-spirited children to take me down a notch or fifty.  Now, after seven years of being dragged through the parenting rodeo, I’m a proud card-carrying member of the Hot-Mess Moms club.

Do I still judge other moms?  Yes.  For about two seconds.  But then a voice inside me says, “Psst.  Girlfriend… Take a look in the mirror!”  That’s the voice of compassion. (I thought the voice of compassion would sound like Pema Chodron.  Yeah, no.)  When I hear that voice, my resistance to accepting my own imperfect humanity and that of others melts away.

Now here’s the thing: My lack of compassion for other parents stemmed not from being a bad person, but from not having lived through the struggles of parenthood.

So how does all this tie back to our children?  Well, if we want them to feel compassion, we need to let them connect with the struggles of others by letting them struggle a little bit themselves.

And if we want them to learn how to show empathy, we need to connect empathically with them post-struggle.  Let’s put aside our “I told you so’s” and “You’re OK’s”… When we suffer, all we want to hear and know is “You’re not alone.”

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3 - 6, 6 - 12, Favorite Books, On Parenting, Siblings, Sleep, Social and Emotional Learning

BOTW: Good-Night Yoga

good night yogaOn a recent date night at a local bookstore (exciting, I know), my husband came across Good-Night Yoga: A Pose-By-Pose Bedtime Story.  Neither of us practice yoga, but we’d been trying to find activities we can do as a family in the evenings that will engage both a three-year-old and a seven-year-old AND that will help us transition peacefully into the bedtime routine.

We’ve been reading and yoga-ing with this book a couple of evenings a week for the past month, and it’s become on of our favorite evening activities!  The kids love the illustrations and poses, and my husband and I love that it’s fun but not over-stimulating.  The kids have a great time watching their dad wobble through the balance poses, and I can see their body awareness improving with consistent practice.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly way to wind down after a busy day, then I encourage you to find a place on your bookshelf for Good-Night Yoga!

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Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning, Theory and Practice

The Puzzle-Child

Over the years of working in Montessori classrooms I’ve met many children who are eager to attend lessons, engage in follow-up work, and share their new knowledge.  And then there are the occasional “puzzles” (as my son’s Primary guide once referred to him).  How do you know if you live or work with a puzzle-child?

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Puzzle-children are those for whom learning comes easily but who see most teaching as a hindrance to their own learning agenda. On a good day, they grumpily humor your agenda for a short while and then stealthily slink away to pursue their own interests.  But most days, your invitation will send them into fight/flight/freeze mode: they either become argumentative (fight), run away from you (flight), or shut down (freeze), refusing to speak or make eye contact.

I used to think puzzle-children felt intimidated by the work or lacked the desire to learn.  But these children aren’t insecure or apathetic – quite the contrary!  I started taking the time to connect with puzzle-children to understand why they rejected lessons, and the phrase they said again and again was: “I already know that.”  Upon gentle prodding, it became clear that indeed, they did understand the concepts I was trying to present.

Puzzle children don’t care about your ego. In fact, in a battle of egos, theirs will always win.  They don’t care about sitting politely through your carefully planned presentation or showing you what they know.  They don’t care about your album sequence, the state standards, or your lesson plan.  They know what they want to learn, and they know they can use you as a resource to overcome any gaps in knowledge that pop up as they pursue their own explorations.

And that right there is the key to engaging successfully with a puzzle-child.  You have to be like a floor lamp: present but unobtrusive, and willing to shed light on whatever topic the puzzle-child approaches you about.  The puzzle-child will often be found with his nose in a book; tinkering with random objects; or using Montessori materials in ways that might seem sacrilegious at first but that, upon closer inspection, constitute legitimate intellectual explorations.

Conversations are essential for connecting with the puzzle-child.  But you have to watch your tone of voice: puzzle-children detect the moment you switch to a “teacher” voice, and in that instant you’ve lost them.  They also detect when you’re trying to quiz them.  You’re better off assuming they’re already experts. Use precise terminology when chatting with them; rest assured they’ll pepper you with questions if they don’t know what you’re talking about!

Puzzle-children love stories and experiments, and they are cosmic thinkers (meaning they’re able to effortlessly make connections among seemingly unrelated topics).  They’re autodidacts who focus on a topic until they have filled their cup. And then, just as quickly as the interest blossomed, it seems to disappear (but rest assured that the knowledge remains).

For puzzle-children and their adults, the most difficult times are those when the puzzle-child is between interests.  They’re often restless and irritable, flitting from one activity to another.  This is an important time for puzzle-children, and one should not jump in to fill the void with busy work or adult teaching agendas.  For it is precisely the space and boredom of their aimless roaming that will help them find their next “big thing”.

Puzzle-children don’t need to be taught how to learn.  If anything, they need to be protected from well-meaning adults who want to impose their teaching methods at the expense of the puzzle-child’s creativity and resourcefulness.  It’s a blow to the adult’s ego not to be needed, especially when your entire identity rests on being a transmitter of knowledge.

For teachers and parents of puzzle-children, it’s time to change that identity and protect these powerful and eccentric learners.  Help the puzzle-child learn how to communicate their needs and let them know you’re there as a resource.  Prepare their environment with quality books and essential Montessori materials. Provide open-ended tinkering, building, crafting and drafting materials.  Go outside together and explore nature through their eyes.  Listen, observe, document, trust, and wait.  Be flexible, creative, and honest, and above all, be genuine.  Follow the child.

“Our care of the children should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

 

Montessori Theory, On Parenting

What Montessori is Not

Montessori is not a curriculum – not a series of boxes to check off.  It’s a guide for understanding how humans grow. It’s a way of supporting how humans learn.  It’s a means for finding joy and purpose in life.

Montessori is not dogma – not a script to follow blindly.  It’s a conversation about priorities.  It’s a toolbox for navigating parenthood with grace.  It’s a dance with the imperfect realities of life.

Montessori is not just for the wealthy – not a ticket to career success.  It’s for the homeschooling family.  It’s for the public school family.  It’s for the refugee, the migrant, the orphan, the elderly.

Montessori is a way of seeing and being.  It’s a new understanding of the adult’s role and a window into the child’s soul.  It’s a path that leads to trust; a path that leads to peace; a path that leads to life.

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Montessori Theory, On Parenting

A Village: Its Value and Values

A Montessori learning community is a dynamic village, whose success – defined not in financial terms but by the growth and joy of the children – depends on the collaboration and shared values of all its members.  What role do you play?

The Montessori Guide

Each environment (classroom) is steered by a well-trained and experienced Montessori guide.  She needs to have a profound love for children and a vision of their immense potential;  keep herself immersed in Montessori theory and continuously educate herself on aspects of human development; and be receptive to respectful feedback. But no matter how passionate, qualified and dedicated the Montessori guide be, she cannot fulfill the mission alone.

Administration

Administrators are the torchbearers of the school’s Montessori values.  They serve as a sounding board for the guide’s ideas and challenges; help parents and guides understand each other; and uphold the practice of Montessori philosophy (to the exclusion of all others) through comprehensive parent education, effective professional development, and consistent observation/feedback in the classroom.

Parents (at home)

Parents who choose a Montessori education for their child need to understand the impact their home life has on the functioning of the classroom community.  When the values of the home align with the values of the chosen school, the child transitions smoothly between his two environments.  This continuity of values and expectations allows him to feel safe, accepted and successful.  Parents who offer clear limits and hold their children (and themselves) accountable; provide a loving home environment rife with opportunities for connection; and model a growth mindset have children who come to school ready to reap the benefits of a truly transformational education.

The Parent Community (at school)

A parent community provides the “village” that allows families to successfully navigate the pressures of modern society and stay true to their core values.  The village upholds the school’s values and uses them as a guide for how they treat the children, staff and each other.  They volunteer their time and talents towards the upkeep and improvement of the school.  Children see their parents’ commitment towards school and begin to understand its value.

Stronger Together

In a society that tries to outsource or outwit the most challenging aspects of child-rearing, it takes commitment and vision to be a member of this type of community.  Only when we each understand and embrace our role – and find the humility to admit that we need each other – will we begin to be of service to the children.  It truly does take a village.

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On Parenting, Practical Life, Social and Emotional Learning

Entitlement: Been There, Done That

Few things trigger me more than interacting with a child who has an entitled attitude.  rich-kidWhy?  Because I was one of them.  I grew up in a traditional Mexican upper-middle-class family, with a stay-at-home mom and two maids who did all the housework so we didn’t have to.  I never did my laundry, tidied my room, or set a table.  Those things just happened!

When I was 18, my mom went back to school and decided that I needed to learn how to run a home.  One night, my dad was coming home a bit later than usual, my mom had class, and the maids were gone, so I was tasked with re-heating my dad’s dinner.  With the burner on high, I stirred the tomato sauce and thought, How will I know when it’s ready?  It eventually burned and my dad had to eat charred tomato sauce on his pasta.  I remember the feelings of shame and incompetence that washed over me as I watched him pick through the blackened bits on his plate.

The irony is that I ended up in hotel management school in Switzerland, which is like Practical Life boot camp for rich kids.  Within weeks I went from not knowing how to boil water to cooking coq au vin; from not knowing how to make my bed to mastering hospital corners; from not knowing how to set a table to prepping a banquet room for 350 people.  My teachers were kind, but they also had high expectations and only a few short months to prepare us for demanding industry internships.

After 12-hour shifts scrubbing pots and pans, I would drag myself to my dorm, body aching but self-confidence bolstered by what I had accomplished.  During my three six-month internships, I sometimes cried in the bathroom after getting chewed out by the head chef, but then I’d wash my face, put on my apron, and continue plucking thousands of chicken feathers or slicing tray after tray of tomatoes.

The resilience, growth mindset and grit that define my adult personality were not developed in my posh private high school or in my comfortable childhood home.  They came from three bone-crushing and character-building years of meaningful work, high expectations, and caring guidance.

Meaningful work.  High expectations.  Caring guidance.  These are the three cornerstones for the development of true self-worth.  They’re also inherent in the work children do in Montessori environments (both in school and at home).  When we do things for our children that they can do for themselves, we rob them of the experiences that will help them forge strength of character, develop autonomy, and lead fearless lives.

PS: About a decade ago, my father lost his business in one of Mexico’s financial crises, and my mom had to go into the workforce to support them.  She works long hours and doesn’t have time to cook, so my father was forced to prepare the meals.  He’s now a passionate home chef who pours over elaborate recipes and has found self-worth through cooking amazing meals.  It’s never too late to transform your life through meaningful work.

On Parenting, Practical Life

Boundaries

On a brisk and sunny Sunday three weeks ago, prior to heading out to a Christmas concert, I made my family a healthy and tasty lunch.  Both of my kids (ages 6 and 3) scoffed at it and my husband had to beg them to take their (mostly full) plates to the kitchen.  I cleaned the kitchen by myself while my husband and the kids played, and then we headed out, leaving behind a living room covered in toys and puzzles that I didn’t have the energy to fight about.

On the way to the concert, both kids began to whine that they were hungry and wanted to go to a restaurant.  My husband told them that we’d go to one after the concert. We arrived early, so my husband and the kids played on the lawn while I sat in the sunlight, too exhausted from making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, folding the laundry, doing the groceries, putting them away, cleaning out the fridge, unloading the dishwasher, making lunch and cleaning the kitchen again (plus putting in a 50-hour workweek at school, commuting, and making daily breakfasts, lunches and dinners).

A mixture of anger and sadness welled up inside me.  Where had it all gone wrong?!  Here I was, Ms. Full Montessori, with all my degrees, certifications, research and experience… And my kids were acting like entitled little brats!  Furious thoughts whirled through my mind as we entered the chapel where the concert was being held.  I tried to breathe out the negative thoughts and enjoy the music, but then my son began whining because I wouldn’t buy him a cookie from the concession stand and my daughter started melting down (because, no lunch, remember?).  Something inside of me snapped, and the tears began streaming down my cheeks.

We left the concert at intermission (see: pre-schooler and mommy meltdowns) and quietly piled back into the car.  We drove home in silence, and as soon as we got there I grabbed notebook and pen and fled the scene.  I needed to think, to reassess our lives.

I sat at a coffee shop and furiously made a list of all the responsibilities I shouldered in our home.  It was two pages long.  Then I marked those tasks that could be done by either my husband or my children, and sorted them into lists under their names.  As I crossed out chores from my list, I felt a considerable weight lifting off my shoulders.  I wrote out a “Who Does What” plan for mornings, evenings and weekends.  Then I headed home.

That evening, I called a family meeting and explained that I was feeling overwhelmed by all the responsibilities I had chosen to undertake.  I apologized for failing to give them opportunities to contribute to the household, and pointed out how capable they had become in just a few short years.  I shared all of the tasks I knew they were capable of doing, and showed them the plan that outlined all the family contributions.

I also talked about lifestyle changes: no eating between meals; restaurant dinners were limited to Friday evenings or special occasions; and my husband and I would leave the kids with the babysitter and go on date nights every other Saturday.  At the bottom of the list I wrote: “No moaning/groaning/whining.”

My kids seemed excited by most of the changes.  My husband, not so much…

Stay tuned to find out how our lives have evolved in the past three weeks since I set these new boundaries and expectations, and what tools I’ve been using to shift us towards more gratitude and less entitlement!

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On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

You’re Not Alone

As children, we learned to deal with our big emotions by seeing how our parents handled theirs.  My mom chose the “nothing’s wrong so put on a happy face” route, while my dad preferred the “slam a door and punch a hole in the wall” approach.

After trying out both strategies, I gravitated towards my dad’s method.  Not surprisingly, I married a lovely man who followed the approach my mom had modeled.

During the first years of both my children’s lives, I fought a long and lonely battle with postpartum depression.  When life as a new parent became scary or imperfect (which was often), I protected myself by getting angry.

From infancy, my son saw me slam doors and throw things as I tried in vain to discharge the pain, confusion and loneliness I felt inside.  By the time he was 18 months old, he was throwing toys when he got angry.  Door-slamming soon followed.

For the first five years of my son’s life I refused to accept that I – with all my knowledge of child development – was responsible for how my child was reacting to his own pain.  Then one day it finally dawned on me that avoiding responsibility was making both of us slaves to the behavior.

I knew I had to start with my own life, so I took on the challenge of forgiving my parents and myself for my lack of effective emotional coping skills.  Then, I began to study the sources of perfectionism and shame that were causing my pain and driving my reactions.  I started meditating when I could, quit spending time on social media, learned how to set effective boundaries, read all I could about self-regulation and vulnerability, and began taking better care of myself.

As my toolkit grew, I knew I was now ready to help my son.  I didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity.  One night, my six-year-old boy got angry with his dad because it was bedtime and he wouldn’t read him another chapter of “James and the Giant Peach”.  I was downstairs cleaning the kitchen when I heard the bedroom door slam shut.

In the past, my son’s outbursts had angered me because they highlighted my imperfect parenting skills.  I had convinced myself that every thrown toy or slammed door was an indication of just how miserably I was failing as a parent.  However, armed with my new skills and perspective, I knew things could end differently.

I still felt triggered as I walked up the stairs, but I breathed out the anxiety and a question emerged in my mind: “How would I want someone to act towards me if I were feeling rejected and guilty?”  As Brené Brown says, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice.  In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” 

I found my son sulking on the floor outside his bedroom.  I sat down and gently said, “I heard a door slam.  What’s going on?”

He looked at me with the eyes of a wounded animal.  “Daddy won’t read me another chapter,” he moaned.

I took a breath, then gently recapped: “It’s time for bed and daddy stopped reading, so you got angry and slammed the door.”  He nodded and looked at the floor in shame, bracing for my lecture.  But instead I said, “You know, I’ve done that too.”

He looked up, wide-eyed.  I continued, “I’ve gotten angry, really REALLY angry.  I’ve slammed a lot of doors hoping it would help me feel better.  But then… I still feel angry.”  He nodded and I went on, “And on top of that I feel guilty for slamming the door.”

He didn’t move, but as I put my hand on his back and gently stroked him, I felt the anger leaving his body.  We sat together for a minute, and then I asked, “How do you think you might make things better?”  He shrugged, so I said, “Can I suggest something?”  He nodded.  “Well, maybe you can go back inside, apologize to daddy for slamming the door, and ask him to wake you up extra-early.  That way you have time to read another chapter together before school.  Do you think that can work?”

He thought about it for a bit, nodded and got up.  I hugged him and he bravely walked back into the room.  I heard him apologize and offer the early wake-up suggestion.  I prayed my husband wouldn’t go into lecture mode, and he thankfully responded by agreeing with my son’s idea.

I’ve since had several more opportunities with my son to witness the power of saying “Me too.”  Every time I use the phrase, I see connection overcoming shame. It reminds both of us that we’re all imperfect and it lets him know that he’s never, ever alone.

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On Parenting

Full Bloom

When you’re pregnant, it’s as if you’re handed a seed of unknown origin. You put it in the soil, water it, and give it light. The first seed leaves emerge, and you feel so proud! As the first set of true leaves unfurl, you begin to imagine the possibilities. You’re sure your plant will be a hydrangea, because those are your favorite plants and surely nobody would give you a seed of a plant you don’t like!

But then, much to your surprise, your hydrangea begins to look more and more like a tomato plant. Oh no, tomatoes were never part of your plan! You can choose to be frustrated by your tomato plant; move it into one pot and then another and another, feed it chemical fertilizers, stake it, place it among other hydrangeas in a partly shady area, and pinch off its flowers, all in hopes that it will somehow turn into a hydrangea.

Or, you can observe it. You can notice its delicate yellow flowers, the tiny hairs on its stems, its jagged leaves. You can marvel at the first tiny green tomatoes, and leave it undisturbed where it gets the best sunlight. You can feed it the best organic soil, learn what time of day it likes to be watered, and surround it with other companion plants that attract helpful insects. And you can rejoice when your little tomato plant puts forth luscious, juicy, red fruit. Just as it was meant to do all along.

We don’t get to choose the seed, but we do get to choose how we tend it. What does your seed need in order to blossom? Observe it. It knows.

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Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Practical Life, Social and Emotional Learning

A Deep Understanding

When I became a mom, I realized that it takes a parent to understand a parent.  I have been blessed to have a worldwide community of Montessori-trained friends who are navigating the same beautiful, yet often turbulent, waters of parenthood with me.

One of my wisest friends is Junnifa Uzodike, the founder of the Nduoma Montessori blog.  She contacted me through my blog some years ago, when she was beginning her Montessori journey, and we have shared countless conversations about motherhood and Montessori.

What sets Junnifa apart is her adherence to the Montessori philosophy against all odds.  Through two international moves, several summers of intense training, and three pregnancies she remains steadfast in her study and application of Montessori.  If she can do it, you can too!  That’s why I’m proud to share Junnifa’s newest e-course, Understanding and Supporting Your Toddler.

Junnifa has agreed to share some of her deep wisdom in this interview.  Enjoy!

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Please tell us about yourself and your family.

My name is Junnifa Uzodike. I live in Nigeria with my husband and we have 3 children: Solu, aged 3.5; Metu, aged 2;  and a baby who will be here in a few weeks. Our parenting has been guided by the Montessori philosophy and we have implemented as much as we can, from conception, with each of our children.

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Can you share your Montessori journey with us?

I discovered Montessori rather serendipitously. My mother, who is an educator and school owner, was visiting the U.S. and wanted to observe some schools in the area where I lived. One of the schools was a Montessori school and I happened to have accompanied her. Observing the children has such an immense impact on me. I was amazed at the beauty and order of the environment as well as the independence and the concentration of the children. It was literally life-changing for me. I went home and ordered all the Montessori books available in my local library. I also signed up for an “Introduction to Montessori” course which only increased my interest and admiration for the philosophy.

 My desire to learn more led me to quit my management job at Fortune 500 company and enroll in the AMI 0-3 training. My first son was born soon after and seeing the effect of our parenting choices on his development only made me want more. I have gone on to complete the AMI 3-6 training as well as the RIE (Resource for Infant Educarers) Foundations course. Since giving birth to my children, I have mostly stayed home with them. I have also consulted for schools, worked with parents, run parent- child classes and briefly led a toddler class. My training and experience so far have shown me the importance of the first three years in laying the foundation for the rest of the child’s life and so I get the most joy from supporting parents as they guide their children through these crucial years.
junni-cooking
What are the three most important pieces of advice that have helped you in your parenting journey?
Observe before you react.
I have found that when I pause before reacting to my children’s actions, it gives me a chance to see, to understand, to evaluate and most especially to compose myself. It allows me to respond respectfully with understanding instead of reacting and a lot of times, it allows me realize I don’t even have to respond or react.
Model instead of teaching.
I grew up with a lot of verbal admonishing and lecturing and I sometimes catch myself defaulting to that but my children have confirmed to me that children absorb what we model and not what we say. They do what they see me doing, talk how they see me talking, and respond the way I respond. When I notice negative behaviors, I can usually reflect to see who has been modeling that to them. We talk a lot about preparing the environment and I think the adult is a very important part of the environment so we must prepare ourselves so that we are modeling what we want the child to be.
“This too shall pass!”
Sometimes children go through stages that just make no sense and we try everything and it’s just not working. It is important to not overreact because our negative reaction might stay with the child consciously or unconsciously even longer that whatever stage he is going through. I have found that taking deep breaths and just chanting “this too shall pass” in my head helps me until it passes because it always does!
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Why did you decide to create the “Understanding and Supporting Your Toddler” e-course?
I created the course to share this gift that I have been given. The AMI Montessori training courses cost a lot financially and otherwise ( I had to move to two different countries and be separated from my husband). I realize that not everyone can take the courses and really, not everyone needs to. So I wanted to provide access to the information that is useful to parents.
I also created the course because I found that a lot of the information and resources that were available focused on the periphery of the philosophy and did not really go into the core or the essence. Parenting the Montessori way is not about Pinterest-worthy rooms or wooden toys. It’s about understanding the child’s true needs and supporting them as best we can. This can be done regardless of where you are and what you have. This is what I really want to communicate in the course. I think that a deep understanding of the child gives us new eyes and that allow us to see the child for who he truly is…
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Junnifa, thank you for taking the time to share your journey with us!  If you’re ready to embark on your own Montessori journey to help guide your child’s development, sign up now for Understanding and Supporting Your Toddler.  Just click the link and change your life, because the “terrible two’s” don’t have to be so terrible!
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