On Parenting, Theory and Practice

Rediscovering Motherhood

An American friend and colleague who lives in Asia recently shared with me that her in-laws had moved out of her house.  They had been very involved in raising her children, so I asked if she missed having the help.  She texted back, “No.  I’m forced to be the mom and it’s what my kids want and what family is supposed to be.”

As I sat staring at her words on my screen, the last seven years of my life – my entire parenthood journey – flashed before my eyes.  I remembered how both times I had a baby I told myself that I’d stay home with them until they were three.  And how, by the time they were each 15 months old, I was desperate to find a job – any job – that would transport me away from the solitude, burden, and relentlessness of motherhood.

Though I enjoyed my teaching job, it was also a band-aid that covered up the rawness of parenting and kept its suffocating weight at bay for ten hours a day.  Yes, as a teacher I was still working with children.  But, they were other people’s children, not my own.  The responsibility for my students’ outcome didn’t rest solely on my shoulders.

Ironically, my hyper-focus on work ended up dragging me, kicking and screaming, back to stay-at-home motherhood.  The burden of a more-than-full-time job dictated the rhythm of my children’s days.  My night-owl son struggled mightily with 6am wake-ups, and spent the day being angry and uncooperative. My daughter cried daily at drop-off for two years, was constantly sick, and threw massive tantrums.  I fretted and lost sleep over other people’s children, all the while downplaying the struggles of my own.

Like an illness that forces you to slow down and reassess your life, their cries for help finally broke through to my mothering instinct – that part of me that for several years had lain curled up in a ball, shaking its head and refusing to fully engage.  Mercifully, conditions at work conspired to push me in a new direction, and finally one day I packed up my belongings, picked up my children, and drove away.

Homeschooling became my new project, and I threw all my energy into re-creating a mini-classroom at home.  But my children were only vaguely interested in the materials.  They played outdoors, built intricate LEGO creations, read lots of books, and reveled in their new freedom.  And while I fretted over incomplete lesson plans, a voice from my heart told me: “Leave them alone. They’re doing the work of childhood.  You go work on yourself.”

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Crap.  I’d been avoiding working on myself for years.  “Teacher” was a label that had allowed me to work on others.  But I was no longer a teacher; I was “just a mom”.  Being a mom meant I had to become reacquainted with the vulnerabilities of motherhood.   I had to examine my own shortcomings and anxieties, lest I inadvertently pass them on to my children.  I also had to identify and dissect my triggers, and remain present through the chaos.  I had to move past society’s cognitively dissonant perceptions of motherhood, and craft a definition that rang true to me.

Being vulnerable is exhausting.  It’s also some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.  Someone on my Facebook page wrote: “Homeschooling is a gift you will never regret giving to your children.”  And I’m starting to realize that, in addition to homeschooling being a gift to my children, rediscovering motherhood through homeschooling has been a gift to myself.  It’s a gift I never even knew I wanted, and one that I now can’t imagine living without.

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If you know someone who would enjoy reading this essay, please share it with them!

 

 

6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Theory and Practice

The Un-Checklist

If you’re a teacher or homeschooling parent who uses checklists to encourage a child’s organization and accountability, then you already know just how quickly checklists can turn into a battle of wills between adult and child.  You also probably sense that checklists hinder freedom of choice.  And you’ve surely noticed that checklists shift the focus of the child’s work away from self-development and flow, and towards task completion and industrial efficiency.

While checklists can work beautifully for a pilot safety-checking an airplane or a hospital staff preparing for a surgery, they wreak havoc on a child’s innate ability to follow his interests in the quest for true mastery and understanding.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting children to develop organization skills and hold themselves accountable.  So, how can we reach these well-intentioned goals without the drawbacks associated with checklists?

In our house, my son and I had a conversation about the reasons for practicing each of the disciplines that are currently a part of his homeschooling journey.  I made a large watercolor circle for each subject and wrote our combined thoughts.

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Then, on one sheet of paper, I started a mind map with the six subjects he’s currently exploring written in the same colors as the individual watercolor circles.  We re-read the reasons for exploring each subject area, and I asked him to think of some interesting topics he might want to learn about.  I connected those interests to the relevant subject areas.  We talked about some topics that I wanted to share with him and I wrote those down as well.

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This became our learning map, and we turn to it daily throughout the month.  Some days I choose what to present and other days he takes the lead.  We add topics to the month’s map as he discovers new interests, and I direct his attention towards the areas of the map that we haven’t visited yet.  Next month, I’ll start a new map and together we’ll discuss what he’s explored to his satisfaction and what he’d like to transfer over, in addition to the new topics we’ll be adding.

I love seeing him stand in front of the learning map, taking in the depth and breadth of explorations and learning opportunities he’s had in just one month.  This map doesn’t begin to capture the richness of his homeschooling experience, with daily adventures in nature, countless opportunities for social interaction, and freedom to play and daydream.  But I think it sends a message that’s developmentally appropriate for his age: Learning is a journey across a vast and varied landscape.  You may spend more time exploring some lands than others, but every stop along the way will enrich you and change you forever.

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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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

 

6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Favorite Books, Montessori Materials, Montessori Theory, Science, Theory and Practice

Moon-tessori (haha, couldn’t resist)

“You’re great at this homeschooling thing because you’re a teacher… I don’t think I could do it because I don’t know much about anything.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this phrase since we started homeschooling two months ago, coming from the most capable and well-prepared mothers in my circle of friends.  So here’s a little secret… I don’t know everything.  Heck, I don’t know most things!  But I don’t let that hold me back from learning and sharing with my children.  Here’s an example of how I facilitate learning, and how you can, too!

The moon is a topic that seems to keep coming up in the Full Montessori household.  Over the past few months we’ve read several fiction and non-fiction books about the moon (links at the bottom of this post) and we play games trying to find different shapes (a rabbit, and old man) on its surface.  Seven-year-old Zachary had been asking why the moon changes through the month, so I knew it was prime time for a moon lesson.

Truth be told, even after 12 years as a Montessori guide, I could never quite grasp HOW the moon moved in relationship with the Earth, why the lighted part changed throughout the month, or how to tell when the lighted part was growing or shrinking.  But the beauty of being a guide is that you don’t have to know everything, you just have to “learn ahead of your children” (I love that Charlotte Mason phrase).

So, I found these two extremely helpful videos and FINALLY understood how it all works (thank you, Google)!

Then I dragged my kids to the craft store to buy a foam sphere (without telling them what it would be for); printed, cut, and laminated these free Moon Phases cards; and practiced the Moon/Earth/Sun demonstration when my kids weren’t around.  Yes, sometimes it takes That. Much. Work.

But, you know what?  It was so worth it!  I invited my son to sit down and told him his head was the Earth (my three-year-old daughter wasn’t interested, because, hello concrete thinker!).  I then began slowly moving the moon around his head, and he saw how the lighted part of the white sphere grew from waxing crescent to first quarter.  His eyes widened and his mouth stretched into a knowing smile.  I continued moving the moon around his head and I could tell he was enjoying the discovery process as much as I had.  When we were done and I had casually sprinkled the terms for the moon phases into the demonstration, he got up and went downstairs to play with his sister.

I waited for a lull in their play and pulled out the moon phases cards.  I told him we were going to play a moon game and put the “New Moon” card on the rug.  I lined up the other cards randomly on the edge of the rug and said, “Hmm, which card might go next?”  Eager to apply his knowledge, he quickly fished out the Waxing Crescent card and completed the entire cycle on his own.  He mixed up Waning Crescent and Waning Gibbous, but I didn’t say anything.  I just offered the control chart and he caught his mistake on his own.

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If you’re a Montessorian, you might be wondering why I used the control cards for the lesson (heresy!!).  If you must know, my son has little tolerance for three-part cards.  They just don’t resonate with how he learns.  If he knows the information, he isn’t the type of child who will humor you with busy work just to show you what he knows.  And if he doesn’t know something, he wants to get straight to the knowledge and understanding part right away – and three-part cards just don’t give him that.  I knew (from experience) that if I went through the whole rigamarole of having him lay out the picture cards, finding the corresponding labels, and then using the control cards to check, I’d lose him for sure.

There are about a thousand different ways to help your child solidify their knowledge of the moon phases, or any other concept they’re curious about.  My intention here was to illustrate how I go about preparing myself to facilitate my children’s learning – and often, my own!

it is not enough quote

Favorite moon books:

Fiction: Luna and the Moon Rabbit, Kitten’s First Full Moon

Non-fiction: Jump Into Science: Moon, The Moon Book

The books mentioned above are affiliate links.  Purchasing through these links helps support the quality work you enjoy on this blog, at no cost to you.  Thank you!