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.
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.
When Dr. Montessori spoke of “following the child”, I often wonder if she was talking about following their development or following their example…
In the elementary community of thirty 6-12 year-olds where I spend my days, four boys ages 9 to 11 decided to set a new world record for the longest crochet chain. They launched daily crocheting sessions while taking turns reading aloud from “The Odyssey”. After a week, they decided to measure their progress. The strategy they came up with was to measure the width of our soccer field, then lay out the chain back and forth across the field and multiply the width by the number of spans of crochet chain.
Inspired by this project, a group of boys ages 7 and 8 decided that they, too, wanted to crochet a massive chain. They set to work, and after three days they showed their progress to the older boys. James, the oldest of the bunch, nodded his approval and offered two words of encouragement: “Not bad”. The younger boys beamed.
The next day, two members of the younger group came to tell me they were ready to measure their chain. As I asked them to explain their measurement plan, another member of their team showed up with four yardsticks under one arm, a tape measure in one hand and a fistful of rulers in the other. They set off for the soccer field, giddy with excitement.
After a while, they came back looking bewildered. “That was a lot harder than we thought,” one of them confessed. An hour later, one of the 8-year-olds came to me and said, “We’ve thought about a different way of measuring our chain. We’re going to do it like James’s team.”
As they said this, 11-year-old James walked by and overheard him. He stopped and said, “The width of the field is 20 feet. Maybe that can help you. Good luck.” Then he walked away.
In our ruthlessly competitive American culture, one would expect the older boys to be resentful of the younger ones for copying their idea. They could’ve guarded their measurement strategy and data as proprietary information. After all, we’re talking about setting a world record! Yet the older boys not only offered words of encouragement, but also gave advice to ensure the younger boys’ success.
As Montessori adults, we’re called to model the collaborative behaviors we want future generations to embody. And yet, in the words of AMI-USA President Gretchen Hall, we often fall prey to the pettiness of “a culture of ‘them’ vs ‘us’, [where] we…measure others on how ‘Montessori’ they are and we [use] the term ‘Montesomething’ to discredit and devalue others… We boast that our pedagogy lays the foundation for social cohesion, yet we have failed to achieve cohesion in our own community.”
The children know that collaboration is the key to society’s survival, for when we share knowledge, we all win. My students remind me daily that they are our true guides, leading us back towards the essence and truth of human nature. We have only to follow.
“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for children are the makers of men.” – Maria Montessori
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!
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.
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.
For more than 12 months, Zachary threw stuff when he was tired, or angry, or couldn’t find the words to communicate how he felt or what he wanted. Toys, food, china and silverware; it all flew across the house. And then one day, it stopped. Limits helped. Consistency helped. But what was the magic bullet? Time.
I practiced elimination communication with Zachary. By the time he was one, he was diaper-free all day. By two, he was diaper-free at night. Then, when he was 3 1/2, his sister was born and he had an insensitive teacher, and it all went into the crapper. (Figuratively, of course, because actually NOTHING was making it into the crapper.) He had the mother of all toileting regressions. For almost a year we struggled, first with wetting and then with soiling. And then one day, it stopped. Limits helped. Consistency helped. But what was the magic bullet? Time.
For a long time, Zachary has been singularly uninterested in being helpful around the house. Pick up his toys? Nope. Clear the table? Never. Put away his laundry? Unthinkable. And then one day, it all changed. “Mommy, how can I help?” and “Mommy, am I being helpful?” are now the most uttered phrases in our home. Limits helped. Consistency helped. But what was the magic bullet? Time.
So, whatever you’re going through with your child right now, put it into perspective. Limits help. Consistency helps. But what’s the magic bullet? Time.
A recent visitor from Russia gifted our classroom with a truly exquisite set of nesting dolls, the smallest of which was no larger than the fingernail on my pinky. All the children were curious about the dolls, but Annie, a nine-year-old who was new to our classroom, was truly enamored by the set. Between academic activities, she would spend time lining up the dolls and then nesting them again.
I was absent for a few hours on Tuesday morning, and by Wednesday three boys made the discovery that the six smallest dolls had disappeared. Accusatory fingers immediately pointed towards Annie and indignant voices clamored for justice. I quickly gathered the nearly two dozen 6-to-12-year-olds into a circle, took a breath to steady my emotions, and with a peaceful and positive attitude said:
“As most of you know, our generous visitor from Russia recently gave us a beautiful set of nesting dolls. They are really charming, aren’t they? I can see that many of you are attracted to them! It has been brought to my attention that several dolls are missing. I understand how someone could fall in love with those pretty little dolls and want them all to themselves. And you see, those dolls belong to the classroom. They are a precious addition to our treasures. So, if someone borrowed them, I’m going to ask that you please bring them back so that we can all enjoy their beauty. In order to ensure that the person who has them can return them anonymously, I’m going to ask that he or she put them inside the cabinet under the sink while we’re all outside at recess.”
“Why?’ asked one child. “Why don’t you just tell them to give them back right now?”
“That person might be feeling a bit embarrassed by their choice,” I replied. “And some people are feeling very emotional by the absence of the dolls. We want the person who has them to feel safe returning them, and we want him or her to know that nobody is going to say things in anger that they would later regret.”
A seven-year-old boy piped up in solidarity, “OK! Everyone stay outside during recess! Nobody should be watching the room!”
Suddenly, I heard a little voice say, “I’m really embarrassed.” I turned to where the voice was originating and saw Annie grinning sheepishly, her knees curled up to her chest.
“Why, Annie?” I asked.
“I’m really embarrassed because I took them just for a day but I accidentally left them in my therapist’s office. I’m sorry, I’ll bring them back next week when I go to therapy again.”
Her cheeks were flushed. The children were dead silent.
“Annie, I appreciate your honesty,” I said with a smile. “I’m glad the dolls are safe and I know we’ll all be happy to have them back in the classroom.” Annie smiled back with a mixture of relief and gratitude. I felt the entire group relax, secure in the notion that where one child is safe to make mistakes, all are safe.
With my heart singing, I brought out our read-aloud book and transitioned the class towards a new activity, knowing that many profound and powerful lessons had been learned by us all.
My husband and I put a lot of effort into keeping our home free from violent media influences. It’s an uphill battle that we’re committed to fighting, and one that sometimes requires a little creative thinking.
Zachary’s male classmates (ages 3 and 4) are fascinated by Star Wars. Yes, you read right: ages 3 and 4, not 13 and 14. They know all the characters, all the spaceships, and, of course, all the violence that goes with it. Zach would come home every day, his head a jumble of confusion: Who is Star Wars? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Does Luke Skywalker walk on the sky? What does a light saber do? Can it kill you? If it kills you, are you dead? Is Darth Vader a bad guy or a good guy?
We were very frustrated by this turn of events and found it difficult to answer his questions without confusing him even more. We told him Star Wars was a “once-upon-a-time” story, explained that what his friends called “bad guys” are really people who were feeling sad or angry and didn’t know what to do with their feelings, and allowed him to buy a plastic light saber (with his own money, of course!) so he could see that it was just a harmless toy. But still, the confusion reigned supreme and overshadowed all his other interests.
I kept wishing there were a book that summarized the basics of the Star Wars story without the violence inherent to the plot. I searched fruitlessly for weeks, until – just before Father’s Day – I came across Darth Vader and Son. Stroke. Of. Genius.
It features 4-year-old Luke Skywalker (the same age as Zachary) engaging with his sometimes clueless and exasperated dad, Darth Vader, in many of the same scenarios that my son and his dad experience week to week. The “I-don’t-have-to-pee” dance; the “I-won’t-pick-up-my-toys” battle… You get the idea.
It’s gentle enough for my very innocent 4-year-old to enjoy, and yet it has lots of references to the movie series, which my Star Wars-loving hubby really appreciated!
The mystique of Star Wars quickly faded from Zachary’s mind once he and his dad had read the book a few times. Now, they quote bits from the book when the real-life situation mirrors what Luke and Darth experienced, and they share a laugh.
We might not always win the battle against mainstream media influences, but in this case, the force was with us!!
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In an earlier article we discussed the basics of using the Three-Period Lesson to introduce vocabulary. Did you try it with your child? How did it go?
Veteran Montessori guides will tell you that when you give a child a lesson, things don’t always go the way you expect them to. You might have noticed this when you tried doing the Three-Period Lesson with your child. If things didn’t go exactly as you planned, don’t fret! Click here to read a helpful article and watch the video to learn great tips that will guide you and your child towards success!
Most commercial toys try to cram a lot of “bang for their buck”. Imagine, with just one toy, your child will be able to learn colors, numbers and shapes! She’ll practice sorting and stacking while listening to classical music, and each time she does it right, the toy will light up and shout out “Good job!”
This sounds like a great toy, right? Wrong! The best toys are the simplest ones… Click here to find out why and watch a short video!