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

Raising Creative Problem-Solvers

Do you constantly referee children’s disagreements?  Do you tend to side with one child, frustrating the other?  Or do you offer solutions, only to be ignored?  If you’re nodding in response to any of these questions, this will help…

The scenario:

My 4.5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son share a room.  It’s the only place in the house where they’re allowed to play LEGOs, so the plastic pieces don’t take over ourBLW_Two_Bacchic_Putti_Fighting living room/homeschool area. Both kids love LEGOs, but my older son likes to listen to audiobooks while he builds, and my younger daughter prefers to work in a quiet space.  This causes quite a few arguments and screaming matches. They both came to me frustrated and in need of help to share their living space.  It was the perfect opportunity to engage in problem-solving through brainstorming!

Step 1: State the problem

I asked them a few guided questions to come up with a statement defining the problem.  We determined the problem was “Difficulty building LEGOs at the same time in the same room with different noise preferences.”  Try to state the problem as clearly and precisely as possible, to encourage effective brainstorming.

Step 2: Brainstorm solutions

I told them they were both creative problem-solvers and we’d use their skills to find a solution that works for everyone.  During brainstorming, possible solutions are written down without being evaluated.  Anything goes, even the craziest solutions.  You might have to remind children (and yourself) of this because our brains are wired to immediately weigh solutions for their effectiveness, and it can be hard to sit with the discomfort of what are clearly implausible answers.

If you’re worried that the children will waste your time coming up with useless harebrained solutions, remember that they are motivated to solve their problem.  If you don’t react and just write down their ideas, they’ll eventually refocus on tangible solutions.  Plus, some of those crazy solutions are a great way to let them exercise their imagination (and who knows, they just might work)!  Resist the temptation to offer suggestions, even though you can probably see a clear path towards an amicable solution if they just did what you think is best.  This is their problem, and they have to own the solution by coming up with it.  You can act as the scribe so they can focus on finding solutions.

My children’s brainstorming list included:

  • wear wireless headphones;
  • be allowed to play LEGOs downstairs;
  • lower the volume of the audiobook;
  • take turns using the room (while the other person plays non-LEGO games downstairs);
  • no more audiobooks;
  • put up with the noise;
  • read books downstairs;
  • play in the room together listening to audiobooks part of the time and without audiobooks the other part.

Step 3: Eliminate implausible solutions

Once they’ve exhausted their ideas, review the list with them and tell them that they get to cross out any ideas that don’t meet the following criteria:

  • Respectful (to all involved, including bystanders),
  • Realistic (ideas you can execute within the boundaries of your environment),
  • Related (the solution must attempt to solve the problem)
  • Helpful (improves the lives of all involved)

Keep the process objective by focusing the four criteria.  If a child says, “That idea is dumb,” you can invite them to elaborate by asking, “Is it respectful? Realistic? Related?  Helpful?”  Here you CAN give your opinion, but only after your children have had their turn nixing ideas.  In our situation:

  • They realized that their ideas to “put up with the noise” and “ban audiobooks” weren’t respectful, so they crossed those out.
  • The suggestion to “read books downstairs” wasn’t related to the problem.
  • They’d tried “lowering the volume” in the past, but my daughter was still able to hear it and it meant that my son had to have one ear glued to the device, so that wasn’t realistic.
  • I wasn’t comfortable with my son walking around with wireless headphones all day for several reasons (health, safety, disconnection, etc.), so I mentioned this and we crossed that one out.
  • “Playing LEGOs downstairs” isn’t realistic or respectful because we know from experience that the little plastic pieces quickly overtake our common living/learning area. It goes against the boundaries of our environment, so it was eliminated.

Step 4: Choose one solution from the ones remaining

By the end of this process, the children were down to two solutions: “play in the room together listening to audiobooks part of the time and without audiobooks the other part” and “take turns using the room and playing something else downstairs.”  They chose the latter, and we discussed the details of how that would look (the younger one plays downstairs from wake-up to lunch, and then they switch in the afternoon).  Then I told them that we’d try the solution for one week, and revisit it to make adjustments if necessary.

Step 5: Set them up for success

This is where YOU come in.  Your role is to help them adapt their routine, environment, and expectations so they can stick to the solution for the week.  Without a solid plan, it’s very easy to fall back into old habits (and arguments).  You are there to hold boundaries, remind them of their solution, and empathize if things aren’t working out the way they envisioned.

Solutions are rarely perfect at first, and require fine-tuning.  Observe what’s working and what isn’t, so you can guide their follow-up session.  For example, two days into the trial period, my daughter approached me with a different solution.  I acknowledged her viewpoint, reminded her of our agreement, and told her we would revisit the solution in five more days.

I’ve used this Positive Discipline approach with children in my Montessori environments for years, and after a few guided sessions, the children begin to use it on their own.  It’s a fantastic way to empower them, raise creative critical thinkers, and remove yourself from the middle.  Let me know if you try it, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Montessori Materials, Montessori Theory

When Help Is A Hindrance

Few clean-ups seem as overwhelming as that of the Montessori fractions.  The halves through sevenths are easy enough for most children, but the 27 hard-to-distinguish red wedges that make up the eighths, ninths, and tenths can leave even Elementary children feeling stuck and discouraged. Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 7.03.31 AMI’ve inherited Montessori fractions in several of my classrooms, and I’ve often found that a well-meaning predecessor had written the corresponding value on the underside of each fraction piece.  At first glance, this might seem helpful.  It sure makes cleaning up those pesky fractions a lot quicker!

So, why did Dr. Montessori design the fraction pieces without labels?  Did she harbor some evil desire to torment children and their over-worked adult guides?  Or did she observe that leaving the fractions unlabeled led to the development of problem-solving skills through creative use of the child’s knowledge?

The answer becomes clear when we consider Dr. Montessori’s advice: “Every unnecessary help is a hindrance to the child’s development.”

Is writing the values on the underside of the fraction pieces really necessary?  Or, by doing so, are we preventing the child from developing essential skills?  If we don’t want to be a hindrance to their development, but we need them to eventually clean up, what can we do to guide a child who’s feeling discouraged by this overwhelming task? IMG_0573

When a child is faced with sorting a pile of unlabeled slim red wedges, it’s enough to help him recall that two eighths are equivalent to – or take up the same space as – one fourth.  Depending on the child’s prior knowledge, you can ask, “What do you know about equivalences?” or “What do you know about the relationship between fourths and eighths?”

If the child is younger and doesn’t know this information, simply guide him in a sensorial exploration.  Invite the child to bring out the fourths inset, ask him to remove one fourth, and show how the space within the inset serves as an objective control of error.  When fractions other than two eighths are placed within the space vacated by the fourth, you will see a gap.  Only two eighths will fit perfectly within the space of the missing fourth.

The monumental clean-up now becomes a fun puzzle that satisfies the child’s love of precision and bolsters his self-confidence.  You can back away, returning only if he needs guidance to find the relationship between fifths and tenths, or thirds and ninths (children familiar with equivalences will likely make the connections on their own).IMG_0577Take a moment to observe the child’s concentration, enjoy his smile of accomplishment, and know that you helped him move one step closer towards reaching his full potential as a creative problem-solver.





Book Review: Parenting, Inc.

Disclaimer: I wrote this book review several years ago on an old blog.  It’s still one of my favorite books and I thought some of my new readers might find the information useful.  Enjoy!


Parenting, Inc., written by Pamela Paul, goes beyond criticizing the baby product industry for its over-the-top marketing ploys, and analyzes how this exploding industry is impacting parents’ child-rearing abilities.  It is an eye-opening read for any couple thinking of having children, as well as for those parents who know they should trust their instincts but are getting swept away in the tide of marketing and societal pressures.

The book’s first chapter discusses the ridiculous amounts of gear that parents are guilted into purchasing even before the little one is born.  Forget diapers, baby wipes and onesies; parents are now made to feel inadequate if they don’t purchase every available item (including wipe warmers and baby-monitoring cameras) that could potentially minimize their child’s discomfort and maximize his happiness.  Sure, parents want their children to be happy, and there’s nothing wrong with happiness.  But, as Paul wonders: “Does it make sense to have a happy baby all the time?”  And do these items even ensure happiness?

In the book, Jack Shonkoff, chairman of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, reminds us that “babies need to live in a real world, a real environment, where things sometimes go well and sometimes don’t… They need some time to flounder by themselves and figure things out.”  The author then argues that by catering to the whims of children, parents are creating a generation of entitled and attention-seeking human beings, who look to others when problems need to be solved.

Paul reminds us that the worst part of all the paraphernalia peddled to parents is its impact on parental confidence.  The underlying message is that parenting is an overwhelming job that simply cannot be done well without the use of ridiculous amounts of expensive equipment.  And when the perfect family life doesn’t materialize, parents are left to feel that they and their flawed children – not the backed-by-experts products – are to blame.

Further on in the book, Paul contends (and I agree) that all those battery-operated toys children now play with are robbing them of their sense of creativity and empowerment.  She recounts stories of children who look for the batteries in every toy they pick up, or who pick up a stuffed animal and ask: “What does this do?”

Many parents who try to implement Montessori concepts at home wonder why their child doesn’t show much interest or respect for the materials they so lovingly purchase and create.  The answer might lie in this stunning fact: The average child in America gets SEVENTY (70!) new toys each year. According to the book, “the United States, with four percent of the world’s children, consumes 40 percent of the world’s toys.”  If a child is always getting new toys, she’ll come to appreciate them only for their novelty value and won’t bother returning to them for further exploration and imaginative play.

Paul focuses an entire chapter on “edutainment”, a catch phrase for the so-called educational DVDs (led by Baby Einstein) that have come to substitute the babysitter or the helpful relative.  Although the book was written before Disney admitted the products’ shortcomings and offered refunds, it presents a solid case against purchasing the useless – and even harmful – videos.  Why harmful?  Consider this: According to Paul, the A Day In the Farm DVD has six scene changes in a twenty-second segment.

Researchers interviewed for the book confirm that overstimulation “is damaging to the developing mind”.  They explain that “the brain’s orienting reflex is triggered when a baby hears a strange sight or sound: He can’t help but focus.”  When the scene changes rapidly, the new colors, sounds, and movements whiplash a baby’s brain back into the action.

This reminds me of friends with babies, who marveled at the videos’ ability to hold their baby’s interest.  Well, guess what?  They can’t help themselves!  Contrary to the manufacturers’ promises, not only are the babies not learning anything useful (since they are programmed by nature to learn through physical interactions, not passive absorption), but their future ability to concentrate is negatively impacted.

Parenting, Inc. also looks at the mushrooming enrichment class industry.  Parents spend dozens of hours – and hundreds of dollars – each month shuttling their children to classes that provide the same type of stimulation, which previous generations of children got from parents and caregivers, at home, for free.  While there’s nothing wrong with a swimming lesson, ballet class, or piano instruction, many children’s schedules are managed more tightly than a CEO’s, leaving little time for riding bikes, going to the park, and being kids.

What’s shocking is that this frenetic pace starts soon after the baby is born, with more and more classes being targeted towards infants.  One example the book gives is the popular music class for babies.  Proponents argue that exposure to music is essential for a child’s proper development and support their claims with the much-hyped Mozart effect theory.  Not only has the Mozart effect been discredited by well-founded studies, but what’s wrong with exposing your child to music at home while you fold laundry, saving yourself thousands of dollars a year?

Interestingly, the book points out that the only ones who seem to benefit are the mommies, who have a great excuse to get out of the house and meet other new parents.  There’s nothing wrong with meeting people in the same boat as you, but if I remember correctly, my mom used to meet her friends in a place designed to truly satisfy children’s needs – for free.  We called it “the park”.

Read this book if you want to restore a bit of sanity to your life and gain some perspective on the insane baby products industry!