Montessori Theory, On Parenting

Letter From Your Baby

Dear caregiver,

I know you have the best intentions.  When you take me to the park and “walk” me by the arms, sit me on the teeter-totter, or send me down the slide, you’re doing it because you want me to have fun.

But here’s the thing: I am a baby.  I am driven by developmental urges you can’t see.  The things I want to do may seem slow and boring to you, but they are exciting and challenging to me.  When you push me to do what you think is fun, you rob me of the opportunity to do what I know is necessary.standing

Believe me, when I’m ready to walk, I will (and you won’t be able to stop me!).
When I’m ready to sit on the teeter-totter, I will (and I won’t want to get off!).
When I’m ready to go down the slide, I will (over and over and over again!).
But right now, I want to crawl. Or stand. Or chew on a stick.
As my friend Maria Montessori wrote:

“The most important [principle] is to respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.”

So, please respect me by backing off.  Enjoy your latte.  Bask in the sunshine.  And let me do what I was born to do: become myself.

With love,


Your baby


Breaking Bread

My twelve-month old son loves LOVES bread.  If it were up to him, he’d eat nothing but bread at all three meals.  When he was younger, I could give him his food and then offer a piece of bread and he’d be content with the arrangement, but now that he’s keenly aware of the goings-on at the dinner table, he’s realized that there’s bread available at dinnertime.  Of course, to him that means that he can have bread instead of all the other food, and he’s prepared to throw a tantrum to get his way.  Being of Spanish descent, I’m not about to give up eating bread with a meal just because Zach is still developing impulse control.  Quite the opposite: I now make it a point to include bread with dinner precisely so he can work on this skill.

I recently read this insightful post by Janet Lansbury, and thinking of her advice helped me stay calm during a recent limit-setting opportunity.  Here’s what transpired…

We were having a tasty minestrone soup for dinner, with our usual bread.  Zach ate a couple of spoonfuls of soup, saw that his dad was eating bread with the soup, and decided he simply had to have bread.  He pointed wildly at the bread and made loud noises, so I said “You want some bread with your soup” and gave him a smallish piece.  He happily ate his bread and when it was gone he demanded some more.  I told him: “First you need to eat more soup and then you can have bread.”  I offered him a spoonful of soup and, as you might imagine, he lost it.

He gave an infuriated wail and then went into “silent-turning-purple” crying.  “He’s winding up,” my husband announced and sure enough, Zach finally let out a loud angry cry.  It took everything I had not to hand over the bread, not so much because his crying bothered me, but because I know it stresses my husband, and that in turn stresses me.  “First have some soup and then you may have some bread,” I repeated calmly, offering another spoonful.  Zach wailed and babbled, presumably telling me how much he wanted bread.  “I understand you want bread,” I said.  “But you also need to eat soup.”

He kept crying so my husband and I went back to eating our own soup.  It certainly wasn’t fun to eat while he screamed, but I had a feeling that this was a powerful teaching moment to help him understand that tantruming was not the way to achieve his goals.  Every couple of minutes I offered a spoonful of soup and he batted it away.  Without reacting, I would put the spoon down and go back to my meal.  Zach eventually saw he wasn’t getting anywhere with all the crying, so he calmed down.  I offered him some soup and he accepted several spoonfuls.  Then he gestured for bread and I gave him some.  Now, here comes the cool part: He finished his bread and not only did he not ask for more, but he grabbed for the spoon to have more soup!  We finished the rest of the meal in peace, with only a glistening crocodile tear on Zach’s cheek as a reminder of his outburst.

Last night we again had bread with our meal, and enjoyed all the food peacefully and in a balanced manner.  Will this be the last tantrum?  Hardly!  But I was glad to see that even at 12 months of age, children can understand limits and begin to develop impulse control.  And I was relieved that I was strong enough to maintain my resolve and composure during a crying fit, because that – not bread – is what he was really asking for.



I absolutely love RIE, an approach to infant care developed by Magda Gerber based on the work of Emmi Pickler.  I found in RIE a simple, practical, and effective path for helping my baby navigate the rough waters of his first years of life.  One of my favorite aspects of RIE is the belief that a child deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and his feelings need to be acknowledged.  Here’s a great article that goes into more detail, courtesy of one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Janet Lansbury.

Since reading about RIE, I have gained a new awareness of young children’s emotions.  Recently, I have noticed several people telling Zachary “It’s ok” or “You’re fine” when he cries after falling down or bumping his head (which happens often, now that my little daredevil is standing upright!).  With his cries, he is most definitely letting us know that he is NOT OK; it’s hard to know if he’s telling us that he’s hurt, scared, or frustrated, but we have a responsibility to acknowledge his message and try to understand it.  Surprisingly, being able to verbalize the situation by briefly “sportscasting” what happened and providing gentle reassurance has made me feel less useless as a parent while my child cries.  I think that’s why most adults say “It’s OK“; we don’t know how to fix the problem, and so we want to make it go away!!

Browsing through Maria Montessori’s book The Child In the Family, I came across this passage and realized that Dr. Montessori had the RIE thing down many decades ago!!

To say to a child who has experienced something unpleasant, “It’s nothing!” serves to confuse him because it negates an impression of his own for which he sought confirmation.  Our participation, on the other hand, gives him the courage to encounter other experiences and, at the same time, shows him how to relate to them.  They must not be denied, or talked about too much, or analyzed too deeply!  A tender and affectionate word is the only consoling response.  Having had this, the child can continue his observations and experiences by himself, freely, and his physical development will benefit greatly.

RIE and Montessori mesh so well together… My child and I have both benefited from the work of these pioneering women and I am so grateful to them!


What’s the Rush? (a rant of sorts…)

Our daily rhythm involves spending an hour at the park between morning and noon naps.  Before Zach was mobile, I would lay out a blanket on the grass and he would be content rolling, playing with toys, and watching the other children.  I would push him on the swing for a few minutes, which he loves, but for the most part we would just hang out on the grass and Zach would do his thing happily while I chatted with other care givers (i.e. nannies and grandparents).

Zach has recently started wanting to pull up to a standing position and crawl up steps, and the best place to do this (outside of his movement area at home) is the toddler play structure at our local park.  I put him down on the sand near the structure and get out of the way so he can crawl, explore, pull up, tumble (safely, of course) and yes, even cry when he’s frustrated.  His concentration and determination are a joy for me to witness, and his occasional tumbles and ensuing complaints are an opportunity for me to “sportscast” what happened, let him know that I’m standing by him as he works, and offer vocabulary so he can eventually identify his feelings.

Sadly, this fascinating experience has been marred by three other caretakers, who seem to not understand my hands-off approach.  There’s a nanny who tells me I should do what she did with her charge: “teach” him to climb up the structure by holding and guiding his body until he’s able to do so on his own.  Another nanny seems to think children do well with constant noise and chatter, so she screeches and blathers to all the babies on the playground, and in so doing messes up Zach’s concentration.  But the one who drives me nuts is the grandfather who can’t bear to hear Zach cry.  If my son cries out from frustration or in response to a harmless tumble in the sand, he’ll immediately run over and give him a toy to make him stop crying.  One time, he even half-jokingly asked if I was Zach’s step-mom instead of his real mom, because I didn’t go into panic mode every time my baby took a tumble in the sand.

I’m pretty sure most parents at one time or another have formed opinions on the way other parents educate their kids.  I do it in my head all the time, I must admit, but I don’t go around voicing my opinion (unless someone asks what I would do from a Montessori perspective).  I would love to give a piece of my mind to the mom who threatens to hit her two-year old or the nanny who keeps telling her charge that he’s going to fall and break a leg.  But I don’t…

I have a dear friend who has sworn off going to playgrounds because she couldn’t deal with other parents helicoptering over her well-behaved and independent little girls.  I’m not at that point – yet – but I am starting to feel her pain.   I try to point out to the caretakers that I believe in letting the child develop at his own pace and take ownership of his successes and failures.  I try to explain that when Zach cries, it’s not because he’s in pain but because he’s expressing his frustration, which he has every right to do.  I ask them: What’s the rush?  They never seem to have an answer to that one…

Dear readers, have you had similar experiences?  If so, how do you handle them?


The Power of Simplicity and Trust

The fundamental concept for the educator [and the parent] is not to become an obstacle in the development of the child.

-Maria Montessori, The Child In the Family

One reason I love to blog is because it gives me the opportunity to connect with many amazing parents.  After I wrote the post about Zach’s experiences with the Jaramillo soup, I began an e-mail correspondence with a reader (let’s call her Adriana) who felt the soup was right for her three-month old son (let’s call him Charlie).  We e-mailed almost daily while she learned the tricks to making a great soup.  Her baby was soon thriving, and fortunately we’ve remained in touch.

She recently e-mailed me to ask my thoughts on Charlie’s development, since he’s 5 months old and she’s concerned because he’s not yet rolling.  I told her that each baby has his own timetable and that if the pediatrician doesn’t feel there’s anything physically or mentally wrong with him, the best thing to do to encourage rolling is to place a favorite toy just out of the baby’s reach and let him make the effort of reaching it.

This exchange led her to open up a bit more about her experiences with Charlie.  She wrote:

I’ve invested in so many toys and activity centers for Charlie, to keep him entertained and alert. However, I feel like he is so bored by everything. He has a bouncy chair. A piano kick thing with hanging toys, a walker car thingy, a door frame jumper, not to mention tons of teething toys and other dangly colorful stroller toys. Nothing seems to hold his attention for long and he gets cranky and I have to continuously rotate him from toy to toy… I wonder if perhaps I have given him too much and therefore overwhelmed him and he just can’t deal with so much. I’m interested in the Montessori things you have talked about. Charlie is very determined, he hates when he can’t do something and gets frustrated when I help him. He tries to sit on his own but topples over and then pushes my hands away when I try to help him. His favorite thing is to stick things in his mouth or play with his hands.
My heart went out to her.  I think that at some point we all feel responsible for stimulating our babies and become puzzled when they respond by getting cranky and irritable.  I admire Adriana’s ability to observe her child and find the correlation between environment and behavior.  Here’s what I wrote back:
Each parent has to trust that their baby is an active being who can learn on his own without the constant stimulation of parents or loud flashy electronic toys.  The best way to come to terms with this is by observing your baby and giving him the opportunity to engage with open-ended objects.
Perhaps the reason he’s not rolling is because he doesn’t feel he needs to.  Place an interesting object – a metal mixing bowl or a shiny spoon or a pinecone – near him and go sit nearby.  Perhaps at first he’ll cry trying to get your attention because he’s used to being entertained, but when he realizes you are busy (pretend to be busy!!) he’ll eventually try to move towards the interesting object and interact with it.  This might take two minutes, two hours, or two days, but I guarantee you that it will happen!
You can also hang something like a couple of metal bracelets from a ribbon so that he can grab at them if he seems to be having too much trouble rolling and becomes too frustrated.  However, a little frustration and effort is a good thing!  Life is full of frustrations, and it’s important to let them experience a little bit of this so that they can also feel empowered when they overcome adversity.
I also suggested – among several resources – a great post from Janet Lansbury that offers suggestions for trusting in the child’s intrinsic learning process and learning to take a step back:
Adriana wrote back a couple of days later:
…Today I did an experiment. I took away almost everything away from Charlie’s play area except for his colorful mat and one teething ring. I put up a long mirror going along the mat and just put him down. He was so happy. Wiggled and talked. Very interesting to see him and understand that I didn’t have to entertain him. I look forward to understanding more and learning how I can help him be more interactive with his environment!
And then a day later:
Today I was playing with Charlie and he saw a toy he like that was a little off to his side around head level. He kept looking at it and trying to reach for it but unless he moved he could not get it. So I encouraged him to roll over and when he did, the toy was still a bit away. I just told him that he could get it and that he should. He reached out for it and got it himself!!! At that moment I almost cried because I knew that he just learned something. He eventually got frustrated because he couldn’t get it in his mouth properly and he got tired of keeping his head up, so I just showed him what he needed to do to get back on his back. He cried a bit after that, but eventually chilled out. It was just so neat to see that.
And the following day:
Today, I took Charlie outside to the yard and set up a blanket. I took two toys: a ball and a dangly bracelet that he likes. I could not believe it, we spent over 40 minutes together without one whine or cry. In fact, he laughed, like giggled, all by himself. We laughed together without me having to do anything. When the wind blew over the trees, he got so excited and started kicking and wiggling and talking. Today, he sat for a few seconds and actually grabbed a toy and played with it. He also reached for a toy by his side and with some help rolled over and extended his hand to grab it. In two days, his mobility and his eagerness to be mobile has changed so dramatically. I feel like crying when I think that I was completely keeping him from achieving these things.
Wow.  Simplicity and trust are two very powerful tools in the hands of a loving and humble parent.  Thank you, my dear friend, for allowing me to share your experiences with my readers.