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.

Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Practical Life

Prepare to be Amazed

prep-bananaMany parents like to help feed or dress their children, even when the children become capable of doing it on their own, because they feel it’s a way of showing love. While parents who follow the Montessori philosophy understand that it’s important to support their child’s budding independence, they sometimes don’t know how to channel their affection in a way that’s helpful to their child’s development!

You’ll be happy to know that in the Montessori philosophy, you – the parent – play a very important role… Click here to find out what this role is and watch a short video.


Show & Tell

It might seem like Montessori parents like to show off what their children can do: “Look, my baby can drink from a glass!  My toddler can slice a cucumber!”  But honestly, our excitement has nothing to do with bragging.  At least for me, sharing my son’s accomplishments is about telling other people: “Look what YOUR child is capable of, and imagine the sense of competence YOUR child can develop!”

Parents who are new to Montessori often observe a classroom and think: “My child would never fit in.  He’s not capable of doing what those children can, or of behaving like those children do.”  I want you to know that, although all children develop at their own pace, your child CAN become self-sufficient at an early age.  Why is this important?  Because research confirms that children whose independence is supported feel capable of dealing with life’s challenges, have a higher sense of self-worth, and tend to have a more intrinsic motivation to learn.

Remember, too, that it’s never too late to modify your approach if you realize you have been holding back your child.  You might get some resistance at first, but if you know what every child is capable of, it will be easier for you to transmit trust and confidence to your child.

Here’s a great perspective from the book “Positive Discipline: The First Three Years” by Jane Nelsen:

When a baby is born, she is all but helpless.  It takes days, weeks, and months before she learns to control her own movements, reach and grasp, and walk on her own.  In her early weeks and months, your job as her parent is to keep her safe, to tend to her needs, to comfort her when she cries, and to be patient – very patient.  But as she grows into toddlerhood, you may be surprised at how much she can do that can help her develop a sense of capability.  On the other hand, if you do too much for her (in the name of love), she is likely to form the belief that she is not capable… Words alone are not powerful enough to build a sense of competence and confidence in children.  Capability comes from experiences of accomplishment and self-sufficiency, and from developing solid skills.


Prepared Environment

During the first few years of life, the child’s environment has to be constantly modified to support his changing needs.  The first twelve months weren’t such a challenge: mobiles gave way to hanging rings, then a few toys at ground level to encourage rolling over, followed by rolling objects to encourage crawling.  A bar offered opportunities to pull up and cruise, and a push cart provided the necessary stability to encourage walking.

Now Zach is just shy of 14 months old, walking steadily, and not the least bit interested in toys.  His one goal in life these days is to imitate EVERYTHING we do.  He wants to brush his hair and teeth, pour out  his potty, hold his fork, use a dustpan and brush, toss veggies in the soup pot, dig in the dirt… If we do it, he wants to do it, too.  He is being driven to become a human being “of his place and time”; his focus has narrowed from “I want to do what others in my species can do” to “I want to do what others in my social group can do”.  His hands are constantly at work, exploring, discovering, comparing.

It’s becoming more challenging to meet his needs, simply because he wants to participate in every facet of our lives!  The areas I’m focusing on right now are:

  • Care of self: setting up a small table and mirror where he can brush his hair and make sure his face is clean;
  • Food preparation: giving him opportunities to scrub vegetables, peel fruit, and transfer chopped veggies into a pot;
  • Gardening: establishing an outdoor environment for independent work with water, soil, and seeds.

In the next few weeks I’ll post pictures of our progress.  If you have any experiences to share with other readers and me, please add them to the comments!


On Making Mistakes…

We’ve all heard that we should allow children to make mistakes, let them learn from their errors, etc. etc.  However, I recently came across an interesting article by Alfie Kohn.  He argues that letting children make mistakes without providing a supportive environment is not only not helpful, but can actually be detrimental.  Here are a few highlights:

Maybe the problem is that the educational environment [in traditional schools] emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they’re doing: It’s all about achievement! performance! results! rigor! and not about the learning itself…

Jerome Bruner said this: We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.”

What is clear is that the very environments that play up the importance of doing well make it even less likely that doing poorly will have any beneficial effect.

Coincidentally, my latest post on http://www.MariaMontessori.com illustrates how a quality Montessori environment provides the type of support necessary for mistakes to become opportunities for learning and growth.  Enjoy!


A Celebration of Work on Labor Day Weekend

Going to work… Doing housework, yard work, homework…  Yuck!  For adults, work is something we want to do as little of as possible, because it takes time away from play!   (This was recently confirmed by the Twitter Mood Map, which showed that people are considerably happier on the weekends, when fewer of us work.)

It’s therefore understandable that one of the Montessori concepts which can throw parents for a loop is the idea that their little child will “work” in the classroom.  Here are some comments I’ve heard from parents of three-year olds:

“Won’t my child get tired from so much work?”

“Don’t children learn better when they play?”

“I want my child to love school; she’s not going to be happy if she has to work.”

Most of the time, explains Dr. Montessori, adults operate under the law of minimum effort, “according to which one seeks to attain the maximum productivity with the least expenditure of energy… It represents not so much a desire to do as little work as possible as to produce as much as one can with the least effort.”  Paradoxically, children, while not contributing to the production of goods and services, strive for maximum effort:  “[The child] consumes a great deal of energy in working for no ulterior end and employs all his potentialities in the execution of each detail.”

Why do children work so hard if they’re not producing?  What is their goal?  In a word: self-creation.  The child’s work “…is an unconscious labor brought about by a spiritual energy in the process of developing.”  In other words, the child is forming the man he will become through his drive to engage with his environment.

When Dr. Montessori started her first pre-school in a poor area of Rome in 1907, she offered the children beautiful toys that had been donated by rich patrons, because everyone knows that children love to play with toys!  She also involved them in everyday activities of the type the children saw at home but didn’t have the tools or opportunity to engage in: sweeping, mopping, dusting, washing.  To her great surprise, the children ignored the toys and gravitated towards the activities we consider “chores”.

She observed that while they were involved with these activities, they demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of focus and self-control.  She also noticed that they didn’t work just to get the job done; they repeated chores they had already completed.  They worked with happiness and excitement, as if the table they were washing or the shelf they were dusting were some delightful toy.  Even more remarkable, when they finished their work, they seemed more energized and peaceful than when they started!

Her observations led her to conclude that, “A child… does not become weary with toil.  He grows by working and, as a consequence, his work increases his energy.  A child never asks to be relieved of his burdens but simply that he may carry out his mission completely and alone.”

When it became evident that her little students were not interested in the fancy toys, she removed them and widened the scope of work activities.  She soon noticed that these children – street urchins who lacked discipline, self-esteem, and focus – became self-possessed, confident, and centered.  She called this process of positive self-construction “normalization“, and deemed it “the most important single result of our whole work.”

Dr. Montessori’s discoveries don’t mean that children should be forbidden from playing.  What she realized is that for children, work IS play!   A three-year old wants nothing more than to be involved in her parents’ everyday activities.  She wants to cook, garden, and mop.  Instead of banishing her to a toy kitchen, invite her to join you in the real kitchen.  Give her tasks at which she can succeed; tasks that require her to concentrate; tasks that don’t have to be done perfectly the first time; and tasks that truly contribute to the household.  

Take some time to modify the environment: a low shelf or table for food preparation, a few child-sized but real kitchen utensils, and some cleaning implements are essential for your child’s success.  Tell her what you expect her to do with a positive tone that emanates trust; show her how to do the task, using as few words as possible and slowing down your movements so she can internalize them; then leave her to concentrate and enjoy her company as you work quietly side by side.  There’s no need to praise her success or point out her mistakes; remember, she works not for productivity but for self-perfection.

“An adult must assist a child in such a way that he can act and carry out his own work in the world.  [The child’s] very life consists in the work of growth… If adults do not understand this secret they will never understand the work of children.”


Filling the Bucket

An acquaintance recently posted this picture on his Facebook page:

Nice imagery… But how do you fill that darn bucket?  Praise?  Rewards?  A bucket full of “good jobs”, A+, and gold medals?  Honestly, I don’t think it’s the parents’ responsibility to fill the bucket.  Only by letting the child fill it on his own will we ensure that it will never run dry.

The only way we can encourage the child to fill his own bucket is by giving him experiences in which he can find success.  The crawling baby will feel a sense of achievement when he can get out of bed on his own; the toddler will rejoice when he spreads jelly on a piece of bread all by himself; the pre-schooler will know he’s capable when he figures out how to tie his own tennis shoes; the 9-year old will understand his worth when he carries groceries for an elderly woman; the adolescent will lift his chin when he can teach his dad how to fix an engine; the young adult will feel proud when his invention touches the lives of others.

Intertwined in all these experiences are two important concepts: trusting the child and giving him freedom with responsibility.  In each instance, the adult had to trust not only the child’s ability, but also his capacity for problem-solving and assuming responsibility when things go wrong (and things often do when mastering a new skill).  How can the pre-schooler feel successful about tying his shoelaces if we only buy him shoes with velcro (and even worse, insist on helping him with his shoes)?  How can the 9-year old help an elderly person if we don’t give him the skills and freedom to cross the street on his own?  Should we send the motorcycle to the mechanic or trust our adolescent when he says he can fix it?  Must we force the young adult to stick to the career path we think suits him best, or let him follow his heart and mind?

Praise makes the child dependent on you to fill his bucket; trust sets him free to fill it on his own.

So long as you are still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself. ~Neale Donald Walsch



Montessori Weaning: Food and Independence (with video)

When Zach was around 4 months old, we started noticing that he was extremely interested in watching us eat.  He would follow our fork from plate to mouth, opening his mouth in imitation of our actions and salivating madly!  We knew the time had come to begin the weaning process.

The word “weaning” strikes fear in the heart of many parents.  It is associated with the end of breastfeeding and connotes depriving the child of the nourishment and affection he has come to know and love.  However, Montessori weaning is done with respect, always following the initiative and drive of the child.  It starts around the age of 5 months (but takes several months to complete) because that’s when the child shows physical and psychological signs of readiness:

  • His iron reserves are decreasing;
  • Digestive enzymes are present in his saliva;
  • Teething starts;
  • The child can move in his environment (rolling, creeping, etc.);
  • He controls his hands well and uses them with purpose;
  • The child is able to sit with some help;
  • He shows a strong interest in the eating habits of those around him.
Weaning is a long process; the breast is still the main source of nutrition for several more months.  Weaning is less about nutrition and more about physical and psychological development.  (To learn the details of the weaning process, I recommend you read “Understanding the Human Being” by Dr. Silvana Montanaro, Director of Assistants to Infancy [0-3] training).

My husband and his sister made Zach a beautiful weaning table and chair when I was still pregnant, but any LOW table and chair will do for weaning (you can even buy an IKEA-style kids’ table and chair and cut the legs to make them lower to the ground).  We placed a pillow on the chair to support Zach’s back because he still tipped sideways a little bit on occasion. 

I pureed steamed zucchini and placed it in a ceramic bowl (if it were to fall it would have real consequences and would provide an important lesson to Zach, which plastic would fail to do).  My husband sat across the table from him and slowly began to feed him with a small spoon.  As recommended in the A to I training, we gave Zach another spoon to hold, but he was not at all interested in it.  He wanted to grab his daddy’s spoon and from the first bite was very active in his own feeding process. 

The video below shows how excited and focused he was.  Note how the food is brought close to his mouth, but the spoon is not inserted until Zach willingly opens his mouth.  Eating should be a pleasurable experience, and nothing ruins this for a child more than an obsessive parent who forcibly shovels food into a child’s mouth against his will.

Zach was delighted with his newfound abilities; we were thrilled at his development.  For us, nothing is more important than helping Zach in the road towards functional and psychological independence.  I love nursing him, but I also love knowing that I am satisfying his developmental needs.  

My husband asked me if I was proud of our son.  Actually, every normal child is capable of doing what my child is doing, so I don’t believe he’s achieved anything mind-blowing.  Those who I am proud of are my husband and myself, because we put his developmental needs before our emotional attachments, which can be challenging for any parent.

As Dr. Montanaro says in her book, “The road to independence is both biological and psychological and as one helps the other we must never separate the two.”  If we miss the opportunity to wean (or support any other milestone) when the child shows signs of readiness, “physically and psychologically we are preparing a difficult future.”