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

Help and Salvation

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. 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


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.”