I read an article earlier this week that got my thinking. It is called, “I Tried To Be A Montessori Mom, But Now I Want Our Crappy, Plastic Toys Back ASAP.” Warning: if you don’t like swearing or sarcastic humor, you might not want to read this piece. The summary is that like most parents, this mom got annoyed with the tons of plastic, noisy toys her two year old had and decided to purge them. She swapped them out for wooden and cloth toys, Montessori-type shelving to display them on, and decided to not use the television as entertainment. All of these things do line up with Montessori principles. However, before she even finished making supper her two year old decided that he wanted to be with mommy rather than to play alone. This mom did not want her two year old in the kitchen (and potentially getting harmed by hot food or another kitchen accident) so eventually she sat him down in front of the TV and got back to work in peace. She drew the conclusion that all of those cheap toys were valuable for their ability to entertain and babysit the kids while she accomplished the adult tasks that needed doing around the house.
My first reaction to this piece was irritation. This woman obviously did not take time to research the philosophy behind the Montessori toys, material, and shelving. She wanted quick results with none of the effort. I firmly believe toys should not be used as entertainment and babysitting tools. Here she is writing like she is some kind of expert, when she didn’t even try it out for a day. But as I pondered on it over the next couple of days, I had a couple of realizations.
- This piece is written with a headline, words, and tone that are meant to trigger a reaction. As a result, we can’t know how much of the story has been exaggerated through creative license. Maybe this mom tried really, really hard. Maybe she stayed up late reading through blogs, perusing Pinterest, and slowly making decisions about what to replace those cheap toys with. Or maybe she didn’t have much time. Maybe she read a few blog posts, a few articles, and made up her mind. She would try this. It promised what she wanted: calm, order, and beauty. Children using their imaginations, playing independently.
- We moms are so quick to jump in and tell other moms what we think and what they need to do differently. It is frustrating to be on the other end of it. No one knows the whole story. No one knows how hard we try, what our limitations are, and what we simply do not have time for. This mom may simply have not had the time to research fully, to sit down and do a three part presentation of the materials with her son. If she did give up after only one night, I personally feel that it was too soon. However, that is her decision and we are free to disagree over it. Her priorities are different than mine.
- When I first started trying to implement Montessori into our home I mistook it for being all about trays, all-natural toys, neat little shelves, and beautiful artwork hung on walls. These things do not a Montessori home make. It is about so much more. It is about trusting your child, believing that child to be far more capable than we are prone to think. It is about allowing mistakes over and over until a concept or task is mastered, without “rescuing.” It is about taking time away from your busy adult life to make time for your child, one on one. It is about taking the time to sit and observe what exactly your child is trying to do. For example, one night recently Prima started pulling all of the books off of her shelf. Normally I would have fussed at her not to make a mess, to put them away, to look at one at a time. But as the Norseman and I sat back and observed, she trotted all around the living room, arranging the books into stacks very carefully. She would finish a stack, then start dismantling it to make new ones. She carried little stacks around with great grunting noises. She noticed that some books should not be stacked on top of others, or the whole stack lost balance. She was learning. She was using maximum effort, learning about balance, and practicing the schemas of transporting and orientation. She needed this for her development, and she did it for nearly an hour. When she was done, we asked her to help put the books away. She cheerfully attempted to help.
In the end, Montessori is as much a way of thinking as it is about the things. What first needs to change is the way that you and I think about children and about the value of the time spent with them. It is hard. It seems counter intuitive. You need to just get stuff done. Toddlers slow the whole process when they help. Babies can’t even help. They demand time, time away from the list of to-do’s that simply must get done.
Now I’m going to address this from a Christian (my) perspective. Montessori is about respecting and following the child. At first, this sounded contradictory to my beliefs. Aren’t children supposed to respect the parent and follow the parent’s lead? Doesn’t the parent know best? I’ve learned that it is about respecting the child as a fellow human being with his own needs and desires that are as valid as the parent’s.
Is a child equal to an adult? In maturity, certainly not. But as a fellow human being deserving dignity and respect, absolutely. We are all equally valuable in God’s eyes.
Should the parent follow the child or should the child follow the parent? It is both. God has created each child with the ability to communicate his needs, if we know how to listen. This is following the child. The parent has responsibility to set safe boundaries, and to demonstrate how to performs tasks as the child indicates readiness to learn. In this way, the child follows the parent.
Ultimately, this falls beautifully in line with Christian parenting principles. For as God gently leads his children along, so ought we to lead our children. As God gives freedom within limits, so ought we to give our children such freedom. As God allows us to struggle to achieve mastery of various principles, so ought we to allow our children to struggle to master their tasks.
Lastly, I want to point you to some resources that I feel would have been better for starting off with, if you are interested in using Montessori with your child.
- The Joyful Child. Some of the newest research on a child’s brain development seems to contradict this book, so I would recommend a touch of caution. Overall, though, this book is marvelous at explaining the Montessori concept and showing how to implement it simply in everyday life for up to age three.
- What’s Going on In There? This book thoroughly explains the phases of development the child’s brain goes through, from conception to age five. Thick, but worth perusing slowly for a better understanding of “why” and “how” the brain, mind, and senses develop.
- Teach Me to Do it Myself. Wonderfully and simply illustrates how to teach hundreds of tasks the Montessori way, such as washing hands, setting the table, folding clothes, brushing hair, putting on shoes, etc. There are lots of fun activities for older toddlers, too that focus on language development, numeracy skills, and science skills. What I love is that it does not assign an age to each task, rather leaving it up to the parent to introduce the task when the child is ready.
- Baby Knows Best. A brief yet concise overview of RIE principles which dovetail nicely with Montessori principles for the most part. I feel that the little bit of contradiction is good, giving parents a more rounded approach. Discusses how to respect your child as a fellow human being and what that means when it comes to developmental phases. For example: you should not put a child into a position (sitting, standing, etc.) before he is able to get into it himself. Definitely not a cultural norm for us, but we are eager to try it out with our next child. Following these principles for two weeks enabled Prima to confidently and safely get up and down stairs without our help!