Do as I say, not as I do.

Last week we attended a different music class than our usual (it was a make-up for one of many illness-related absences.) Since it’s the same program with the same syllabus, I expected the class to be more or less the same as our usual: Parents and caregivers singing and playing instruments, kids exploring and eating instruments, everyone participating in the music. Oh, how wrong I was.

I’ll expose my personal scars for a moment: as a child, I attended a Jewish day school where most of the students were… shall we say… excessively materialistic and disrespectful. It’s an ugly combination. So you know, I had all of three friends in elementary school.

Back to music class. As soon as I walked in, it was deja vu all over again. The way these moms were dressed and groomed, the way they snapped their chewing gum, and the way they spoke made me flash back to middle school. You’ll understand, then, why I was perhaps looking to find fault with them.

It wasn’t just me, though. Throughout the 45-minute session the teacher had to ask the moms to stop talking to each other and start participating at least ten or twelve times. This, in a program that clearly states its emphasis on adult participation as a way to model music-making for young children. This, in a program that costs a lot of money. Why would you spend that kind of money on a music program if you’re not willing to participate as required?

More importantly, what do you think your children are learning about music in this class? If you’re acting “too cool” to sing and play, why would your child want to do it? Besides, the child can hardly hear the singing (just the teacher and me) over the constant chatter. What a waste of everyone’s time. The whole experience made me picture this in my head, so I came home and made it:

What does this have to do with Montessori? Everything. The basis of the Montessori approach is that children want to participate in the activities and work that surrounds them – in other words, they want to do what the grownups are doing. Students at K’s school respect their teachers the way their teachers respect the students. They put things away in their places the way they see other students and teachers tidying up after themselves.

This is one of my major challenges in applying Montessori principles at home. I am not a tidy person. I’m creative and ambitious, and I flit from one project to another as the mood strikes me. Needless to say, I don’t always clean up after myself. So how will my children ever learn to do it?

I’m trying very hard. I put dirty clothes in the hamper, dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and I put my computer away whenever I’m done using it. I hope that my efforts will pay off, both in terms of teaching my children and in terms of keeping my home a pleasant place to be. But boy, is it difficult. It requires constant vigilance.

After all, a parent leads by example whether she means to or not.

How I sweat the small stuff

If my post about having child-sized tools and furniture convinced you, you may be trying to figure out where to get child-sized items that aren’t plastic and that are actually sized correctly for your kids. You could just go with a Montessori-oriented shop like Michael Olaf or For Small Hands, or you could save some money and collect things from a variety of other sources – if you know what to look for.

What’s wrong with the plastic stuff? For starters, it’s often garish and ugly (there. I’ve exposed my bias.) It’s also often not even the right size for a young child. Take the ubiquitous IKEA plastic tumblers. Sure, the cups are small – no, wait, they’re short. The diameter is pretty much the same as many regular glasses, which means that a child won’t be able to drink from it one-handed until maybe age eight, by which point you really don’t need plastic because of reason number three: kids need to learn how to handle fragile objects. I’ve written about it before, so I’ll just mention that N broke a glass for the first time last week. He was horrified and amazed, and has been noticeably careful with glasses and plates since then.

I find a lot of good stuff at IKEA. Not in the children’s section (they do have some cute china dishes, but they’re a bit too small even for a baby.) The shot glasses and espresso mugs are just the right size for a toddler – don’t forget that it’s not just the height of a glass, but its diameter/circumference that makes it appropriate for a child.

Dollar stores, dollarama in particular, tend to have a lot of smaller versions of adult tools. I suspect it’s because a smaller pitcher or colander requires less material and is therefore possible to sell for a dollar and still turn a profit… but it’s a boon to us Montessorians. Among the dollar store finds we use every day are small pitchers and jugs, a hand broom and dustpan, miniature spray bottles, a small colander, a little wooden tray, small bamboo cutting boards, and K’s tiny hairbrush.

I’ve noticed that places like Mastermind and Scholar’s choice sometimes have child-sized tools, but you’ll want to check carefully to see how functional they actually are. Likewise, specialty stores (Lee Valley Tools comes to mind) sometimes have good-quality child-sized versions of adult tools. K recently received a gift of a pocket hammer (perfect size for a child) and safety goggles, a child-sized garden spade and a set of kid-sized hand tools for the garden. The stuff is out there if you keep your eyes open. Oh, and your imagination. It doesn’t have to be marketed for kids to be the right size and weight for a child. Some of the nicest child-sized things I’ve found have been in regular kitchen stores: “cocktail” forks and spoons, pretty shot glasses, small plates.

As for furniture, IKEA has some great kids’ furniture that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, or you can build it yourself – there’s a fabulous website called Ana White that has tons of free plans for furniture, and most of it only requires a few basic tools.

Know what I’m still looking for, though? Child-sized cutlery with a knife that can cut something harder than a banana. Honestly, how am I supposed to teach my kids to use a knife if the only knives they can handle properly are completely useless? I might have to resort to grinding down the pointy tips of some paring knives if I can’t find something soon. It definitely helps to be a DIY-er when it comes to the small stuff.

If you’ve found a great (and preferably inexpensive) source of kid-sized items, please share it in the comments!


Looking over this blog last night, I realized how my life might look to readers who don’t know me extremely well: a home brimming with child-sized items and furniture; tasteful wooden toys and plenty of books; children who happily cook, clear the table, dress themselves, and play neatly with one object at a time; a family that sits down every morning to a wholesome breakfast… did I miss anything?

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Child-sized items and furniture – check. Tasteful wooden toys and plenty of books – check, although the kids are much more interested in the tiny choking-hazard-sized plastic dinosaurs someone gave them (I’m not naming names, Bubbie!) Children who happily cook, etc – it depends on what your definition of “happily” is. As Montessori Dad would say, screaming and crying can be happy, right? They’re just ignoring us and hiding under the table because they’re so happy about their impending bathtime, right?

Uh, right.

Our home is sometimes peaceful, orderly, playful, and fun. Other times it is full of tears, tantrums, pantsless (even diaperless) children running away from the adults who would dress them, and messes that nobody wants to clean up. It happens. Our discipline is sometimes effective and sometimes not. We don’t always succeed at taking our children’s concerns seriously, as evidenced by our tendency to crack up when one of them says (or does) something completely ridiculous mid-tantrum. One of my kids – guess which one… I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised! – has been known to go a week between baths simply because we don’t have the energy to fight that particular battle (I never get into a battle that I probably can’t win.)

All this is by way of saying that we are just regular parents, and the children are just regular children. They’re not especially gifted or compliant or coordinated. They do do some really neat things, though, and they are rather independent – but that’s not my kids. That’s Montessori.

And that’s the point of this blog. Not to say how competent my kids are (even though I think they are), and not to say what a great parent I am (my standards are pretty low right now; if we all emerge from their childhoods alive and unscathed, that’s a success), but to explain how Montessori philosophy and techniques allow kids to become competent and help create great parents… or at least great parenting moments.

So… if you’ve been thinking that I sound a bit “sanctimommyous” on this blog, please go and read it again with this in mind: Montessori isn’t for gifted children. It’s for all children.

Oh, and also this: I spend my time finding new materials and tools for my kids and then blogging about it… and that’s why there’s unfolded laundry all over the living room.

It’s the small things.

I’ve heard people say things like, “why bother with a toddler bed when your kid is just going to grow out of it?” or “I don’t want to spend money on a kid-sized table, because the kids are going to be too big for it in a few years.” At first glance there seems to be nothing so terrible about those statements, but the more I observe children at home or at school, the more I’m convinced that Maria Montessori was right: children need their own tools and furniture in order to be able to operate independently.

Not convinced? Try this: take a tall, cylindrical glass vase (at least 16″ high and 8″ across.) Fill it partway with water. Now drink from it without spilling. Difficult, isn’t it? Even if you didn’t spill on the first go, keep drinking from it for the next fifteen minutes. I’m willing to bet that if it didn’t feel way too heavy at first, it will soon. I’m also willing to bet that you’ll start spilling or even drop the vase after a while. And no matter what, you have to admit that it’s uncomfortable and awkward to drink from such a huge glass.

This is the kind of thing our kids face every day in our adult-sized world. They sit on a chair and their legs dangle (then again, so do mine – I’m kind of short.) They try to eat without spilling food everywhere, but it’s hard when the tabletop comes up to your armpits. They want to pour their own juice but the jug is too heavy and too big for their hands to manage.

Some of the “magic” of Montessori lies in this simple concept. Once children have tools and materials that are the correct size for them to handle – wonder of wonders! – they can do many things just as well as adults can. When adults suggest that a child just can’t pour without spilling, it means that they’ve never seen a child pouring with an appropriately-sized vessel. When Montessori Dad suggests that R will soon be able to use K’s adjustable junior chair he’s forgetting that K still needs it: when K sits in a regular dining chair she spills food all over the table and herself, but in her Tripp Trapp she eats as neatly as we do.

And so our house is full of small things. Small beds, small table and chairs, shot glasses for the babies to drink from, small pitchers (a creamer and a milk-frothing jug), small colander, small cutlery. The kids are thrilled to have their own versions of the things we use everyday, but I think it goes beyond “this little glass is so cute!” Having child-sized (real, not toy or plastic) tools and furniture is an acknowledgement that our children are people. They have the same need as adults do to work, eat, groom and dress independently and with their dignity intact.

After all, we would never want to live in a house where everything was too big to be comfortable. Our home is not just ours – our kids live there too. Shouldn’t our furnishings and household objects reflect that?