Saga of the big-boy bed

Bed or crib? Apparently, neither. He prefers to run around and rattle the bars of his prison.

We’ve been trying for the past couple of weeks to transition N to his toddler bed. He loves the bed: he hurls himself into it delightedly, pulls up the covers, and sucks his thumb. You’d think he could just stay in there and fall asleep, wouldn’t you?

Alas, as good as N was at going to sleep happily in his crib, he isn’t transferring those skills to the new bed. He gets up and runs around (we finally closed off the kids’ room with a baby gate.) He climbs into K’s bed and disturbs her. He opens and closes the bedroom door, thus darkening the room and causing K to panic (“I can’t see! It’s too dark!”) He rattles the baby gate. He babbles.

Okay, so it’s clear that he’s not ready for the responsibility of the big-boy bed, right? Mr. December and I reluctantly put N back in the crib to sleep… and he started screaming. “Bed! BED! BED! BEEEEHHHHD!” And suddenly we’re in a no-win situation: put him in the crib and he screams, keeping K awake and causing her to be exhausted and miserable the next day; put him in the bed and he fools around, keeping K awake and causing her to be exhausted and miserable the next day. You can see the bind we’re in.

This is not, strictly speaking, a Montessori-related problem. If we were “classic” (read: “hardcore”) Montessori parents, N would have been sleeping on a mattress on the floor from day one. He would understand that bed is the place to sleep, and we would be fine with him moving around his room quietly until he was ready to fall asleep. Oh, wait – that IS the state of affairs (his understanding and our acceptance of moving around until sleepy.) The only complicating factor is that N shares a room with his big sister.

It leads me to wonder – what do hardcore Montessori parents do when their children share a room? Does the situation even come up very frequently? Is Montessori parenting a phenomenon of the middle and upper classes? Does every young child of Montessori parents have his own bedroom? Or am I missing some semi-obvious way of teaching a very young child (20 months now) to respect his sleepy sibling?

It is an often-heard criticism of Montessori that it’s an expensive program and only available to the rich. It’s also incorrect. There are some (albeit not many) public-school Montessori programs. In fact, Maria Montessori developed her philosophy while teaching working-class Italian children. Nothing about Montessori requires affluence, because although there are many beautiful – and expensive – Montessori materials, you can just as easily apply most of the philosophy without them.

Which is all fine and good, but I’m still stuck with the problem of how to keep N from pestering K until he’s ready to fall asleep. They have to share a bedroom, and that won’t change unless we move or renovate (maybe in a couple of years, but not now.) Do I put her in a loft bed that he can’t climb? Sit in their room until K falls asleep, since N won’t get out of bed if he thinks we’re watching him? Get one of those puppy shock collars that zaps him every time he leaves his bed? (I kid! I kid! … okay, I considered it for a millisecond, but you know I’d never do that. Put down the phone. There’s no need to call CAS.)

Advice, anybody? What would Maria Montessori do?

Start to finish.

First of all, full disclosure: I am terrible at follow-through. If you want ideas, brainstorms, and creative concepts, I can provide them by the hundreds, but if you ask me to see them through to completion… well, you’d be barking up the wrong tree. But this post isn’t really about me.

One of the things I love about Montessori education is the way it teaches kids to plan and execute complex projects. Field trips, for example: in the upper elementary and middle school classes (ages 9-11) the students can decide that they’d like to put together a trip to see or experience something related to their current studies. The students must choose a destination, plan a budget, figure out travel arrangements (often by public transit), solicit parent chaperones (whose sole job is to be the adult-in-case-of-emergencies, standing back and letting the kids lead the expedition), and make all the necessary arrangements. From a relatively young age, the kids develop the skills to see a project through from beginning to end.

I try to incorporate this kind of learning into our life at home. Most often I’ll propose a project (for lack of a better name) to link aspects of our Jewish life together. On Tu B’shvat (the new year for trees) we planted parsley seeds in a tray. They’ve been transplanted to a pot outside and we plan to harvest them for Karpas (a green vegetable) for our Passover seder plate. It’s the sort of thing that establishes a connection between two different holidays and creates anticipation for the kids. I don’t do a lot of that sort of thing, but occasionally I’ll get an idea.

So when K’s school announced the annual Passover food drive, it occurred to me that here was an opportunity to use the contents of her overstuffed tzedaka box. She’s been putting coins into it all year, often (but not exclusively) just before lighting Shabbat candles. We’ve spoken about how the money she puts into the box will be shared with people who are in need – who don’t have the things we take for granted, like food, shelter, clothing, or health. Wouldn’t it be great, I reasoned, if she could see this mitzvah through from beginning to end?

I presented the idea to K. She loved the idea of taking out all the coins and counting them, and with some prompting she began to think of what passover foods a family might need. We emptied the tzedaka box and discovered a little over $100 in there. I rolled the coins in the hope that some nice cashier wouldn’t mind us paying our grocery bill in loonies, toonies, and quarters.

After school today, K and I hit the supermarket. I suggested types of food (“how about canned fruit?”) and she made the final decision on varieties or brands (“we should get peaches and mandarins!”) K loaded up the cart, I pushed it to the cash, and she carefully placed her selections on the conveyor belt. The lovely woman at the cash didn’t bat an eyelash at our rolls of change; she just counted out the coins and made conversation with K.

“How does the food get to a family?” K asked as we treated ourselves to ice cream cones. I responded that someone would pack boxes up, and then volunteers would drive the boxes to the homes of needy families. “We should do that!” she exclaimed.

And so this Sunday we’ll be tootling around town, just the girls, delivering boxes of passover food. With that final step K will have experienced the entire process of charitable giving firsthand. When I think about it, it’s quite an education – even for an adult – as by the end of Sunday we will have covered almost all of the steps involved in almost all donations to a direct-service organization:

  • set aside money for tzedaka on a regular basis
  • choose an intended recipient (charity or individual)
  • count and allocate the money
  • choose how to spend the money in order to maximize utility and value; purchase necessary goods
  • deliver goods to end users

Sure, I had to initiate the project and guide her every step of the way, but K is only four years old and this was a concrete way to link her dropping coins into a box with helping other people.

During our ice cream date, I told K that the traditional thing to say to someone who did a mitzvah like she did would be “yasher koach” or “may your strength continue,” and that she should continue to be strong so she could do more mitzvot. She commented, “I need to eat good foods so that I can get stronger!”  “Yes,” I said, “that will help your body get stronger, but you can make your neshama (soul) stronger too, by doing mitzvot.” “You mean I can start with little mitzvot and do bigger and bigger ones? I want to do that!” And I kvelled.

Montessori educators already knew it, and now I understand it too: when you invest yourself in the entire process, from start to finish, all work – of the hand, of the mind, of the soul – is meaningful.

Repetition, rote, and religious fulfillment

I once had a conversation with a cousin of mine who asked me why I love the Passover seder so much. She was asking, she said, because she doesn’t enjoy seders at all (aside from the food and the family being together.) She finds prayers boring and unenjoyable and doesn’t understand how I could find fulfillment that way.

Here’s how I responded:

Imagine you have a friend who really loves line dancing. She drags you to a bar one night and tells you that you’re about to have an amazingly fun experience. You go out to the dance floor with her. The music starts and everyone is moving. You’re trying to watch people’s feet, and you succeed at copying their steps, but you’re lagging behind everyone and you keep bumping into people when you turn the wrong way. You’re trying to get with the beat of the music, but you don’t know this song and hearing the beat seems to take more effort and concentration than it should. You shuffle along as best you can, feeling stupid and uncoordinated. You can’t wait to get off the dance floor. When the song ends you’re out of there, with no intention of coming back. Your friend, on the other hand, really enjoyed herself and can’t understand why you didn’t have fun, too.

Prayer and ritual are the same as any other activity. If you don’t have the basics down pat, you’ll never be able to enjoy it fully. People seem to accept that you need to practice for years if you’re going to really enjoy playing an instrument in a group, and that you have to learn the steps and then practice them before ballroom dancing becomes an enjoyable pastime for you… and yet somehow people expect to step into a synagogue and have a transcendental spiritual experience. What’s more, when spiritual fulfillment fails to materialize, they blame the religion, the synagogue, and the language rather than their own lack of study and practice.

Yes, I get a kick out of the Passover seder. I love it. I love the words, the melodies, the symbols. I love them because they’re familiar to me, and I love them because of what they express. The Hallel section (aka the long part after the meal that most people just skip) puts words in my mouth so that I can use them to express my personal thanks and praise to God. I’ve been hearing those words since birth. In grades 1 and 2 we practiced excerpts from the haggadah for weeks so that we could put on a model seder in our class. I’m 32 years old, and we do two seders a year, and that means I’ve heard the entire seder at least 64 times, not counting all that practice in school and my attempts to learn my Grandpa’s melodies by tape recording him and listening to it repeatedly.

When people criticize their Jewish education they often cite rote memorization as a major reason why they hated it. Sure, being made to memorize words in a foreign language without any explanation of their meaning feels useless. But why is the instinct to eliminate memorization rather than to increase understanding? Both are important, but you have to know that all the understanding in the world won’t help you line dance if you don’t learn the steps.

Montessori education understands this principle. K’s classroom is full of activities that one could call “pointless,” like the one where you have to cut a strip of paper into squares by cutting precisely on the printed lines. Wouldn’t everyone love to go straight to sewing and collage-making? Probably, but they’d be disappointed by their results. I can tell you as a crafter and a quilter that being able to cut precisely on the lines is essential to making a good-looking product. Basic skill development is essential, and we jump to the end activity at our own peril.

Will my children have the comfort and facility with Jewish prayer that I do? I don’t know. Our school is less “religious” than the one I attended, which means that instead of reciting prayers every day they do it twice a week. I do know that at the age of 4 K already knows the entire (long) blessing over the Sabbath wine. She’s heard it every week since her birth which puts her at… well, upwards of 200 repetitions. One day, I hope, she’ll be able to stand and recite the blessing fluently while feeling the awe and sanctity of the words.

Our job, as parents and educators, is to give our children the skills to function in the world and to find fulfillment. When it comes to religious education, we’d do doubly well to remember that.

Montessori-ing my home: baby stuff

Have you ever noticed that babies seem to bring a lot of stuff along with them? A couple can be happily living in 450 square feet, and then they have a baby and – BOOM! – the entire place is full of baby equipment. Swing, bouncy chair, bumbo, exersaucer, gymini… and that’s just the living room.

We had all those things for K. It drove me nuts – my living room looked like Toys R Us had thrown up in it. By the time N was born I had become accustomed to a living room without baby paraphernalia and I wasn’t in a rush to put it back. The bouncy chair went into storage and the exersaucer went to the backyard (a sanity saver when I wanted to do some gardening and N didn’t want to be strapped to my back). Then K started school and after reading everything I could about Montessori and parenting, I concluded that my next baby would have a lot less stuff.

And so it is. We do still have the swing, but that’s it. Instead of the crazy primary-coloured gymini, we have a wooden arch that is very sturdy and holds a hanging toy (more about that in a moment). We also have a foam mat and a long, low mirror. Aside from that, we have adults who snuggle R and siblings who dote on her.

So what’s with the mirror and the mat? And the hanging toy? I’m glad you asked.

The movement mat

"Aw, geez. We're wearing the same thing. How embarrassing!"

According to Montessori, babies need freedom of movement. These days babies don’t get much of that, if you think about it: Swings, bouncers, strollers, bumbos – all those things keep the baby physically passive and largely immobile. As a result, babies don’t have enough opportunities to develop their muscles and proprioceptive sense (the sense that tells you where your body parts are in relation to each other). K’s school principal recently mentioned that many children don’t have the hand and wrist strength required to write properly because they don’t sleep on their tummies as babies, and thus don’t get enough practice pushing up with their arms.

(I’m not saying that we should go back to putting babies to sleep on their tummies; there are plenty of waking hours in which babies can practice those skills.)

Right. So recognizing babies’ need for freedom of movement, Montessori parents will set up a movement mat. It’s a semi-soft surface on the ground where a baby can gradually develop its movement skills. A new baby might lie on the mat looking up at a high-contrast mobile, or lie on his or her tummy to develop the neck, trunk, and arm muscles. The mirror holds the baby’s interest (look! another baby! in the same shirt as I’m wearing! what a coincidence!) and also provides visual feedback on the baby’s movements.

In our home the movement mat is also K and N’s play mat. The only addition we made to it was a cheap back-of-door mirror from Canadian Tire (as an aside, K and N love the mirror, too.) R spends a lot of time on her mat. At the age of three months she mastered the front-to-back roll and two weeks ago (four months) she started flipping from her back to her tummy faster than you can say “get the camera!” She also manages to rotate her body so that she can look in another direction, and to shimmy herself a foot or so away from where I’ve placed her. And – this one is scary, y’all – she’s started to stick her bum up in the air, as if she’s ready to start crawling (I’d better find the baby gate.)

Do we miss having the other stuff? Well, yes and no. It’s a bit of a different experience, not having so many places to “park” the baby when we need to put her down. But babies aren’t cars. We’re not really supposed to park them (even though sometimes we need to). Not having all those pieces of equipment is not only cheaper, it also forces us to accommodate the child’s needs rather than our own. If I really, really need to park her somewhere, on my back in a baby carrier seems to do the trick.

The hanging toy

I know, I know. That toy isn't wooden. But look at the concentration on her face as she tries to grab it!

R loves her hanging toy gym. I love it, too. It’s from IKEA, it’s made of wood (and most of it is a natural wood colour for the decor snob in me,) and the toys are wooden as well. In a traditional Montessori infant environment, babies begin with a progression of mobiles that encourage the development of visual discrimination. When they begin to reach for the mobile, it is exchanged for a hanging toy – usually a wooden ring on a length of elastic. The theory goes that the child can practice grabbing and manipulating the ring, and also learns cause and effect when she lets go.

That’s all fine and good, but I’ve found another wonderful reason to love hanging toys on elastic: they can’t fall and roll away. How many times have I given my babies something to hold and play with, only to have to pick it up for them every time it drops? Well, not anymore! R grabs, twists, turns, pulls, and chews on her hanging toys (oh yeah, there’s another advantage: she can actually put the toys in her mouth.) When she lets go they fly up into the air and then they’re dangling within reach again. It’s impossible to lose the toys.

I also can’t help thinking that what R does with her hanging toys right now is similar to a resistance band workout. I’ll bet she’s got some serious little baby biceps going on.

The high chair

R isn’t quite ready for this one yet, but when she begins eating solid food she’ll be sitting in a Tripp Trapp chair. This is a bit out of line with the classic Montessori approach of having a tiny table and a chair with arms that the child can access all by herself, but I like to have the kids at the table with the family. The Tripp Trapp is fabulous because it has an adjustable seat and footrest, so that the child can sit properly (and can use her feet and legs to re-adjust for comfort) at the correct height for their elbows to be just above table level.

So that’s it… three pieces of equipment for the baby. And what about toys? R has about eight of them. A skwish, Sophie the Giraffe, a homemade fabric ball with ribbon tags, three hanging toys that we rotate out, a very soft rabbit blanket (i.e. a stuffed rabbit whose neck is the center of a minkee blanket)… hmm, that might be it. I can’t think of another one right now. Anyhow, with seven toys in rotation R is perfectly happy and my living room is a little bit less cluttered.

So there you have it… the Montessori-flavoured guide to having a baby without buying every possible piece of baby gear.

Any questions?