How control of error makes our lives easier

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that trying to teach my kids anything that’s difficult for them is a one way ticket to screamville, with an optional stop-over in cryingtown. It starts out ok, but then I speak up about a needed correction or to optimize someone’s technique, and next thing I know frustration turns outwards into anger at me – the one wielding the metaphorical red pen of correction.

In general, I try to work with my children’s natures rather than against them. I prefer to make structural or design changes rather than acting as an enforcer – by using our computer’s built-in timers and parental controls to limit screen time, for instance. Or by accepting that nobody in this house will take the extra two seconds to put their coat on a hanger, and eschewing a coat closet in favour of a large entryway lined with coat hooks.

But some things need to be taught, don’t they? Like practicing an instrument – if you keep doing it wrong, you’ll just cement your mistakes. Don’t I have to point them out, even when I’d rather keep the peace?

Not really, no.

In Montessori education there’s this thing called “Control of Error.” Every learning material in a Montessori classroom has a way for the child to check their own work. The teacher does not correct the child’s work or reveal the solution – the materials do this as a matter of course. The child can tell whether or not they have completed the task successfully and they know when they need to work on it some more and when they can say that they’ve mastered the work. If only life were that simple.

When asked what musical instrument she’d like to study, our oldest daughter, K, revealed that she’d actually really like to learn to sing. Only one problem with that – K has a dreadful sense of pitch. She’s not tone deaf (almost nobody really is), but ear training is an area of significant weakness for her.

Now, can you imagine me trying to teach her to sing on pitch? Correcting her every few seconds? Can you imagine her rising frustration and the eventual explosion of anger? No, thank you. I decline. There must be another way.

Ultimately I found it in the form of a (free!) computer program that trains you to sing on pitch. K puts on her headset, listens, and then sings what the computer plays for her. The program displays the pitch she sang as compared to the one she listened to. It’s a bit like biofeedback. K can see whether she’s on pitch or not, and if not, in which direction she should modulate. The control of error is all in the program. No frustration, no screaming, just her trying until she can see that she has succeeded.

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N is learning piano. I typically help him with his practice, which means that I interrupt with, “No! Stop! Do it again!” every time he makes a mistake. If I don’t correct him, he’ll barrel right through the piece, unaware of what he could be doing better.

It so happens that N was practicing his song in the music room at school, and somehow was able to record his playing. “Eema,” he told me later, “I don’t sound so good!” I’d been trying to explain this to him for the past few weeks, but it only clicked for him when he heard himself play.

Including control of error in any task is a huge win. For the children, they can truly perceive their errors rather than having to believe that we’re right and they’re wrong. For the parents or teachers, it’s one fewer source of conflict in what (let’s face it) can easily become a combative relationship. And that’s just a relief for all of us.

Montessori-ing the house: getting in the door

Well, I’ve been MIA for a while here, but I have an excuse: we just built a house.

I finally, finally, got to design everything the way I wanted it. My goal was, and is, to have a house that is usable by every member of the family, no matter how young.

When I started this post, I was going to tell you about all the lovely child-sized features we’ve built into the house. I got up with my camera to snap photos of our entryway. Then I caught sight of our front door and stopped.

I wasn’t even thinking about the door, honestly. But I had a sudden flash of clarity about doors and access, and what those say about our status in a space. So here we are.

When did you get your first house key? If you were a “latchkey kid”, you might have been eight or nine years old. Others of us were older – in junior high or high school. And what was it like not having a key? Well, look at my children’s experience, pre-renovation:

They had to knock or ring the doorbell to gain access to their own home.

They had to stand around on the porch, waiting, while I chatted with a neighbour or went to check the mail.

If we were getting into the car and a child had forgotten something, I had to switch off the car and hand over my keys so they could get into the house. Half the time they couldn’t get the key to work, so I had to get out and go help them.

Look, none of these things is a grave misfortune. But how would you feel about not being able to access your home without someone else’s assistance? On the flip side, how would it feel to be granted full access with no ifs, ands, or buts?

Here’s what we did:


For the visually impaired (or those unfamiliar with this product): we installed a deadbolt with an electronic keypad. Using the code, the kids can independently unlock the door and come into their home.

They can lock up if they’re the last ones out.

They can run back in for something they’ve forgotten.

Most importantly, they know that they have full access to our home, just like adults always have. They have a sense of ownership and responsibility for our home and its security. They know that we trust them.

Not everyone can or will replace standard deadbolts with a keypad, and that’s ok. The bigger lesson here is this: if you’re looking to “Montessori” your home for your children, examine the things we adults take for granted – like getting in the door.

Montessori principles at play

I have a “hands off” policy when it comes to playground play.

“If you can’t get up there yourself, then you shouldn’t be up there right now,” is my response every time I’m asked to “help” one of my children.

You could call it laziness, perhaps, but as I see it, just as babies need to be free to move so they can roll over, push up, and then crawl and walk, rather than being placed upright in a Bumbo chair, children need to acquire physical skills step-by-step, rather than jumping over the basic skills to do the more exciting ones. This attitude has also led to the observation that when my children explore the playground independently of me, I can see Montessori principles come into play.

Take R, my 6-year-old. She’s been a little monkey since she could crawl. Exploring her new school’s playground for the first time, she was entranced by the monkey bars. I’m sure you can figure out what came next.

“Eema! Help me on the monkey bars!”


I didn’t.

For a week, she would jump up to the first monkey bar and hang there, then drop to the ground. Over and over and over again. Then another week went by, and she could travel from the first bar to the second, then the third. And then she got stuck.

The fourth monkey bar is on an angle, as the whole set of bars turns 90 degrees. R couldn’t figure out how to manage the turn. Again, she asked me to help her do it. Again, I refused.

I’m not sure how long it took her – not more than a week or two, since we’ve had only about four weeks of school all together – but she obviously kept on trying.

This afternoon she greeted me with, “Eema! You have to see what I can do!” She clambered up the play structure and swung herself from one monkey bar to the next with ease, all the way around the corner and to the end.

Monkey bars monkey

“Hannah showed me how to do it!” R explained, “You know, Hannah with the ponytail?”

I did know. This girl is three years older than R, and happens to be a friend of our eldest.

Why am I telling you this story? First of all, because it is so exciting to watch a child’s learning process. But more importantly, because I realized I was watching two Montessori principles in action:

  1. Children choose work that interests them, and then work to master the task. Nobody told R to learn how to do the monkey bars; and when she realized that she couldn’t do them, nobody told her to practice. She returned to the monkey bars over and over again until she mastered them.
  2. Children benefit from mixed-age groupings. In this case, R learned the trick for rounding the corner from an older child who had already mastered the task and could actually demonstrate (which I don’t have the upper body strength to do.) The older child was happy to be able to teach and help a younger child. Everybody won.

I feel like there’s probably more there, like the need for the adults to sit on their hands and bite their tongues (yes, that again!), but I’m not sure what. So please, comment: what other Montessori principles do you see in action here?

A prepared environment

A few months ago, Montessori Dad and I looked at each other and said, “Our children have become lazy, entitled kids.”

And so it was decided that this school year each child would be responsible for emptying his or her lunchbox, washing the containers, and putting it all out to dry.

At this point, I’d understand if you were thinking, “What does this have to do with the title? You already have a kitchen sink and sponges and a drying rack. What’s to prepare?”

Remember when I blogged about what each of us sees from our own eye level? Or my post about how the small objects matter? Montessorians know that having the right-sized tools at the right heights is essential to being able to carry out any task properly. With kitchen counters 37″ off the ground and faucets placed 22″ from the edge of the counter, our kitchen was hardly set up for children ages 5, 7, and 9 to be able to wash dishes.

In the end I went to IKEA and bought this:

And this:

Also a couple of these:

Put together, they make up our lunchbox cleaning station. There are two small dishpans (one for washing and one for rinsing), two small dish scrubbers, a garbage bin lined with a paper bag for food waste, a dish drying rack, and hooks for storing lunchboxes.


Two dishpans on the top; bin for food scraps on the right; drying rack for containers in the middle basket; hooks for lunch boxes all around the top.

It’s only been three weeks – so I don’t want to get too smug too soon – but the children have been in charge of their own lunch containers since the first day of school. There were complaints at the beginning, but those have died down. It’s becoming a routine – and it’s easy for the children to do, thanks to our setup. Here’s a shot of it in action:

Washing her lunch container

My point is that once again Montessori has saved my sanity. I could have bemoaned my children’s lack of participation in household tasks – and I did for a while. But I stopped complaining and found a way to prepare the environment so that participating would be easy, practical, and maybe even a bit fun for the children.

This still results in work for me. Right now I’m the one to wheel out the cart, fill the dishpans, then later empty and rinse them, empty the food scrap bin, and wheel the cart away again. Maybe the children will take on these tasks someday; I’m not banking on it right now. But they’re taking on a responsibility that is new to them, and Montessori has made it possible.

What sort of prepared environment have you created for your children? Comment and let me learn from you!


You can take the mom out of Montessori, but you can’t take the Montessori out of the mom… I hope.

We’ve changed schools. Our new school is not a Montessori, and it was very painful for me to make the choice to move. Montessori, and our school in particular, changed my parenting, my home, and my entire way of relating to children. It was a hard environment to leave.

Now I’ve thrust my children into a world of homework (and homework agendas to be signed by the parents), gym uniforms, and late slips. Suddenly evenings have become battlegrounds and mornings are stressful for everyone as we try to get to school on time, which at this school means ten minutes early, lest we get late slips.

Notice how I said “we” get late slips? It felt that way to me – like I’d experience some kind of consequence for the fact that my kids dawdled in the morning. It was the same with homework: I became emotionally invested in making sure that K (our 9-year-old) actually did her homework properly. I was a stress case, and my frustration and anxiety were leaking into all my interactions with the children.

And then over the weekend it occurred to me that my job as a parent is the same as it’s always been: to prepare the environment so that the children have what they need to do their work. It’s their job to do their homework; my job is to provide the appropriate space, supplies, and time. Likewise, I can’t ride their bikes faster for them. I can only make sure that everyone has a bike to ride, and that I start the morning with enough time to get out of the house and bike to school.

Making that small mental shift had instant results.

At homework time, I went down to the homework table with our children and made sure they understood their assignments (they did.) Then the 9-year-old started to complain and whine about how she didn’t know what to write, that the assignment was stupid to begin with, and that she didn’t want to do it. Tears (hers, not mine) ensued.

“Okay,” I said. “It’s your homework, and you know you need to do it. So I’m going to excuse myself to do my work while you do yours.” Ten minutes later she surfaced from the basement and announced that she had finished her homework.

Now, I don’t know what the quality of her work was. I don’t know whether she did a half-assed job. And frankly, I don’t need to know. It’s between her and her teacher, and I trust the teacher to evaluate the work fairly (meaning that she’ll tell my kid if the work is sub-par.) It’s not my problem.

The morning bike ride hasn’t changed much, except that I’m now much calmer when the 5-year-old stops her bike, drops it, and starts wailing about how “I CAAAN’T DOOOO IT!” I stand there and say calmly, “We have X minutes to get to school, and after that you need to go to the office for a late slip. Only you can decide to get back on the bike and be on time.”

And I’m truly able to not care if she gets a late slip. I’ve done my job – everybody has appropriate clothing, everybody gets access to breakfast, and I start moving them out of the house in plenty of time to bike to school, barring any major meltdowns. If the child decides she’d rather give in to her frustration than suck it up and be on time, the consequences are hers. Not mine.

I have a friend, a Montessori teacher, who says, “the hardest part of being a Montessori teacher is sitting on your hands and biting your tongue.”

And so the challenge lies before me: to sit on my hands and bite my tongue; to be a Montessori parent in a non-Montessori world.

This could get interesting.


On bribery, incentives, and intrinsic motivation.

(Or: why my kids “got nothin’ coming” – except for these special cases)

Montessori philosophy discourages the use of extrinsic motivation – incentives, rewards, sticker charts, grades, and the like. The thinking seems to be that if you’re accustomed to getting something after doing the right thing, you won’t develop any motivation to keep doing the right thing after the rewards dry up.

This thinking makes sense to me. It’s how life works for most of us. We don’t do the laundry because someone will give us a toy if we do; we do laundry because it needs to be done (unless we want to walk around naked.) Of course, the reward of doing laundry is in having done the laundry – we get clean, fresh-smelling clothes and can choose from our full wardrobe. And likewise, the reward for my child packing her own lunch isn’t a prize or a sticker; it’s the fact that she has a lunch to eat.

(Did I ever tell you about the time she refused to pack lunch? She kept goofing off, despite a reminder, a warning, a polite offer of assistance, and some easy ideas. When it was time to leave for school she looked mildly surprised that there was no lunch for her. Oh, well. Off to school we went, and I stepped into the school office and asked them not to “rescue” her at lunchtime. They agreed, and it hasn’t happened again since.)

This can be a hard position to take when everyone else around you is giving out stickers and candy and excessive praise for the most mundane tasks. And when medical (or in our case, dental) professionals advise using a sticker chart to curb a bad habit… well, it’s never easy to buck a trend, but it’s particularly hard when that trend produces short-term results while your own method is focused on the long term.

While I don’t believe in using extrinsic motivation in general, I have occasionally used bribery and incentives to strongly encourage certain behaviours. I’ve used chocolate chips as a bribe for my child to learn to ride a bike (long story, kid is a bit timid and needed encouragement to even lift feet off the ground). I use screen time as a reward for violin practice every day. At first this led to more than a little cognitive dissonance, but I spent some time figuring out why external rewards seemed okay in certain situations, and I’ve come up with a coherent philosophy that I can apply to any questionable situation:

In our home, extrinsic rewards are reserved for behaviours that have no apparent benefit in the moment (and might in fact feel like punishment in the moment) but have an enormous long-term benefit.

Take violin practice. I will never pretend that it’s fun or interesting to spend eight months playing a single note over and over with different rhythms, all the while learning how to place your hands. You’re not playing a song, just repeating one note in rhythm. For eight months. It’s not fun, it’s not interesting, and there’s no apparent benefit – at the end of the day, you can still only play the one note, and nobody really wants to listen to that.

But the payoff for practicing violin daily is huge. After ten years you can play a vast repertoire of music (classical, fiddling, OR jazz); you can join an orchestra or a quartet; you can play by yourself for the sheer pleasure of making music in the moment; you can play with groups for more social interaction; you can play for money; you can teach; you can listen to and appreciate music in a different way than a non-musician can.

You can list these benefits until you turn blue in the face, but they’re just too far-off for most children to volunteer to practice daily. And yet, if we “follow the child” in this instance, the child would miss out on so much. Twenty years into the future they’d be those adults saying, “I wish my parents had made me learn an instrument.”

As an aside, I have met a great many such people; upon hearing that I’m a musician, they utter some variation of “I wish my parents had forced me to learn…” I can’t remember ever meeting someone who said, “I regret having taking lessons. My parents did the wrong thing by forcing me.”

That’s why I believe in bribes – but only for things like learning to play violin, or learning to ride a bike, or drilling math facts, or doing remedial reading work. In these cases I don’t really care if my children develop the desire to do something boring and seemingly pointless. That will come with time and maturity. I do care that they learn the skill in question. Once they have developed the skill to a point where it becomes useful and enjoyable they will want to practice.

In the meantime, I’ll have to force coerce bribe motivate them to practice. I can live with that.



Spring is in the house…

… and that’s the only place it is, since the weather here is still in “the dead of winter” mode. Yes, it’s March 5, everything is still covered with snow, and up until yesterday I was wearing long underwear beneath my jeans. Like so many people in Canada and the U.S., I am completely done with winter. Unfortunately winter isn’t done with us. Can the courts issue a restraining order against the weather? I’ll have to check into that.

In the meantime, though, I’ve decided to nudge spring along a bit. Last week we created a mini greenhouse and planted some vegetable seeds. Have a look:

family greenhouse

Not only are we getting an early start on our vegetable garden, but the kids get a glimpse of how rain happens. We haven’t added any water since we planted the seeds – it just evaporates, condenses on the top of the greenhouse, and then falls.

Image 1

… and just in case you want to create your own mini greenhouse… here’s a picture of the materials waiting to become the next greenhouse. It’s simple: a paper egg carton and a clear plastic box, plus some potting soil and seeds. Wait a week and… artificial spring!

Image 3

Aren’t these little sprouts a sight for sore eyes?

Image 2


Self-discipline: Montessori and the… ahem… aggressive child.

I am neither proud nor ashamed to admit that I have a child who sometimes tantrums at school, in the process sometimes biting, kicking, and shoving other children. It’s difficult, and we’re working on it. I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here, except that I led a school tour this morning and the prospective parents raised the question of discipline.

“How is discipline handled? Do they do time-outs or is there some other system in place?”

It’s an interesting question. My memories of school are that misbehaviour was punished. (At this point there are those of you who are saying, “well DUH!” stick with me. You might learn something.) I suppose the philosophy there was that the child could control her behaviour if only she wanted to control it. Really, that’s the only circumstance under which punitive discipline can possibly work.

Montessori teachers understand that, given the right environment, all children want to function well socially. Everyone wants to have friends and be happy. So when a child pushes or bites or tantrums, that’s an indication that the child lacks certain skills or abilities to cope in another way. The teachers don’t punish the child; they remove her from the situation, allow her to calm down, and then discuss what happened and what the child could do differently the next time. If a classmate was hurt in the scuffle, the aggressor might help that classmate to feel better, often by getting him an ice pack or a drink of water.

And then, the Montessori teachers do what Montessorians do so well… they watch.

The next time the teachers see this child’s social behaviour begin to deteriorate into aggression, they will quickly step in with a reminder: something simple like, “If you’re starting to feel upset, please take a walk around the classroom.” Over time the teachers will need to step in less frequently as the child become more self-aware and can remind herself of how to cope with rising frustration.

A wonderful benefit of this approach is that a child who is immature or for some other reason has difficulty regulating his own behaviour is never made to feel like a “bad child.” Every student is working on something – some children need more coaching to be able to carry a bowl of water without spilling; another is still learning how to set out his work so that it doesn’t encroach on someone else’s work mat… and one child is learning how to cope with frustration in a way that doesn’t involve pushing or hitting. There’s no particular shame in needing any of those lessons – each child relies on the teacher to help them improve their skills and form their identity.

The word “discipline” is from the same word as “disciple” and both come from a root word that means “to teach.” Yes, our teachers discipline our students… they teach the children to discipline themselves.

A great resource for Montessori parents.

Our school has fabulous information evenings for parents where we get to see and try the Montessori materials for ourselves. I’d like to think that everyone who is interested in Montessori is lucky enough to be able to participate in that sort of thing, but I realize that’s probably not the case. For everyone who has ever wondered how Montessori goes from introducing numerals to multiplying four-digit numbers, or what exactly is happening when a child practices the wood-polishing exercise, this link is for you.

InfoMontessori is a website with a wealth of information on the Montessori primary (Casa) program. The best feature of the site, I think, is the Montessori AMI Primary Guide. Follow the links to each of the curriculum areas and you’ll find a list of all of the activities that are standard in a Montessori Casa classroom. Each activity name is also a link to the step-by-step instructions of how the material is presented as well as the goal of the exercise. There are also videos on the main page of Montessori guides demonstrating the presentation of various materials.

Oh, and before you click over, go to the bathroom and then get yourself a drink. InfoMontessori will keep you reading for hours.

Baby at work

There are some household jobs that I just can’t do with a baby in the room. Cleaning the toilet, for example. Loading and unloading the dishwasher has been on the list as well; my babies typically try to climb up on the open door and get inside. Sometimes, though, I just have to get it done. Yesterday was one of those times.

So there I was, loading the dishwasher, and there R was, trying to get inside it. After saying “no” and pulling her out of the appliance several times, I decided to see whether she could be redirected to a more productive task.

“R,” I said, “do you want to help me load the dishwasher?”

“Dah!” She chirped. (No, we don’t speak Russian at home. “Dah!” is the R version of “Yeah!”)

I took some of the dirty spoons from the sink and placed them on the open dishwasher door. “Look,” I said, and picked up a single spoon and placed it in the cutlery basket. “Can you put the spoons into the basket?”


We worked side-by-side for a few minutes. Actually, R worked. I kept stealing glances at her and marveling at her focus and concentration. It always amazes me, this capacity for focused work that even a one-year-old has. I continued to pass her the cutlery (minus the sharp knives, of course) and she continued to work.

Lest this sound like more sanctiMommyous bragging, I made sure to take a “reality check” picture. Yes, R worked diligently, but look where the cutlery ended up:

I had to place the cutlery in the basket after R finished her work, so clearly the point of the exercise wasn’t for her to lighten my load by helping with the cutlery. No, useful child labour doesn’t kick in until roughly age four. The point is that as a parent I often have two choices – admonish the child for misbehaviour or channel their interest into purposeful work – and this time I chose the latter. The result? Ten quiet, peaceful, purposeful minutes with my baby, and a baby who already knows the satisfaction of being a contributing member of the family.

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