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?”

“Dah!”

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.

Lessons from summer camp

My kids aren’t going to day camp this summer. The little ones are too young and I also like having the flexibility to sleep in, hang out, and not rush the children to go anywhere.

It comes at a price, though… having three little kids at home all day can result in a very, very messy house, and since my oldest doesn’t nap anymore, there’s no kid-free time to clean it.

In keeping with Montessori philosophy, our home is a place that we all need to keep clean so that it is ready for us to use and enjoy. That means everybody does their part, everybody cleans up their own messes, and everybody can be productive. Even the babies. But how to implement it in a way that won’t make the little ones rebel?

Good thing this Montessori Mom learned a few tricks at summer camp:

1. Cleanup after breakfast

Young children crave order and repetition. My young kids seem happy to have a set morning routine: Wake up, get washed and dressed, eat breakfast (oatmeal from the crockpot – mmm!) and then, just like at camp, you go back to your bunk and clean up before you go outside to play. We call it “Nikayon” (Hebrew for “cleaning”) just like we did at camp, and everyone gets a task.

N and K love scrubbing the toilet. I let them, although sometimes I make a big fuss about it being “my turn” just to keep them interested. They like it when I let them get into an empty tub and scrub it with baking soda. We also have a sticky roller on a long handle that they enjoy pushing around to pick up dust and crumbs. Seriously, they fight over these tasks. It’s very cool.

Nikayon time also includes tidying up the toys in the living room and picking up everything from the bedroom floor. Beds get made. Our nanny does the kitchen cleanup while I finish off the bathroom. The place is clean… and then we go out.

2. Mealtime routine

At summer camp there is always some kind of system for clearing the table, usually involving a dishpan of soapy water, a slop bucket, and a scraper. It’s a fabulous example of Montessori’s “prepared environment”; the children are able to clear the dishes because all of the necessary tools and facilities are readily available and easy to use.

We’ve taken to filling the plastic sink in the children’s play kitchen with soapy water. When they are finished eating they carry their plates to the kitchen, scrape them into the green bin with a rubber spatula, and put their dishes in their sink. The table is clear and the dishes are ready for the dishwasher regardless of how long it takes for me to get back there and load them all in.

3. Get outside

At summer camp you’re only in your bunk to get dressed and to sleep. The rest of the time is spent outdoors. Same deal here: we clean up and then we leave the house, even if just for the backyard. Remember: they can’t mess up the house if they’re not in the house! Seriously, keeping the kids outside as much as possible really helps cut down on the indoor chaos.

4. Daily activities

We have tons of games, crafts, and toys here at home. Every day we try to bring out one new thing for the kids to play with in the morning. We’ve done a water table, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, bikes, and we usually set up some kind of beading craft. Even just handing them the garden hose counts, as this morning’s mud bath proved. Prepare the environment and then get out of their way, and the kids will do fascinating – and fun – things. It works at school, it works at camp, and it works at home.

5. Rest hour

Or as we say at Jewish summer camps, “Menucha.” It doesn’t matter how old you are, how tired you’re not, or whether or not you ever sleep during the day. After lunch we have rest hour, which means everybody is quiet and in their own “bunk.”

More often than not, rest hour turns into “rest couple of hours,” which is fine by me. Sometimes even I get to do some napping.

 

And that’s how things are at Camp Jewish Montessori Mom. I have to run – I’m in the mood for some water sports. Happy camping!

Yes, that’s me… the ultimate happy camper!

Montessori parenting really is different

We have a toddler shabbat program at our school now. Like the dozens of other toddler shabbat programs in Toronto, this one gives very young children – accompanied by their parents – the opportunity to set the Shabbat table, say the blessings, enjoy some challah and grape juice, and sing with friends. The children also have about thirty minutes of time to work with some very basic Montessori materials.

It is during this work period that I’ve been fascinated by the contrast between how most of the parents interact with their children, and how the Montessori-trained staff do.

Constant narration

In the current parenting culture, we seem to believe that we have to talk at our children nonstop. This used to irritate me when people did it to my kids, although I couldn’t articulate why other than a vague comment that “it’s insulting to a kid’s intelligence when you make their every experience verbally explicit.” Honestly, many experiences in life are more potent when you just shut up and experience them. Right?

Montessori philosophy pretty much agrees with me on this one (and it’s about time I was right about something, because so far today I’ve been wrong about many, many things. Just ask my four-year-old.) The child is supposed to learn from working with the materials, not from listening to an adult describe said work. When the adult comments or exclaims on the child’s efforts, they shift the focus from the work to themselves, breaking the child’s concentration.

Praise

Oh, I could write a book about the evils of constant praise, but many people already have. May I just say that I hate it? In a single afternoon, many weekends ago, I heard the following:

  • “Good waiting, you guys.” (I figured the fact that waiting patiently will get you a snack was reinforcement enough, but some parents apparently disagreed.)
  • “Good using your words!” (again, isn’t the reward of using your words that people understand and respond to you?)
  • “Wow, great jumping!” (It’s a bouncy castle. Kids love to jump in those. Just what was this parent hoping to achieve by praising something that the kid does – and enjoys – naturally?)
  • “Good eating snack, everybody!” (Has it come to this? We’re praising our kids foreating? You have got to be kidding me.)

Why exactly do we praise kids for every single thing they do? And what do you think happens to kids when they grow up and discover that nobody is going to praise them for taking out the garbage, showering, or fulfilling their job description?

The Montessori attitude seems to be that self-esteem comes from achieving mastery. Of course, praise that flows naturally from a place of delight with a child’s efforts is always okay. But when giving positive feedback, Montessorians generally stick to the facts, as in, “Wow. You poured water into all six glasses and didn’t spill a drop!” or, “You read that whole book without stumbling over the hard words.”

Can I just say, on a personal note, that I feel really validated by this approach? I want my kids to have self-esteem because they know that they are competent, capable, and talented – not because their mom thinks they’re cool.

Respect

Sure, we pay lip service to respecting our kids, but do we really? I know that I fail on this count multiple times a day, rushing them along when they actually need to finish what they’re doing, etc. But do we even respect the importance of what we believe our kids should be doing?

That sounded convoluted. Sorry. Maybe I’ll just skip to the anecdote.

When the mothers (and they are all mothers, although fathers are certainly invited and welcomed) arrive with their toddlers, the children immediately gravitate to the Montessori materials and begin working. What do the mothers do?

Oh, come on. Guess.

Yep. They talk. Loudly. About everything from their kids to their clothes to what’s for dinner. And this feels okay, because the kids are doing what they’re supposed to do, and the moms are doing what moms are supposed to do.

It would be okay in any other drop-in setting, in the sense that nobody would think to ask the moms to stop talking while their children played. But imagine that people kept coming into your workplace while you were trying to concentrate on an important project. And imagine those people, while not demanding your attention, were conversing loudly about things that had absolutely nothing to do with you and your work. Wouldn’t you stick your head up and say, “Excuse me, but I’m trying to work here!”? Wouldn’t you expect them to respect your right to a quiet workplace?

Montessorians respect children’s work, including their need for an appropriate workspace, materials, and yes, silence. We can talk loudly while the children play because they’re “just playing.” But if we take into account all the skills that our children are developing when they work so intently with the Montessori materials, it very quickly becomes very clear that we need to respect and support their work. And that means keeping the environment conducive to focus and attention.

Expectations

I often (about five times a day) say that the key to happiness is lower expectations. It’s true inasmuch as expecting my house to be a mess and at least one of my kids to be unhappy at any given moment helps me to face the chaos that is parenting with my sense of humour intact. And yet, my time observing the toddler program has reminded me that we (as a society) place very low expectations on young children.

Over the six-week program I’ve heard mothers exclaim “I had no idea s/he’d be able to do that!” over the following:

  • a fifteen-month-old using ice tongs to transfer pom-poms from one bowl to another… for upwards of fifteen minutes
  • five toddlers, all under the age of two, resisting the urge to drink their grape juice until after the blessing was said
  • a child (again, under the age of two) carrying a ceramic bowl containing water, without spilling or dropping it

And those are just the things the mothers exclaimed about. Other things, like the fact that all the toddlers drank from glass cups without any being broken, were taken for granted within the classroom but might surprise non-Montessorians.

In short, very young children are capable of a lot more than we think they are. My kids surprise me with this every day: yesterday K insisted on carrying a cafeteria-style tray laden with food – and real china plates – to our table at Aroma. I said “no” again and again until she wore me down with her insistence that she could do it. She did it. No tipping, no spilling. I was amazed. I also apologized for doubting her.

All of this makes me wonder, what else are our children capable of?

Imagine how the landscape of parenting in North America would be different if every parent allowed their child the time and space to focus on their interests, respected the child’s “work” (be it play, reading, or practicing new skills,) and had high expectations of their child’s ability to function competently in the world. How would our children be different? And how different would our schools look?

I can only imagine. Well, except for that last question. The answer to that is staring me in the face every morning at 9  a.m.

What abilities have your children surprised you with? Do you tend to praise? Over-praise? Or under-praise (like me)? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Why physical milestones matter

Yes, I’m guilty of blog neglect. I apologize. I’m also guilty of hating to read post after post about how “I’d like to post more often but life got in the way,” so I’m just going to launch into the topic now:

Sometime last week I commented on a friend’s link on Facebook. It was about babies not getting much tummy time and consequently not meeting physical development milestones “on time.” I enthused about the rate of R’s development compared to that of my other two children and attributed it to her spending all of her playtime (most of her waking hours, in fact) on the floor.

Apparently these days talking about how some parenting decision has worked out really, really well for you is similar to wearing no panties to a bar notorious for its hookup culture. Ill advised, perhaps. Inviting abuse? Surely not. And I didn’t get abused; it was more like a light slap on the wrist.

“Who cares when your kid crawled or rolled over?” One woman commented, “I am so tired of this line of thinking. They’re not going to university not knowing how to sit up! We don’t need to push our children to achieve. They’ll do it in their own time.”

She’s right and wrong at the same time. Montessori philosophy agrees with her that children will learn and develop at their own pace, but there’s a caveat: they have to be given the right environment and the right tools at the right time. In the case of developing physical milestones, if we don’t give them enough spaces and opportunities for free movement, they won’t develop the normal milestones until much, much later.

Which brings me back to the question of why we should care that our children aren’t meeting milestones as early as they used to. In short, it matters because strengthening the muscles takes a lot of time and practice (as anyone who does resistance training can tell you,) and complete proficiency and strength in the basic exercises are a necessary foundation for the activities that come next, at which we do care if our children excel: paying attention, sitting at a desk, writing, reading.

I’ve been reading a blog called Pediatric OT, written by an occupational therapist who works with children who are having difficulty in school. I’ve learned a lot from her blog. One of the more unexpected points she has made is that in the absence of strong neck and spinal muscles, the eye muscles’ fine motor functioning is compromised and as a result, the child will have difficulties with visual perception that may present as difficulty reading, writing, and participating in team sports. And why would a child have weak neck and spinal muscles? It comes, says this therapist, from children being less active as babies and toddlers: when they are constantly supported in a swing, bouncy chair, bumbo, exersaucer, or carseat they don’t have to strengthen their core muscles – they already have a stable base from which to work. When we take that base away, though, their body is not strong enough to remain steady and support the neck and head.

And once again we circle around to the question, “why does it matter whether they crawl/roll over/sit up as young babies?” The answer, finally, is that it matters because rolling over, crawling, and sitting up earlier are indicators that a child has had plenty of time for free movement, and has spent that time strengthening her core muscles… and since she can crawl, she does, thus increasing her strength and endurance. Can you imagine all the hours and hours of exercise and strengthening our children are missing if their physical milestones are delayed by even a couple of months?

You may be thinking that a delay of a couple of months is fine, that it just pushes everything up by a couple of months – but it doesn’t. Our children’s physical strength isn’t developing as soon as it used to, but they’re expected to go to school and learn to read and write at increasingly younger ages. See the problem?

What does this have to do with Montessori, anyway?

A lot, actually. The Montessori curriculum involves a series of exercises, each building on the last, both physically and intellectually. Long before they learn to write, two- and three-year-olds are using a three-fingered grip to manipulate pegged puzzle pieces, use eye droppers and tweezers, and polish metal with a q-tip. This grip is practiced (and the hands and wrists strengthened) in increasingly challenging ways, for many months, before the child holds a pencil to begin writing. Montessori educators understand that in order to be able to write a literary essay in grade seven, the child must first have developed his visual discrimination (identifying different shapes and colours,) visual tracking (being able to move the eyes smoothly so as to keep focusing on a moving object or on text,) pencil grip, wrist strength and control, and so on. Children require a great deal of practice to develop the fundamental skills they need, and Montessori ensures that they get it.

Attacking the other end of the problem, that of children being expected to do academic work before their bodies are physically ready, well, Montessori solves that quite neatly as well: a child simply does not move onto harder work until she has the required knowledge and physical ability to handle it. This means that some (very few) children will learn to write and read at age three, and others will learn it at age five, or maybe even six… just as some babies will learn to crawl at six months, and others at eleven months. They simply need the time and opportunity to develop their muscles in a natural progression.

Neither of her siblings crawled at six months, but then they both spent much more time in "baby containment devices." The plural of anecdote is not data, I know, but it's a fascinating contrast nonetheless.

 

Aside

What does a Montessori mom do all day?

I’ve written a lot about the physical aspects of Montessori at home – what equipment you do and don’t need for children. It occurred to me today, as I ran errands with N and R, that you might want to hear a bit more about how Montessori philosophy affects our daily activities. Montessori parents have to run errands as all parents do; how different could it be?

Come on a virtual ride-along, and let’s see.

There were four items on our list this morning:

  1. Drop off purged clothing in a donation box
  2. Take expired medications and some old sharps (relics of IVF gone by) to the pharmacy for disposal
  3. Drop off Montessori Dad’s shirts at the dry cleaners (Pesach is coming, you know. Are your clothes ready for the holiday?); at the same time, return wire hangers for reuse/recycling
  4. Buy fruit and vegetables

With so many stops (all within a 1 kM radius of our home) and some sunny weather, I decided to take the bike. N helped me to put the bags into the bakfiets, and soon he and R were snuggled in among bales of clothing:

I biked over to the pharmacy first, where N carried the little bag of stuff to the pharmacy counter while I carried R. Then we hopped back on (and in) the bike and went looking for the clothing donation box, which wasn’t where I thought it was.

We have a great dry cleaner here who, in addition to using non-toxic chemicals in the dry-cleaning process, also has a covered drive-through area. You still have to get out of your car (or off your bike,) but it’s a few short steps to the back counter – totally safe (and dry) for leaving little ones in their seats, if that’s your style. It’s not mine (and not for safety reasons.) After parking the bike I gave N the wire hangers and showed him the bin for hanger recycling. He promptly dropped all but one hanger on the floor near the bike, so while I discussed stains and pickup times with the man at the desk, he went back and forth from the bike to the desk, carrying one or two hangers at a time. Finally they were all in the bin – no more to carry… so N took two out and started over again! That’s the Montessori toddler right there: repeating a task over and over to attain mastery.

But let’s move on. We needed some produce and so headed to the small supermarket up the street. Since I was wearing R, I gave N the task of pulling the basket:

You can see that most of the produce is way too high for him to reach. The bananas were sufficiently low, though, and he helped me choose a bunch and place it in the basket. N has a tendency to throw things, so first I modeled putting something in gently, then asked him to copy me. I did that with each item – I put in one apple, he put in the next:

An elderly gentleman took one look at the three of us and said kindly, “It might be easier to get one of those carts with the seat and put him in it.” I thanked him and said, “He’s learning how to grocery shop.” I know that we could be done a lot faster if I just put them both in the cart and did all the shopping myself, but that would transform N into a passive observer rather than an active participant in our daily activities.

(Lest I sound like a saint here, know this: I take the kids along on short shopping trips to small stores. When I go with a long list  to the huge, crowded supermarket, I go alone.)

We rode home and I gave N a small cookie to snack on (he had chosen his own cookie at the store.) R was still sleeping in the bike, so we wandered around the front yard and inspected the budding trees, the tiny baby daffodils, and the pebbles in the path. We picked and smelled some of the herbs (our parsley came back this year, the thyme never died, and I think even the rosemary is somewhat alive.) After a while, N sat down on the path and took in his surroundings, pointing and naming as many objects as he could identify:

When he was good and ready, N came up the steps and into the house. I was “good and ready” a full half hour before he was, but I refrained from picking him up and carrying him inside. “Follow the child. Follow the child.” I muttered, and rememinded myself that N needs time to concentrate on things that interest him without being interrupted (who likes being interrupted in the middle of something fascinating? Not me.)

And that was our morning. Four errands, three of which allowed for N to take an active part in their completion. When not in the bike, N walked under his own steam (and without hand-holding) and R was carried on my hip in the sling, which forces her to use her arms and legs to grip my body and her back and neck muscles to stay upright when I bend or lean over. Both children were included in the social niceties at each stop, and at the end N had a chance to spend time outside on his own terms. Life as a Montessori child isn’t just about all the pretty wooden toys and tiny tools; it’s about learning to take your place as a productive member of society – even when you’re just a toddler.

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?

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.

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