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.

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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.

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?

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.

It’s the small things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with fire

About a month ago we hosted a birthday party for K. She requested a camping party, so we emptied the living room of furniture and turned it into a campground: tents, nature objects for a scavenger hunt, and a fire.

Yes, a real fire. No, we didn’t have a screen in front of the fireplace. That would have defeated the purpose – dinner was roasted hot dogs, and dessert involved s’mores. The kids needed access in order to cook that stuff.

The point of this story is that it was really a non-story: fifteen children and one toddler attended party with open fire – no injuries occurred. (For the record, we also had kids using pointy metal sticks to roast their hot dogs and marshmallows, and miraculously everyone still has two healthy eyes.)

For some reason this surprises people, especially when I mention the toddler who kept walking back and forth right in front of the fireplace. More surprise becomes evident when I mention that we didn’t even talk about fire safety rules.

As Montessori Dad says, “it’s basic evolution.” Fire is hot. It’s too hot to get close enough to be burned. Anyone who couldn’t figure that out within seconds was weeded out of the gene pool a long time ago.

This brings up a larger point: that of trusting the children to respect the tools and materials we use every day. Respect the fact that fire burns. Sit near it, warm yourself, roast some dinner, but don’t put your hand in. Respect the fact that scissors can cut, and learn to carry them safely when not in use. Respect the fact that ceramic dishes and real glasses are beautiful and fragile. Hold them carefully, put them down gently, don’t throw them.

The dishes thing is the one I hear about most often. When other people hear that I give my children real dishes and glasses they invariably say, “I couldn’t do that with my kid. He would just throw them.”¬† Well, he will just throw them until you teach him how to care for the dishes and hold them properly. Believe it or not, you can trust a baby to not throw a ceramic dish.

(Another aside: a week or so ago we had a babysitter helping me with dinner and bedtime. I reminded N to take his plate to the sink. He held it correctly – “fingers on the bottom and the thumbs on top” – and began walking to the kitchen. The sitter placed one hand on the edge of the plate, I suppose to make sure N didn’t drop it. What happened? N let go of the plate. He’s not stupid. If someone else is going to hold the plate, why does he need to? The next night I asked him to take his plate to the sink and he did it without dropping or tilting the plate.)

It comes down to trust. When we shelter our children from everything breakable, hot, sharp and pointy, we’re telling them, “We don’t trust you to handle this correctly. We don’t think you can learn how, and if you did learn we don’t trust you to remember and do it carefully. You can’t possibly be competent. We’ll just do it for you.” What a message to send our children.

The thing I love about Montessori is the trust and respect it affords every child. In K’s classroom and in our home, the message is: “We know that you can learn to do this correctly and safely. We trust that once you’ve learned how, you will handle the materials with care. We know that you are competent and responsible.” And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The children use real glass and china, tiny beads, knives and scissors, all day long. And they do it safely and responsibly. They feel capable, they feel proud, and they feel respected.

And that’s why I let my kids (and yours, too!) play work with fire.

N, 11 months old. Yes, there was an adult very nearby. No, he didn't get too close to the fire at any point. The adult never had to step in at all.