The very first article I read that sold me on Montessori did not have the word “Montessori” anywhere in it. Seven years ago, when our first child was at the cusp of transitioning from baby to toddler, my husband and I walked into a Prospective Parent class at a local Montessori school. Until that evening we had understood Montessori to be an alternative method of education worth investigating. We walked out with several handouts, one of which was written by the founder of the school, Donna Bryant Goertz, and titled “Owner’s Manual for a Child.” It is written from the point of view of a child in the first plane of development and begins with these words, “Dear Parent, I want to be like you. I want to be just like you, but I want to become like you in my own way, in my own time, and by my own efforts. I want to watch you and imitate you”. I still possess my copy from that evening: creased, tear-stained, and printed on green paper.
At the time of my initial reading of “Owner’s Manual for a Child,” I had just (barely) survived my first year of motherhood. After having overcome the challenges of a baby turning up a month before the due date engraved in our minds, nursing difficulties and postpartum depression, our family of three had slowly and painstakingly started to find its rhythm. Yet, there was a deep chasm. It was a void of not knowing exactly what we were supposed to “do” with our child. Nothing I saw or heard in the way parents around me were raising their children seemed to resonate. Their enthusiastic “Good job!” sounded hollow; their homes overstimulated me even at 30 years of age; their children meandered from toy to battery-operated toy without any sense of purpose or satisfaction.
As I read “Owner’s Manual for a Child,” I felt every muscle in my body slowly start to relax; I could hear the words in the voice of my own child; I could sense the clutter of all the parenting jargon I’d encountered melt away. Through the green sheets of paper was a child so simply informing her parents of what she needed for her own self-development. The void was now filled with a vision.
A few months ago I asked a fellow Montessori parent and photographer to take pictures of our home to accompany an interview for a Montessori blog. As Emmet photographed, he commented, “I can’t believe you were ever anything other than a Montessori mom.” The words struck me with great poignancy. What if we had not found Montessori? Would we have eventually found our way as a family, or would we have carried on with a sense of being adrift in a world rife with parenting how to’s? Certainly there were many families who had started off their Montessori journey at the same time as we did, but sooner or later acclimatized to a more mainstream family culture. Conversely, as we reap its benefits, our commitment to Montessori keeps growing.
As I pondered the reasons our family has thrived at being quintessentially “Montessori,” I realized I could sum them up with six main tenets.
- My husband and I have been aligned in our desire to understand and adapt to a Montessori way of being. Our date nights have been attending a parent education class at school followed by dinner, where we discuss what we have just learned. In seven years I can honestly say we’ve been to the movies twice. Life is (hopefully) long but the child-rearing phase of life goes by in a flash. There will be a catching-up-on-fine-films phase, some day. “We are both so fortunate that within me I have a secret plan for my own way of being like you.”
- We attended classes and practice using non-violent communication with each other and with our children. The models we use are Faber and Mazlish’s “How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk”, and Sandy Blackard’s “Say What You See”. Using this style of communication has been the biggest challenge in our parenting journey because it is so antithetical to our culture of origin. “Slow down when you speak. Let your words be few and wise.”
- We discovered a style of parenting described as “authoritative.” I like to explain it as having firm boundaries, but with huge amounts of warmth. “Just get down to my level within a foot of my face, get my attention, and look into my eyes before you speak. Then let your words be few, firm, and respectful.”
- We slowed life down. Way down. We have made the necessary adjustments to live on one income while our children are young. Young children move very slowly and we match their pace whether we are building legos, helping them get dressed, or involving them in getting dinner on the table. “I don’t want you to do it for me or rush me or feel sorry for me or praise me. Just be quiet and show me how to do it slowly, very slowly.”
- We observe our children, and then adapt our home to match their needs. Our home is prepared in such a way that both our toddler and our eight-year-old can independently be fully contributing members of our family. Inside the house all the materials available to them are intentional and purposeful. The same holds true for the outdoors, to which our children have easy access. “Please take the pressure off both of us by creating my home environment so I can do my work of creating a human being and you can stick to your work of bringing one up.”
- Our children’s access and exposure to screens is close to zero. “Owner’s Manual for a Child” was written before the advent of smartphones and tablet computers, but the same principles the author addresses hold true today. From our own experience of trying different things to see what works, we’ve found that screens take away from the richness of the real-life experiences we desire for our children. As I go about my daily life I see children in strollers on a beautiful day mesmerized by a phone but oblivious to the birds; at a concert staring at an iPad, eyes glossing over the instruments; enthralled by digital entertainment while foregoing the learning that will come from observing an older sibling’s gymnastics class. Such sightings, as well as other research, strengthens our resolve to protect our children from the desensitizing effects of technology. “TV makes me distracted, irritable, and uncooperative. The more I watch, the more I want to watch, so it creates issues between us. If you can’t say no to a daily TV viewing habit for me now, where is my example for developing the strength to say no to other bad habits later. Besides, the more I watch TV, the less I want to be like you.”
One may argue that these are just examples of a family culture that works for some, and has nothing to do with Montessori. But if you visit my children’s Montessori school you will see elements of every one of my six points in action. Consider, as an example, the greeting the children are received with at school. Each morning, every child is met with eye-contact, a firm handshake, and an authentic “Good morning.” Sometimes it takes a pause, and the adult gently saying, “May I see your eyes?” before the connection is made. It is in these interactions that I see all of our parenting at home being melded into school and creating a true partnership. How enriching and comforting for a child to experience consistency between school and home. How much more peace for the parent who glances at her child in the rear view mirror, walking into the environment where she spends most of her waking hours.
It would be remiss of me to leave the impression that our family life is smooth sailing a hundred percent of the time, because that is simply not true. On the days things are going awry I am tempted more than anyone to take the easy way out, and occasionally, I do. In many of those moments I recall the voices of my teachers, the ones who have worked tirelessly for decades so my children can have this Montessori life. I can hear Donna Bryant Goertz say, “There is pleasure, as well as pain, in the arduous path of worthy parenting.” I re-read “Owner’s Manual for a Child,” and these words are my greatest inspiration to pursue the arduous path: “I know my needs are great and many. I know I’m asking a lot of you, but you are all I’ve really got. I love you and I know you love me beyond reason or measure. If I can’t count on you, who can I count on?”
When it is all said and done, if we can’t give our own children our very best effort, who will?