When it Fails

I knew just how I wanted to parent, long before my first child entered this world. When I became pregnant, I immediately began to read and plan in my efforts to flesh things out even further, down to the tiniest detail. I started blogging when she was still an infant, chronicling our adventures and sharing about all of the parenting ideas that, together formed my mothering compass. When growing up myself, I had been a devout Christian. My beliefs guided my every step, and they were of more importance to me than anything. It just so happened that, at the same time that I realized I could no longer believe in God or align myself with the church, I began training to become a Montessori teacher. My religion ceased to be my identity, and my philosophies took over, with Montessori being at the center of it all.

Before I give the wrong impression, let me say that my confidence in and love for the Montessori method and philosophy has not been shaken in the slightest. Here’s the thing, though, in the parenting realm, many of the ideas I hold dear just aren’t working for my children. They might work beautifully for some children – in fact, I know they are, but those children don’t live here.

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There are still plenty of unlocked places in the kitchen, allowing for the toddler shelf to be stocked and rotated regularly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think it was babyproofing, three years or so ago, where I first conceded. I had never really thought it necessary. Of course I kept any chemicals well out of reach and ensured that anything truly hazardous was safe from little hands, but I wanted everything in their reach to be okay for them. I wanted to minimize, as much as possible, the limits that I placed on their exploration. This worked for a long while. The items in our low kitchen cabinets were safe to remove and touch. We don’t really have breakable decor or anything we might take issue with children getting into. Medicine and cleaning products were kept way up high, and all was mostly okay.

Eventually, though, chugging sugary coffee creamer and taking bites out of the stick of butter became a really fun game. Sneaking a tiny bit here and there is one thing, but eating half a stick and drinking the creamer until there’s nothing left doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. Then there’s the pouring and mixing of various ingredients, just for fun, and taking one bite out of every apple. I tried letting the natural consequences do the teaching (“There’s ketchup on the floor. Here’s a towel,” “All that butter made your stomach hurt.”) I tried reason. I told myself it was a phase and it would stop if I continued to not react. 3+ years later, it’s still just as compelling. I put a lock on the refrigerator, and felt something inside of me die, but it worked.

At one point, bolting in public places ceased to be enough and sneaking out of the house and running up the street became the new cool thing. Talking about why this is dangerous did absolutely nothing to deter further goings out, so we put locks at the top of our doors. At the moment, I’m trying to decide what kind of bars to put on our upstairs windows, and living in fear. Natural consequences are still the best teacher, and children still deserve to hear why things are dangerous, but it turns out that my kids don’t have the same amount of impulse control as their peers. They act first, and think later, and if I’m going to do my most important job as parent and keep them safe, I have to protect them from some of their urges. I also can’t afford to buy dozens of apples every week and a new pint of coffee creamer every day so, you know, practicality and all that.

So we have baby-proofed and big-kid-proofed and continue to do as we see the need. That was a fairly small one, but lately some big ones have come up.

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No reward was needed for this one, but the new towel and special spray provided a point of interest.

More recently, there have been rewards. Because they do, really and truly, undermine natural drive, they are not used in Montessori. In Montessori classrooms, the goal is to leave the child free to develop, and trust them to develop intrinsic motivation. I cringe at the sight of sticker charts, and anytime someone congratulates my children for normal acts like eating their meal, I have to bite down very hard on my tongue. As part of a course I’ve recently taken, Raising Your Challenging Child, which is taught by a cognitive psychologist I deeply respect, and one who deeply respects children, I was encouraged to simply give rewards a try. I chose a couple of major problem behaviors and explained to my big kids how, if each of them engaged in their particular target behavior, as opposed to its opposite, during the school day, they would be able to have a juice box after school. Juice boxes, too, are something I never expected to buy other than for a party, which I suppose is what has made them so attractive as rewards. I did frame it as much as possible with the children in control, so they could self-monitor and self-report and then sort of reward themselves, and I could simply gently guide them. No matter the framing, though, these are still most definitely rewards and, as it turns out, they have been a magical tool for some really problematic situations. I still believe that rewards should be used very sparingly, but it’s hard to help children develop something that simply isn’t there. My children are incredibly self-motivated, but there are some things they simply have no natural desire to do and others that are just plain difficult for them, so when family or community life demands these things, options are limited and we do what we have to do.

The biggest one, that I feel nauseated just thinking about, is time out. I refuse to use the phrase, even now, but the practice is more or less the same. There is a special corner of my bedroom which we have deemed the Corner of Power (stolen from the aforementioned psychologist, not my own idea). Anytime someone in our household hurts another person, whether with words or actions, they are showing that they have lost control, or power, over themselves, and so they are asked to go to the corner of power, or wherever they’d like to “take a break” for a few minutes. This isn’t punitive, but it has been necessary for keeping everyone safe and it has done something that no other method I tried managed to do: draw a very clear and concrete line for my children between behaviors that aren’t particularly desirable but can be tolerated, and those which simply are not allowed in our family. Violence, whether physical or verbal, doesn’t fly here, and finally I think that is becoming clear.

With many children, I know that these ideas can work beautifully. I have seen it with my own eyes, as a teacher and as a nanny in Montessori households. Not all children need locks or rewards or separation from a group to get their power back, but guess what? Mine do. It really sucks, but doing the best I can by my kids is what I signed up for, so I’ll continue to do just that.

The School Year in Pictures

Here are some glimpses into Annabelle, Elliot, and Nora’s “school” days this year. They’re busy!

A works with the division board. Today she told me, “I think it’s time for me to do some big, hard math work, because I’ve spent so much time doing art and language.” Seriously, teachers and parents worry about stepping in when a child seems to work too much in one area — there’s usually no need. They balance it out!

Care of the environment: polishing glass

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Annabelle doing her (self-assigned, actually completely unrelated to school) “homework.”

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She was playing teacher and it was actually making it hard for the other children to do their own thing, so I tried suggesting that she write a story about her imaginary school. This is what she did.

I love when Nora gets to come be with us during outside time!

It stinks not being with her all day long, but I love that she’s the first to wake up, so I get a little time with her in the early morning light before the school day starts.

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He was admiring the bulbs that died very shortly after their arrival to our classroom. Fun while it lasted!

Sometimes Nora gets to join us for a few minutes at the end of the day, too. Here she is at afternoon snack.

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It’s rare that I capture in photos the intense side that makes up so much of who Annabelle is. This is her dancing on a “field trip” to the park, while also playing a mean witch or something. This face is one of her signatures. She’s so very complex, that one.

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Elliot played the same dancing game, with less intensity.

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Preparing afternoon snack.

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Using the rug beater to clean the rug from our classroom entryway.

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Hammering nails into a stump.

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This was Annabelle giving a Montessori “three period lesson” on the names of the primary colors in Spanish.

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Animals and their homes

 

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Lunch with friends!

 

[Not] Having, or Doing it All

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Nora, on one of the first days of school this year. I’m grateful she gets to join us often for outside time.

It has been some time since my last post, and all of the previous year I found myself wanting to blog, but feeling the need to play catch up for those who have followed along with me for awhile. The past several years have been big and busy for me, with the growth of our (now officially complete) family and the birth of our community program turned small business. A lot has shifted in our lives, as is normal for a growing family finding their groove. Before I get back to sharing some of our world again, I want to talk a little about how we’ve been making things work over the past year or two, lest I leave familiar readers with the sense that I’m steering and keeping this crazy ship afloat on my own – something I have now realized would be entirely impossible for me.

As a review, or an introduction, depending on your familiarity with our story, my family moved to the Washington, DC area from the magical island of Guam about three and a half years ago. Back then it was me, my husband, two-year-old Annabelle, and the 33-week-old fetus that would soon grow into an adorable baby boy called Elliot. Before marriage and Annabelle, I had been a Montessori teacher, and when we got to our new home Annabelle was nearly the age of the children I had long worked with. I wanted her to have the Montessori early childhood experience, so I began looking for a school for her and quickly discovered that we’d be looking at either a daily commute and a very pretty penny for tuition, or waiting another year to apply for the lottery and dealing with the disappointment if she didn’t get one of the precious few spots. I decided to create another, more workable option, and I found some like-minded families in our cozy new neighborhood. By later that year (just over three years ago now) we had a little co-op going. Slowly that co-op grew and changed to meet the needs of the families involved, most of whom are still involved today. We bought a house that was perfectly suited to support it, and our little program is now a thriving home-based Montessori program for 3-6 year olds. It may not be a co-op any longer, but it wouldn’t continue to exist without the support of the families who helped bring it to life, and who I still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to know and call friends.

One of my goals in starting our program was to create a life for us that involved balance between work, family, and individual pursuits. I figured that working from home would allow me to be with my children as I had always desired to be while also maintaining a professional life in my field. Sticking close to home would keep the pace of our life slow enough that I could also take care of the needs of our house and continue to cook delicious vegan food from scratch. Perfect, right? It sounded that way, but my expectations were unrealistic.

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Elliot’s first day of school this year

As Elliot grew, he was no longer content to hang out in his own space during our school day and do his own thing away from the preschool materials, but giving him free reign in a classroom not designed for his age group was both dangerous for him and frustrating for those it was intended for. Just as I was seeing that the environment could not continue to meet his needs as a toddler, our littlest, now 20 months old, came along. Nora gave me the motivation and a perfectly reasonable excuse to slow down and shut the doors of our school for a little while (luckily it also happened to be summer break, or close enough). By the time she was three months old and we were ready to open our classroom yet again, Elliot was that much older and more mature. He was a little over two, and I’m accustomed to folding children into the 3-6 classroom anytime between 2.5 and 3 years of age, so I decided that starting him a bit early would be no big deal. He would join the class, and Nora would take over his workspace. At the same time, a toddler room had opened at a nearby, reasonably priced Montessori school and they offered a two morning per week program. I enrolled Elliot and planned to send him there on Mondays and Tuesdays and have him with us for the rest of the week.

This.did.not.work. The work in a toddler environment and the work in a 3-6 classroom are simply different. Toddlers combine. Toddlers dump. Toddlers destroy. Preschoolers are different. Trying to work in both spaces within each week, especially while being young for our space, was stressful for Elliot, and trying to meet his needs was stressful for me. Nora may have been manageable on her own, but when Elliot was upset and needing my attention, she often needed the same, and there were a few mornings that school year when both of them were screaming at once and one of the 3-6 year olds would start covering their ears while trying to work. I had to face reality, so that October I hired a nanny. She took care of Elliot and Nora both on the three days that he did not go to his Montessori toddler room, and on the other two days Nora hung out in her own little corner of our classroom while Elliot was at school. This year Elliot is three, so he has outgrown the toddler room and is participating in our class full time and doing fine, but our beloved nanny still works full time, coming even on the mornings when Nora is in the Montessori toddler room Elliot once attended. She folds laundry and sweeps up while Nora is in class, and takes incredibly good care of our girl when she’s home. This allows Nora to be in an environment where she has what she needs, and it allows me to focus– and as a bonus, it prevents laundry mountain from growing and taking over our house, so it’s a win on all accounts.

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Annabelle, my big kindergartner, at the start of the year

As our class grew, I decided I couldn’t handle the care of our little school alone either, so at the start of this school year, I hired a part-time assistant who helps me keep things in the classroom running smoothly. At this point, I’m still able to be around my children for a large portion of my day – Annabelle and Elliot for virtually all of it, and Nora for less than I’d ideally like, but still quite a lot. I’m still able to avoid dedicating time to a commute. I’m still able to enjoy a professional life, too, but much has fallen by the wayside. I can’t tell you the last time I made a loaf of sourdough bread from scratch. My starters both died, actually. Over a year ago. I sometimes hurriedly eat fig bars from Costco for breakfast, in contrast to the fresh, whole foods I once lovingly prepared. My kids eat a lot of cereal. I promise I buy the kinds with very little sugar, at least. Even with the help of our incredible nanny, our house is almost never clean. I have had to let a lot go, which I’m okay with in this season, and I have needed a lot of help. Thank goodness for help. It’s not just the nanny and the assistant teacher, either. It’s neighbors, friends who take a child or two when I need an extra hand or help me get my freezer stocked with home-cooked meals, and my husband who is truly a partner in caring for our household. I like to think I help them all, too, but some days I feel like I’m withdrawing more than I’m depositing to my relationship accounts. I’m grateful that no one has started charging me overdraft fees, and I’m shifting things around a little more still, by going to half day hours in our school next year, so I can start to pay some of that back and keep life even more in balance … perhaps. I suspect the craziness will continue  through the early childhood years, and very likely beyond, if in different ways, and I’m pretty okay with that.

Now, if you see me post pictures of our classroom or the from scratch meals I do get to make sometimes, you’ll know that they’re the wins in our wild, messy household, and I was only able to put work into them because I have so many people to lean on. Together, we make it all happen, and it’s nowhere near perfect, but I love it.

Another Year of Annabelle

Annabelle2014For the fifth time, I have had the honor of welcoming a new year as a mom. I’m just letting that sink in for a second.

Five New Years full of surprise as I watch this girl discover and conquer the world. It’s really, really hard some days, but the rewards are great.

Here’s what Annabelle had to say during the last hours of 2014:

I am: 4 years old.

I like to: jump.

My favorite food is: apples.

My best friend is: C

My most special memory is: playing with C.

I saw: a cat.

I read: The Gingerbread Man

Mom note – Reading was huge for Annabelle this year, which I really saw when looking through the photos from 2014. One of the first pictures I have of A in January is the first one in this collage, where she is doing the first phonetic word building exercise from our language shelf. Just a couple of months later, there’s pictures of her writing, and later in the year, there she is again with the moveable alphabet, this time building a complete sentence without the tiniest bit of help or direction. She definitely loves language and it has been a thrill to watch her master it with such enthusiasm and independence. At this point, she is reading anything and everything and learning as much Spanish as she can, too.

I created: a house.

I sang or listened to: Mr. Blue Sky.

I learned: how an apple tree grows.

I went: to Cheese Park.

In 2015, she wants to:

go to Waterfront Park, and to Colorado to see her cousin and her Aunt.

learn how to ride a pedal bike.

try to climb a mountain in Colorado.

(do) drink champagne.

create a swimsuit.

I think it’s going to be a pretty great year with this girl by our side!

Elliot’s Year

Elliot2014Elliot is just weeks shy of turning two and a half, and one of the biggest changes we have noticed with him in recent weeks is a huge development in his language skills. What this means for today is that, for the first time, he was able to really participate in the tradition of New Year’s Eve interviews I started in Annabelle’s toddlerhood, that is until he decided he was tired of my questions.

Here’s what he had to say about 2014:

I am: 3 (see above, he isn’t, but he is fond of saying so lately).

I like to: play with C (a friend)

My favorite food is: yogurt.

My best friend is: Elliot.

My most special memory is: umm, I don’t know.

I read: The Gingerbread Man (really, though. I think I read it to him at least six times today.)

After this, he started answering every question with “I don’t know.” So I answered a few of the biggies with my view.

I created: a lot of artwork with crayon, pencil, marker, stamps, paints, and dough. Circles featured heavily.

I sang or listened to: “Where is Thumbkin,” “Old Betty Larkin,” “Jingle Bells,” “Twinkle, Twinkle,” and “You are my Sunshine.”

I learned: all of my body parts and a lot of other words in Spanish, and to brush my hair and teeth.

I went: to Houston to meet my GiGi.

to Montessori school.

to music class.

His answer to all of the questions about 2015 was, “I don’t know,” so I guess we will see. I’m sure he’ll surprise us in many ways with his accomplishments this year. My concept of time as a parent has been so weird, and this year that’s especially true as I look back on Elliot’s life over the past twelve months. Certain seasons can be such a challenge that they seem as though they’ll never end, and being in the midst of them can make time inch by. The eternity during which Elliot insisted on starting his day at 4:45 every morning is one such example from this year. Meanwhile, the constant activity associated with having three young children in the house can make the days race by and looking at this year’s photos is evidence of that. As much as I know intellectually that Elliot started the year as a one year old, looking back at the photos of him as a tiny toddler from last January, in his one piece snow suit and training pants, is so strange. It’s hard to picture him as anything but the kid he is today. Even so, I know that who he’ll be at this time next year is something I can’t anticipate even with all I know of him now. What an honor it is to watch these children become something new every day!