Montessori Teacher vs. Montessori Mom: On Giving Attention

One of our last days on Guam. Just hanging out together in the company of friends…

During my years in the classroom, I learned a great deal that has contributed to how I view my role in any situation involving children, not the least of which is parenting. The Montessori method places great importance on the child’s natural and self-directed interactions with the environment, and the role of the teacher is more as a facilitator or guide, maintaining a safe and carefully maintained space in which the children can engage. Montessori even likened the teacher to a “servant” of the child’s spirit, who carefully meets all of his or her true needs, not in the sense of doing everything for them, but of making sure they have at their disposal all the tools necessary for their work. The goal is for the children to become so independent and self-directed in their work, that the teacher can fade into the background more or less completely. In Montessori’s words, the “greatest sign of success for a teacher … is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.'”1

I started off parenting with a very similar mentality. I don’t want my children to constantly feel my presence. I want them to have me as an attachment figure, a sort of secure base from which to explore the world. I want them to know that I’m always there when they need me, but I also want them to feel free to interact with others and to have experiences without necessarily worrying about how I feel about them. Of course it’s natural for young children, particularly babies and toddlers, to use their parents or attachment figures as a sort of barometer – verifying with them that a situation or an object is safe. This is a positive thing, but gradually and in their own time, I believe, children should come to rely on this sort of check less and less. I want my children to learn to trust themselves and their ability to judge a situation or an action, and so my goal is to offer this sort of feedback only when it’s solicited. I try not to comment too much on what my daughter is doing, unless I see that she’s needing reassurance, or help with choosing a safer, more appropriate behavior.

One thing that’s on my mind a great deal, lately, is the difference between my role as a teacher and my role as a mother. I’m starting to see that the humble position of the Montessori teacher is not always appropriate for the home setting. The Montessori teacher remains ever in the background, making her presence known only when it’s needed and then fading into the background yet again. As a parent and an attachment figure, however, I’m seeing the need for my presence and my focused attention more and more these days. While there’s so much value in standing back and letting children freely explore the world, as parents we’re an important part of their world as well. I have had a hard time viewing my presence2 as necessary in day to day life.

I have always engaged with Annabelle, of course. There are hugs and kisses galore, time to read books together, and time to explore together. We take walks, bake bread, and play silly games. We have fun, and I simply step back when I see that she’s engaged in what she’s doing independently. This works just fine, but it has been awfully busy around here lately with the move and some other obligations, and our time together has been somewhat less than usual. I didn’t expect this to be a big deal, because I think of my child as independent and as benefiting more from her interactions with the world than from her interactions with me. I love our time together, but as a Montessorian, I never really thought of it as one of the most important parts of Annabelle’s day. She’s showing me, however, that it’s a pretty big deal to her.

…after taking plenty of time to explore alone.

We love books around here, and Annabelle has been tearing them a lot lately – something that she never did much before. I know this is a relatively age appropriate behavior. It happens with two year olds. The thing that struck me, however, is that she never does it in secret. She doesn’t go into a room by herself, or wait until we’re not around. She usually tears a book when her dad and I are nearby, but focused on another task and if we don’t notice right away, she tells us. She knows we’ll respond, and she seems to be asking for a response from us with this behavior.

Another scenario has been coming up at bedtime. We have a pretty stable bedtime routine, and it always involves going to the bathroom right before turning the lights out. Several times lately, however, Annabelle has wet the bed just a few minutes after her bedtime bathroom visit. I was really surprised by this behavior and even a bit worried at first, until I listened to what she was saying about it. She was coming out of the room to tell me she had gone pee, and then running through what would happen next. “You go pee, and then mama has to pick you up!” She was wetting the bed quite intentionally, because she wanted to be picked up, or at least that’s what I took from the situation.

Some would say that I shouldn’t reinforce these “negative behaviors” by giving attention in response to them. I tend to view things like this as symptoms of an underlying need, however, and in this case I believe that the underlying need is for more focused attention from me and from the daddy. While I try to give very little attention to the behavior itself, I am trying to respond to the need I see by focusing a whole lot more on being fully present, even if it means getting some of the work of settling into our new house done a bit more slowly than I’d like.

My first response to all this was mama guilt, but I’m doing my best to remind myself that we’re all a bit stretched and stressed right now, having just moved across the world, and to let go of the guilt and let myself learn from this experience. It’s all part of the journey, and I learn more about how to weather it best every day.

Do you incorporate focused time with your children as an intentional part of your day, or let it come more naturally? What are your thoughts on the balance between staying in the background and spending plenty of quality time together. I’d love to hear from you!

  1. Montessori, M. (1988). The absorbent mind. Oxford, England: Clio Press Ltd.
  2. By presence I’m not speaking so much about literally, physically being near my child, but more about engaging and directly participating in what she’s doing. I see a distinction between physically being present, and making one’s presence felt.

21 thoughts on “Montessori Teacher vs. Montessori Mom: On Giving Attention

  1. Annicles

    I think there is a huge difference between parenting and being a teacher. I learnt not to leave it to chance and have times during the day or week that allow me to focus on a single child. Bedtimes are a special time,even for my 12 year old. I also have 1-1 time with them when I feel they need it. It could be as simple as reading together or a tennis game or a trip to town. It is never a reward, always to answer a need. Funnily enough I feel that because she did not experience motherhood directly herself, it wasn’t until she watched her grandchildren that she was able to gain any meaningful insights into parenting, which is a shame!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      I truly admire the way you prioritize quality time with each of your children. I’m sure it has contributed to the relationship of trust they have with you.

      While I believe many aspects of Montessori philosophy are applicable to parenting, and to any interaction with children, I agree that her wisdom was much more for educators than for parents. A very good point, and it is a shame.

      Reply
  2. teresa

    I’m struck once again by your wisdom and willingness to really *hear* your child. I also think that A. is brilliant. I don’t see any bad behaviour; I see her finding a way to communicate. And she’s so clear about it. Pee in the bed and get picked up. It’s not naughty, it’s efficient.
    I can’t remember the ages and this is probably part of my over-talking to Em, but after something like that I’d at least have told her that she could just ask me if she wanted to be held….. I would be like you in that I’d have responded to the need as opposed to trying to supress the behaviour.
    I wish I had been more silent and in the background when Em was growing. That is the part of Montessori that’s just like Waldorf. Fortunately Em had wonderful teachers who did that for her.
    As far as “mama-guilt”…. I’m sure I’d have the same feeling, but I also do believe that these are wonderful opportunities for A. to learn to ask for what she needs. If we meet all their needs before they are ever allowed to feel any desire, or lack… then we’re robbing them of an important part of their development.
    Turns out I did this way too much with Em. And boy did we all pay for that when she was around 4 (really starting at 3)… Because I was so overly empathic with her for so long after it was necessary (in infancy and early toddlerhood), she became dependent on me just knowing, well everything and she would get furious when I failed to attend. Does that make sense?
    I believe that the loving, beautiful, comforting information that your daughter has gotten through this time is that you will always pay attention and you will make time for her.
    I love your perspective and really count on it.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thank you for the encouragement, Tree.

      You are absolutely right – she’s very aware and knows just how to get what she’s needing. I agree that these are great opportunities for her to learn how to ask more directly. I may over talk a bit myself, but I did exactly what you mention when I realized what was going on with the bed wetting, and explained that if Annabelle was wanting to be picked up, she could ask me with words. It has only been two nights, but it hasn’t happened since.

      Your wise words on meeting our children’s needs are spot on, I think. It can be a challenge to find the balance between helping and offering support when it’s needed, and rescuing them from scenarios that could otherwise be valuable learning experiences. Something else I was re reading when I went to pull the above Montessori quote today was this, “We do not serve the child’s body, because we know that if he is to develop he must do these things for himself…We have to help the child to act, will and think for himself. This is the art of serving the spirit…” The two of you would have gotten along well, it seems ;)

      Reply
  3. Jess

    You are so smart :) I love reading how you deal with your situations, it helps me balance as I tend to be a little too “involved” sometimes. It bothers me a little when people comment about “reinforcing” negative behavior or “spoiling” children. How can addressing your child’s needs be a “bad” thing. I guess if you don’t talk to them about their behavior or why they are acting the way they do, you could run into some problems ;)
    Annabelle seems like an enchanting little girl, what a blessing!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thank you, Jess! I think she’s pretty enchanting ;) I’m irked by the idea that paying attention to our children = reinforcing negative behavior, or too much attention leads to spoiled children. I certainly wouldn’t want the people I love to ignore me in the hopes of helping me build character!

      Reply
  4. Rach

    It is so interesting to get your perspective on the parent/teacher divide. I agree with you about her behaviour being caused by an underlying need – well hey she is even articulate and intelligent enough to tell you that herself, the little love.
    B acts like this a lot, always when she isn’t getting enough attention, or if things are unsettled. There have been plenty of changes in A’s life. Isn’t it always when you really really need to get on with other stuff that they really really need your attention. It’s a balancing game, and yes while the balance might need to swing in her favour just now, I hope you can swing it back to your needs a bit too soon.
    I tend to think too much or too little focus and attention are both”bad things” – it’s getting the balance right is the killer sometimes!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      It is definitely a balancing act! Fortunately in this case meeting Annabelle’s needs doesn’t mean ignoring my own so much as just ignoring housework. I really can’t say I mind ignoring housework all all that much!

      Reply
  5. Deb @ Living Montessori Now

    I love your thought-provoking post, Melissa! There definitely is a difference in a Montessori teacher’s role compared to a Montessori parent’s role. When I had a question while my kids were growing up, I just went with my motherly instincts even if my response was different from what I might have done as a Montessori teacher. It sounds like you’re responding beautifully to Annabelle’s needs. I love that you listened and responded to what her behaviors were saying.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      “When I had a question while my kids were growing up, I just went with my motherly instincts even if my response was different from what I might have done as a Montessori teacher.” I think that’s really important, Deb! Our interpretation of philosophy can lead us astray far more easily than following our instincts. What the mama instinct says is usually pretty right on!

      Reply
  6. Jessie, The Education of Ours

    I’m a Montessori Teacher (next year with my girls in class) and a Mom who practices Attachment Parenting. I also ask myself these questions with every interaction we have, but I follow my mothering instincts and they end up being what I believe a Montessori Mom and AP Mom would do. We do hugs whenever they ask at home. I also do hugs anytime at school for students. It’s important for children to know they are loved, where ever the setting. The question in our minds here is about independence. Leaving them to discover without hovering, interrupting, or interfering is the role of both mom and teacher. I’ve been investigating my style a lot lately in preparation for my twins to be in my class next year and I’m seeing that Mom Jessie and Teacher Jessie follow the same children, with the same attentiveness and care.

    I have to admit, your post title got me here. The vs. made me think there was a right and wrong and I’m both :)

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Oh, no no, there’s definitely not a right or wrong here – the vs. is more a comparison and contrast within myself, since I’m both mom and teacher as well – or rather have been.

      I have been really surprised by how perfectly Montessori and Attachment Parenting can work together. It was hard to see before becoming a parent myself and really giving thought to what practices made sense, but it all comes so naturally now (well not all of it, obviously! Many things still have me thinking :) I’m glad to hear your mothering instincts have led you to that conclusion, too.

      I’m sure having your girls in your class will be quite an adventure! I admire your thoughtfulness as you prepare. I’m sure that will be a huge help!

      Reply
  7. Janine

    I think that’s great that you NOTICED those behavior changes and what they really meant. Sebastian does something similar, where he gets into things he knows he isn’t supposed to, climbs furniture, etc., usually in the morning when I’m either trying to catch extra couch sleep or on my computer. He knows I will have to get up and physically remove him, thus picking him up and interacting with him. In our case, I try to redirect in a different way, so I get on his level, say, across the room. That way, he can come to me and he is simply changing activities, not being rewarded for getting into mischief.

    I think you need to honor yourself more as a mom. I believe there is a lot of wisdom in the Montessori approach, but physical contact and comfort is important too! Sounds like you guys need to snuggle in for a long breakfast in bed or something. :)

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks, Janine. Your strategy makes a lot of sense, and sounds like it works well for Sebastian. I love that it both honors his need for more attention, and your need to get some work done. That balance is the hardest part, for me anyway.

      Breakfast and snuggles in bed sound awesome! I hope I haven’t given the impression that Montessori discourages physical comfort or contact. I definitely agree with you that both are incredibly important! Especially within the family…

      Reply
  8. Connie-Little Stars Learning

    Moving is SO stressful, for EVERYONE. I’m sure everything will settle down, especially since you are so wonderfully responsive and in-tune with her emotional cues. While I love my students, the role of teacher is very different from parent and they know that. This morning I had a little boy who was screaming at his parents the entire morning. They walked in and I simply said, “Is there any screaming at school?” He shook his head and went calmly on. Children need the knowledge that their parents will love them no matter what they do or how horribly they behave and test that regularly. That connection is vital to their happiness and emotional maturity. The teacher-child relationship lacks this component. They may feel accepted, safe, and loved, but without that underlying knowledge of complete and utter acceptance that children only have with their parents. As a homeschooling mom, I find that line between parent and teacher is often the “versus” you mentioned in the title as my son gets older, especially as the pre-teen drama erupts. So, this is a topic I have been mulling over myself. So much of my time is spent teaching, that sometimes I need to just be a mom. Thanks for the reminder, and congratulations on the job you are doing. It sounds like you are an amazing mother.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      I really love the way you compare and contrast the parent and teacher relationships, Connie. You make such excellent points – how true that our children need to know we love and accept them no matter what they do! I hadn’t thought about that particular difference, and I’m glad you mentioned it.

      I have given a lot of thought to homeschooling lately, or starting my own Montessori program at home, and the conflict you mention is an important thing to consider as I decide whether or not that’s the route for us. More great food for thought! Thanks so much for sharing!

      Reply
  9. Amy

    So interesting that you wrote about this! I’ve actually being thinking about this issue a lot recently as we are considering homeschooling- I was going to email some of the bloggers I respect and ask their opinion, in fact! I also just finished reading Playful Parenting. I really enjoyed it and recommending, but it was really challenging some Montessori ideas for me, and I wished I had someone to discuss it with. He focuses very much on interactive play with children, and, at times, guided/directed play. (But, even it is still “child-led” as the parent must determine the child’s mood and desires.) In the final chapter, Cohen actually quotes Dr. Montessori (I can’t remember exactly, but something about independent play..), and says that he has always respected Dr. Montessori and believes in many of her ideas, but that he totally disagreed with the quote. This certainly made me think.

    I really like your insight here and Jessie’s comments. I try to find a balance between “Montessori” time and “cuddle” time, mainly by reading Q-ball’s mood as you have mentioned you’ve been doing with Annabelle. And, it’s so sad that people find this responding to negative behavior! You’ve nailed it with finding the reasons for the actions. And, of course about the secure base!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      It always seems like someone writes about whatever is on my mind at any given time, too. Funny how that works! I know I for one am always up for that sort of discussion, and have read Playful Parenting, so feel free to share your thoughts any old time if you’re itching to chat with someone! I’d love to hear more about what’s on your mind. And you know I’ll read if you post about it, too!

      I thought of you when I mentioned the secure base, of course ;)

      Reply
  10. Melissa Vose

    Great observations! I advise no parental guilt…. Guilt is my nemesis!! It is never constructive, in my experience =)

    I have to be pretty intentional about focused time with each child, because I have a handful, and because two of them go to public school. If I’m not careful, Matthew and Amarys will eat up all my focus and Ayden and Riley will get wallflowered. But I really do have a heart for autonomy and try hard not to interrupt or insert myself if my kids are engrossed in something, and allow them to free range as much as possible. It’s a balance!

    Reply
  11. Christine @ African Babies Don't Cry

    Jesse is very independent and enjoys playing independently for the majority of the day, as long as I am within eyesight and available for attention when needed – so I guess spend focused time with him when it comes naturally. One plus of being a single parent, is that I have boatloads more time available to Jesse, but I also see tell-tale signs of when a little more attention is needed, and try to read between the ‘bad behaviour’

    I am hoping to incorporate more structured play into his day however, like building puzzles and painting – at the moment these things don’t interest him, and I am sure that will change soon, just as he eventually became to love books a little later than I hoped :)

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      It helps so much when you can remember to look underneath behaviors and figure out what’s really going on, doesn’t it? It sounds like you and Jesse have a great balance, and I’m sure I’ll gain a ton of ideas from you as you incorporate specific activities into your days!

      Reply

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