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.
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!
- Montessori, M. (1988). The absorbent mind. Oxford, England: Clio Press Ltd. ↩
- 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. ↩