Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Real Goal of Discipline (And How to Get There)

I am 100% opposed to embarrassing children into compliance. Every time I see the pictures demonstrating that a parent has done this, I cringe at all of the totally sincere comments claiming that here is the Parent Of The Year. I feel this way because children are human beings, and all human beings deserve to be treated with respect. Embarrassing someone is incredibly disrespectful, and not the way we would treat other people we care about.
Worse, it damages a relationship that really needs to be strong. If you want a child to listen to you – to respect your ideas and hopefully choose to follow your guidance – you absolutely have to have a good relationship with them. That doesn't mean they will always agree with you or never be angry with you, or vice-versa! It simply means that when you have a conflict, you resolve it together, as a team, instead of making it into a power struggle with one person winning and one person losing. Honestly, even the “winner” in that scenario is losing because of the damage it causes to the relationship.
I think a lot of people choose to punish because they don't know what else to do. Most of us were raised in a punitive household, and today the mainstream opinion is that if you don't punish, you're not really parenting. This punishment takes a lot of forms – spankings, embarrassment, time-outs or grounding (isolation), removal of “privileges”, and so on. But every one of these scenarios turns the situation into a Me vs You for the child. It breeds resentment and makes him consider you his enemy.
If the goal is short term compliance, then yes. All of those methods are effective at getting short term compliance. And in the moment, that may be your goal. But when you've stepped out of the immediate situation, I think we would all agree that the goal is to help your child become an adult with strong decision making skills and good ethics – the kind of person who can create the kind of life he or she wants, and be self sufficient, without hurting other people to get there.
With that goal in mind, take a look at the current research. All of those methods that are so effective for short term compliance actually damage the child's chances of reaching the long term goal! (Alfie Kohn has done a lot of research about this.) What has been proven effective basically boils down to responsiveness; effectively the opposite of what is generally considered in the parenting toolbox.
Responsiveness is not the same as permissiveness, though. Limits are absolutely important, and sometimes they do need to be strong. It can be a struggle for parents to walk that line, especially in a culture where we haven't had a lot of exposure to that kind of parenting. Often we don't have previous experiences to look back on, and draw from, that relate to the situation we're experiencing.
The solution to this dilemma is always to consider the ultimate goal. You need a course of action that encourages the child to want to obey the rule, even if you would never know it had been broken. They need internal motivation.
This takes different forms at different ages, and with different personalities. Toddlers, for example, need short, firm, and consistent messages about what is okay. They need real empathy when they desperately want something they can't have, but they also need to know that the boundaries are firm. They could never verbalize this, of course, but they are depending on the parent or caregiver to keep them safe in a world they don't yet understand. At this age the process is all about cause and effect; a rudimentary understanding of their individual capacity to affect the things around them. When they break rules, they are not deliberately being defiant; they are just experimenting. They need to know their caregivers understand that, because it's basically their whole existence.
This understanding in the toddler years also builds a strong foundation for later, when the dangers your child will encounter are not so black and white. If they are used to being understood and know they can rely on your empathy, they are a lot more likely to ask and take your advice.
For most older children, understanding your reasons can be a significant factor. Depending on the child, explanations of the rules during a neutral moment can begin between the ages of 3 and 6. For a child on the young end of that range, the explanations should be very simple, but as the child matures the explanations can begin to cover more of the gray areas. You can explore the situation together, and your child can help come up with the rules. They are much more likely to follow rules that they've created!
The older children get, the more they need to practice decision-making skills, so giving them practice early on will help when they get to the point where the decisions have many more factors. For example, a teenager can help determine the rules about curfews, driving, phone use, and so on. You make the decision together, as a family, and find a compromise you all feel comfortable with.
For example, the image that prompted this post was a photo of a man wearing short shorts, with spandex bike shorts underneath, and a shirt that said, “Ask my girls if they still think short shorts are 'soo cute'!!” This is a commonly lauded approach of the punitive sort. So what might have been more effective?
I would start by having a conversation with the girls about modesty and privacy, and our family values. I would give a limit, such as the length of shorts I found acceptable, and explain how that limit related to our family values. Then I would ask for their feedback. I would find out why they wanted short shorts, even if I thought I already knew. Then I would restate it to them in my own words, so they would know I understood their position. In most cases, the underlying desire is something that can be fulfilled in a different way. These girls likely wanted to wear clothing that would be accepted and admired by their peers, which is reasonable, understandable, and crucial for positive self-esteem and peer relationships. At that age, they are better able to define what their peers will accept, so their feedback is incredibly important – but if short shorts are in conflict with family values, then a compromise would mean finding other clothes that are still stylish and acceptable, but more modest. That way the ultimate goals and needs of each family member would be met.
The basic form of that discussion should work for most children over the age of six, with the different factors being simplified or expanded to meet your child's cognitive level.
It's also important to remember that fairness and justice are extremely important factors to an elementary child or teenager. If they see a discrepancy, they are not likely to accept it, unless there is a justifiable reason for the difference. If they know how they can reach some new freedom, such as a later bedtime or larger play range, they are a lot more likely to accept restrictions while they're working toward it, because the power is in their hands.

Have you had any of these conversations with your children? How have they worked out for your family?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cloth Diapering and Freedom of Movement

I am absolutely committed to cloth diapering our child.
There are tons of reasons to do it – long term reduction in cost (especially over multiple children), being less wasteful, avoiding chemical exposure to sensitive baby skin, faster toilet learning when that time comes... it just makes sense. Plus we're going whole-hog Montessori, and cloth diapering is part of that, mostly for the last two reasons.
Of course there are going to be barriers – such as the high start up cost of cloth and the fact that although we have our own washer and dryer in our apartment, they are coin operated. Which means I can't control the cycles or the wash time, and it makes it a lot more expensive unless I plan to wash them by hand, which I don't. (Here's a great resource for apartment laundering options, by the way.)
But those factors are not my main concern, despite the anxiety dreams I recently had about drying all those diapers. What I'm concerned about is the bulk of cloth diapers inhibiting movement. Another blogger wrote about the same concern here and a lot of people got kind of angry about it.
Let me be clear, I have not read ANY research to validate my concern, and Montessorians definitely advocate for both cloth diapering and freedom of movement. No one in my training or Montessori experience has expressed any concerns about one inhibiting the other, although my trainer did recommend switching to cloth underwear around the time an infant begins crawling to reduce bulk. It really came up for me when I saw standard prefolds used on toddlers, and they looked bulky even on those big two-year-olds. What might that do to delay a baby's development?
There is absolutely evidence that children whose movement is frequently inhibited by “containers” reach basic milestones later, and this is not so different, in my opinion.
You might think that my concern about possibly delaying milestones is misplaced – after all, what harm does it do for a child to start rolling over a few weeks later? Well, actually, since cognitive development depends in large part on exploration of the environment, it could make it harder for the baby to reach his or her full capacity of intelligence. Although new research shows that neural plasticity allows for some brain development even in adulthood, infancy and early childhood is when it comes most easily.
So what's the solution? Not disposables, I know that – not for us. Please note that I'm not judging you if you use 'sposies! I just know that it's not the right route for our family... or at least that it's important to me to use cloth, despite the extra work and my movement concerns, for all those reasons I listed at the beginning of the post.
So I'm starting with the premise that trim and well fitting diapers are a necessity, planning to add in plenty of naked time, and practicing elimination communication (EC) as much as possible. And, for the record, I do plan to switch to thick underwear around six months or so, so we won't be using the diapers as long as most people do. Please note that this does not mean forcing our child to potty train at six months old – I am hoping that EC and cloth will have a positive effect on toilet learning but the switch is intended solely to aid the development of movement.
Unfortunately, we won't be able to see how any of the diapers fit on our little one until I actually give birth, so we have to depend on trial and error while we're actually in the trenches.
Since cost is a major factor for our budget, I'm planning to make some newborn sized prefolds and flats out of my flannel stash. I imagine the sheer quantity of fabric in the regular ones is what causes the bulk, and I'm hoping a newborn won't need as much absorbency as an older baby since a newborn stomach has such a small capacity. Making them smaller should address the bulk without compromising functionality... at least, that's my goal and my hope. I'm also researching which diapers are the trimmest, for when the newborn diapers no longer fit, and those are the ones I'll be adding to our registry.
So hopefully I'll update you all on which diapers worked for us and which didn't... but I don't have a great track record on keeping up with blog posts now, and I'm sure you all know how busy parents of newborns are. I'll do my best; wish me luck!

P.S. - I also write about my personal life a little more freely on my other blog, Megan's Nest, and reserve this one for information specifically relating to Montessori and child care/development. If you're interested in hearing about our quirky apartment and other stuff, feel free to head on over and check it out! 

Saturday, July 20, 2013


Hi, everyone! Sorry for the long delay between posts... I'll update you as there have been major personal changes in my life and the focus of this blog is shifting a little bit as a result.
First, I'm pregnant with my first child. This means I'm probably going to focus a little more on infant development, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and so forth, at least for the next year or so.
Second, I am no longer working at or writing for Dynamite Montessori School. I decided that it was really important for me to focus on this new family I'm starting with my fiance, and that in order to do that I needed to step down from my position as a lead teacher. My new job as a floating substitute at Grand Lake Montessori is a really great fit for me right now – I'm able to get experience in several different classroom communities and it allows me to focus on work while I'm working and my personal life when I'm home.
Since I'm now spending plenty of time with primary aged children (3-6), I expect to continue writing about that age group even though I'm personally focused more on infancy, and I'm always open to new topic suggestions.
Third, now that this blog is no longer affiliated with a school, I can express my personal opinions even when they might be too controversial for a company-associated blog. Up until now I have avoided certain controversial topics about which I am passionate, because I was concerned that my enthusiasm might reflect inaccurately on the stance of the school I was representing. I definitely respect and appreciate their desire to avoid alienating anyone, and I hope that my posts will continue to respect differing parenting choices, but I'm going to be a little freer with my opinions from now on.

I hope you all stick around! I would love for you to join me as I explore Montessori from a parenting perspective as well as a professional one.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What Makes Montessori Different From Other Methods?

I'll start by saying that I have the AMI Montessori training for birth to age 6, and no experience with other education methods except for some volunteer work in traditional preschools, so if you see anything incorrect about another method please correct me promptly. I have done some reading but not everything on the internet is accurate – and some of the things I've read about Montessori make me cringe. With that said...
I think something that makes Montessori unique is that it is reality based. Young children (under six – what we call the first plane of development) are still trying to figure out what the world is like. If we offer them fantasy, fun as it is, that can really confuse them because they don't have enough knowledge about the world to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. So, in a Montessori environment, we offer only reality based materials for those first six years. This is one of the major differences between Montessori and Waldorf, because my understanding is that Waldorf education focuses on fantasy play as a major learning tool.
Something else that I think is unique about Montessori is that the materials were developed scientifically. What I mean by that is that Montessori didn't base her work on expectations of what the children would be interested in or capable of. She just offered a room full of materials, including toys, practical activities such as for cleaning, educational materials, and so on. Then she observed the children, and kept only the things which interested them. She added materials based on what she observed, to delve deeper into ideas that the children found interesting and to help the children develop skills that were lacking for the work they wanted to do. For example, she noted that some children were having trouble sewing, so she offered a bead stringing work as a preliminary activity to practice the motions with less difficulty. By the time the children grew bored with bead stringing, their hands were ready for the more delicate work of sewing.
The progression of materials also helps children to categorize things and understand how concepts fit together. As young as the toddler community you will see children begin to abstract the essential characteristics of things, such as, “all butterflies have wings, but not all butterflies are blue.”
Montessori doesn't assume that something is too difficult for a child simply based on age. When Dr Montessori was developing those materials, she regularly found that the children she offered them to were not interested, but children a few years younger were enamored. A big example of this is reading. When I see people saying that 5 is too young to focus on reading, I cringe a little – because if children have the opportunity to learn the sounds and shapes of the letters when they are three, they spontaneously write around 4 (with chalk or moveable letters, not necessarily pencils) and read around 4.5. The Montessori method agrees with the idea that we shouldn't be pushing reading, but emphatically disagrees that 5 is too young.
Montessori education includes work appropriate to the child's sensitive periods. In neuroscience these are called “windows of opportunity”, and what it means is that the child's brain is focused more intently on specific acquisitions at specific times. For example, when a child is in the sensitive period for developing the use of his senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching), there are many materials for practicing them such as the smelling jars, tasting bottles, bells, etc. I don't know of any other educational method that includes all of those sensory experiences daily, especially categorized in so logical a way.
Montessori classrooms have mixed age groups. This allows younger children to observe older children's work and behavior, and simultaneously allows older children to experience leadership positions and be genuinely helpful. It also decreases competition for the same materials and lets younger children look forward to the materials they will be ready to work with later. I know this is rare in traditional schools, but I have no idea about other paradigms.
I also think the Montessori take on repetition is a little different. Tradition education is a huge proponent of repetition, but they do it the form of worksheets or homework, i.e., forced repetition. Montessori advocates for repetition, but only when the child is choosing it voluntarily. When a child chooses to repeat something it is because he is learning from it, and we want him to develop that concentration so he can figure out whatever it is he is trying to figure out.
This directly relates to sharing and taking turns, by the way – in a Montessori environment a child works with a material as long as he wants and returns it to the shelf when he is finished, ready for the next person. He doesn't have to share it because we don't want to interrupt his work. At the beginning many children need help with waiting for something to be available, which has the benefit of developing patience and generosity. This is because when they share, it is a volunteered sharing that is internally motivated. There is only one of each material in the environment, so sometimes a child gets a lot of practice being patient.
What Montessori has in common with some other methods is the practice of following the child's interests. I know that RIE focuses on this as well, and that both methods emphasize observation of the child, but I think Montessori takes the lead here because it offers opportunities that RIE practitioners might assume children aren't ready for or won't be interested in. For example, I've seen RIE websites advocate for later toilet learning, whereas Montessori provides a lot of precursors and makes toilets available at a young age, so that the child can mimic his elders as soon as he becomes ready without having to wait for subtle external signals (which may not come for a long time if the child hasn't had those precursors such as watching others use a toilet and feeling wetness in cloth diapers and underwear). So we offer activities by giving a lesson, and if the child isn't interested that's fine. He may be interested later and we will give the lesson again if necessary.
Montessori also shares a deep respect for the child and his inner process with other methods. The primary classroom for ages 3-6 is called the “casa de bambini”, which means the “children's house”. Montessori teachers, or “guides” as we usually call ourselves, are taught as part of our training that the materials belong to the children and not us (no matter who pays for them)... so if a beautiful material gets broken we will share in the child's sadness and repair or replace it, but we won't be angry because it was for the children, and it provided a learning experience (which is why we intentionally use materials that are breakable and require taking care). The children learn to care for their “home” and do so willingly because it is theirs and they take pride in it. They love it because it is full of beautiful things prepared just for them, and they respect it because their efforts maintain it.
There are a ton of other things that I could say about Montessori, and you can probably tell that I'm quite passionate about it, but this post is getting pretty long so I'll cap it here and answer any questions either in the comment section or a new post.
Next up is what to look for in a Montessori school!