Life is all about ages and stages, and most of us don’t know it. Oh, we get an inkling of it when we have a toddler and we know (s)he’s entered the “terrible twos,” and we hear about it at school meetings when teachers talk about grouping children of different ages together. But we don’t seem to understand the magnitude of this idea and its great importance to our children’s lives. Fortunately, Maria Montessori did, and we can learn from her and others who followed her.
Dr. Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was really the first physician and educator to create the notion of psychological stages of growth and development. Of course prior to her work in the early 1900s, few had given serious thought to children’s mental health or well being. Children, after all, were necessary workers for the families, not viewed as the cherubs we know them to be. But Maria Montessori, with her strong religious roots, felt a Biblical love and respect for young children, which led her to observe and study them very carefully. As a result of this study she identified and developed an understanding of the developmental stages of children. She created an entire curriculum around these stages which also embodied something she called “sensitive periods” for learning, times when children are most able to learn certain concepts.
While her work may have gone quietly unnoticed by some, others substantiated her work. One famous one was Erik Erikson, who lived from 1902-1994. He identified the same stages that Dr. Montessori had identified years earlier. Briefly, here are Erikson’s stages which validate and support the work of Maria Montessori and the task of each stage followed by Montessori’s plan for that age:
Infancy: Birth to 18 months
During this time the child struggles with trust and mistrust. The major emphasis is the mother’s positive and loving care for the child. This tells the child that she is in a trusting home. Both visual contact and touch are important for the child to pass successfully through this stage. Maria Montessori believed at this age the child’s growth was best fostered by being in her own home.
Early childhood: 18 months to 3 years (the Toddler Class):
During this stage the child masters skills for himself: walking, talking, and feeding himself. Fine motor skills are also learned as the child becomes toilet trained. This time is where the child begins to build self-esteem and autonomy. It is also a very vulnerable stage, for if the child is shamed in the process of learning these skills he may feel great shame and doubt about himself and suffer from low self-esteem as a result. The child’s most significant relationships at this time are with his parents.
Toddler Class: Great importance is placed on reassuring the small child that the parent, when gone, will return. Attention is given to toilet training in a relaxed manner where the environment, with its tiny toilet and sink, accommodate this skill.
Play age: 3 to 6 years (The Primary Class):
During this period the child wants to copy the adults around her. She takes initiative in creating play situations which mimic adult actions. Here she experiments with what she believes it means to be an adult. Now the child also begins asking “why” questions as she explores the world around her. Still vulnerable, she may experience guilt if she is frustrated over her natural desires and goals. She is struggling with her own initiative versus guilt. She benefits from being given the opportunity to do it by herself. Her most significant relationships are with her basic family.
Primary Class: The room is filled with real-life activities for the child, activities whose actions are similar to the actions she sees the adults doing around her. She is permitted to show her own initiative in choosing her own work throughout the day. She is given lessons on how to care for the indoor and outdoor environments so that she may feel like she is capable and become confident.
… to be continued
Ages and Stages – part two
School age: 6 to 12 years (The Elementary 1 and 2 Classes):
During this stage the child is quite capable of gaining many new skills and of learning a lot. He frequently develops a sense of industry during this time and we adults can be impressed by his work. This is a very social time of his life and he is sensitive to how he is perceived by his peers. Relationships among his peers at school and in his neighborhood become his most significant relationships. While parents are still important, they no longer are the complete authorities they once were.
Elementary 1 and 2 Classes: Here great lessons with wide visions are presented to the child. The universe, the chemical elements, the history of the world and its people, the political geography of the planet, and classifications and life cycles of plants and animals are subjects the child studies in addition to gaining skills in language, reading, and mathematics. Peer relationships are fostered and effort is given to helping the child solve his problems with his peers using strategies that promote mutual respect.
Adolescence: 12 to 18 years (Middle and High School)
Prior to this time of life a child’s development depends mostly upon what was done to her. But from here onward, development depends primarily upon what she does. Life is becoming more complex for her; neither a child nor an adult, she struggles to find her own identity. She puzzles over social interactions and moral issues. The child is now interested in herself as an individual, apart from her family of origin, and rather as a part of the wider society. This is a vulnerable time, especially during the first few years of this stage when the child is truly totally engrossed in herself and lacks experience to deal with complicated social issues which may confront her.
Middle School: In this class, the child is mentored by adults who not only understand the conflicts of this age, but who also enjoy being with this aged child. Care is given to make this environment emotionally secure for her as well as academically sound. Opportunities for going out from the classroom in many ways (overnight field trips, working for a few days in a career of her choice, community service projects, running small businesses) support her need to know the larger society.
Not only can we educate ourselves about these stages of growth and development, but we can also find comfort in this knowledge. So often I hear a parent (usually of a first-born child and hence the parent’s first time with the issue) voice concerns about her child doing or not doing something and wondering whether she should worry about this. After 40 years of being a teacher, I can usually assure the parent that this behavior is typical of her aged child. Other children in the same stage of development exhibit similar behaviors, and better yet these behaviors disappear as the child enters a new developmental stage and others appear!
In a time when we’re too often worried whether our child will get into the college or university of our choice, we loving parents must stop and think about our child and her current stage of development. Helping her work on the tasks of each stage gives her a better chance of becoming all she can be. Remember, the child is the mother or father of the woman or man!
When I was a student at Anna Maria Elementary School, the school nurse would periodically visit school and among other things (like weighing and measuring us) she would administer inoculations to us. When we would see her, we would all shudder, fearing it was our turn for shots. So you can imagine how wonderful it was when, one day when I was in 5th grade, she came with a new kind of protection for us. It was the drinkable, liquid polio vaccine. For all practical purposes that was the end of that dreaded disease for all of us, but not for the rest of the world.
I have recently returned from participating in a medical mission to a tiny village in southern Guatemala, about 30 miles from El Salvador. The first night as we volunteers met after dinner, we were asked by the mission leader why we came to do this work. Of course I had gone to accompany my husband who is a doctor (dermatologist). Luckily the mission had jobs for non-medically-skilled “grunts”. As each volunteer told their story, one who had been on the previous year’s mission told us that we volunteers would receive more from the Guatemalans than they would from us. She went on to say that the mission was really about us.
As a “grunt” I was assigned to the vision clinic. The Lions Clubs of America collect used prescription glasses and donate them to causes such as this mission. Each pair of glasses is in a small plastic bag with the prescription of the glasses written on the bag. It was my job along with my fellow unskilled “grunts” to figure out which pair of used glasses would work for each of the 200 or more people that we served. Our means to check their eyes were three instruments: a Snelling chart of the big Es, an up-close reading chart, and an instrument that one looks through and then adjusts until the 7th line of the Snelling chart is in focus. Then by looking at this instrument, one can tell the prescription needed for that eye. So imagine trying to find a pair of glasses that measures correctly for each eye for 200 people. No evaluation was made for astigmatism but many of the glasses had corrections for astigmatism.
The Guatemalans came by foot, bicycle, truck, and colorful chicken busses, the ones crowded with people and overloaded many times with caged chickens! Adults and children alike waited outside the school gate to be triaged into the make-shift school-transformed-into-a-clinic. There were two, three, or four doctors in each of three classrooms. Privacy for examinations and for dividing each room into doctor’s offices was obtained by putting up sheets with rope or taping paper over the windowless barred window openings. With no air conditioning, the clinic rooms were very hot and dusty. We all carried our bottled waters religiously.
A Lesson in Giving – part 2
Since most patients needed eye glasses, medical and dental care, and vitamins and prescriptions, they usually spent the entire day at the clinic, often waiting several hours between examinations and treatments and usually taking care of several small children all the while. There was never a cross word, a forlorn glare, an ungrateful or demanding patient.
Most patients, adults and children alike, had intestinal worms, abdominal pains, rotten teeth, and various other maladies. There were no doctors or nurses in their village and none of these people could afford to go somewhere away and pay for medical or dental care. They lived in one-room homes with thatched roofs, four corner posts, and dirt floors. There was no furniture in their houses, no running water, no plumbing, no electricity. They slept in string hammocks and washed themselves and their clothes in the stream.
Many children came to the vision clinic along with their parents. They complained of not being able to see on the chalkboard (the children’s only educational equipment) when the teacher would write the lessons. Or they complained of headaches and eye strain. With them, just as with the adults, I tried my best to find glasses that would somewhat match their vision needs. During the course of the five days, two young girls whom I cannot forget came to the vision clinic. As was my habit, I read each chart to see what the patient had told the triage team their problem was. After all I could not depend 100% on my Spanish to understand why they were coming to vision. It was then that I read the internist’s remarks. Polio. Each girl had had polio as a toddler. It made sense because they were crippled, but it made no sense too, because that’s a disease that has a 50-year-old-cure. It’s a disease that we don’t consider. Seeing the ravages of an otherwise curable disease in an unfortunate child is a sobering experience. I finally understood the horror and the dread with which so many parents lived before the cure.
It was just like that with their teeth. A dental team was forced to extract teeth which would otherwise never be pulled in our dentist offices but instead would receive root canals and caps. One three-year-old child had 10 teeth pulled. (Sodas are cheaper than milk or water.) It took four people to hold him down during the procedure. It became common to see young adults, some carrying small children, holding wash cloths over the fronts of their mouths, protecting where their permanent teeth had been earlier that day.
The dentists felt it the most, the distance in time, the space between the first- and third-world countries, the time machine that keeps them in the past and prevents them from accessing what is ordinary for us. The disease they have for which there seems no cure is called poverty. It’s ugly, it’s painful, it’s deadly. And when I found myself face to face with it, my heart cried for these very kind, very sweet, hard working and trusting people.
It happened to me, just like that volunteer said on the first night of the mission: I received a lot more than I gave. My awareness grew, my innocence abated. I took my rings off before I went to Guatemala. I didn’t want to invite crime. Now that I’m home, I haven’t been able to put them back on yet. I feel guilty for the random fortune of my geographical birth and for their misfortune in being born in a third-world neighbor of ours.
I hope the holiday season was wonderful for you and that somewhere in those days your were able to find a way to take care of yourself. It’s a valiant cause, taking care of oneself, yet one we all too frequently postpone. Amid all of our responsibilities we can’t seem to find the time for ourselves. Perhaps as children we were never taught how to care of ourselves. I don’t mean how to dress or feed ourselves, not that kind of taking care of ourselves. I mean taking care of our inner person as well as our whole person.
Maria Montessori was very concerned about teaching children of all ages to become independent and ultimately able to care for themselves. So we find that at our school even little children are active in pouring their own glasses of water, getting snacks, tying their shoes, buttoning their sweaters, and zipping their jackets, while the older children camp overnight and set their own tents. There are many lessons of practical life that are taught to the students at the Center so that they feel competent, become competent, and learn to take care of themselves.
But there are ways in which we also teach children at our school to take care of their inner selves, their emotions, their feelings, and even their thoughts. We begin by giving voice to their feelings. Initially we help them find the words to express their feelings, and then we give them the forum for discussing these feelings. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just ARE, so children of all ages need to feel safe in talking about how they feel.
So often we adults are worried about our children’s physical safety, but we at the Center are vitally concerned about our students’ emotional safety as well. We know that at different times in the child’s life vulnerabilities emerge. Without giving attention to these periods of risk for our children, without creating a protective cocoon for not only the very small child but also the emerging adolescent student, we do in fact put their development at risk, and ultimately we put their emotional stability in jeopardy. We think that by providing education for the inner person we are in fact educating the whole child and contributing to the child’s safety in the world. We further believe, and have been supported by our experiences over the years, that children and budding adolescents can learn to make good decisions about how to take care of themselves if only caring adults spend time teaching them.
Not only do we give words for feelings, we also give places for feelings to be handled. In our classrooms we have created special areas where children can find repose. We call it our self-quieting place. We might use a corner of a classroom for this space. It will have in it something upon which the child can sit or lie down, and things of comfort, pillows perhaps, a book or two, special notes to read, maybe little boxes with interesting items to touch or hold, or a head set with a choice of CD’s. Usually the self-quieting place is an out-of-the-way place, a place where a child can find solace and can comfort herself without interruption.
A child might choose to enter the self-quieting place when he’s upset or mad, sad, frustrated, or lonely. He enters at a time when he needs to take care of himself. He stays as long as he feels necessary. We also spend time discussing with our students how to engage in encouraging self talk so that hopefully the child tells himself something helpful as he lingers there, something like, “I’m a good child”, or “even though mommy isn’t here, I know she loves me right now”, or “I’m able to work out this problem, I can do it”, or “I just need to persevere.”
Many of us parents fall in love with the primary Montessori classroom where we can see our children active and happily manipulating Montessori didactic materials. But it’s a myth to think that Maria Montessori’s greatest contribution was to the small child. Her vision included plans for taking care of and educating older children as well in not just a safe physical space, but in an emotionally safe and trusting setting where feelings and emotions could be accepted and explored without fear of ridicule.
We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the genius of Maria Montessori, who gave us the blueprint for educating the whole child through the ages of growth: the toddler, the primary-aged child, the elementary-aged child, and the middle school student. What we do with her blueprint is our choice.
A few years ago there was a popular book called, A Whack on the Side of the Head. Its premise was that in order to get us to correct some erroneous thinking, we need to be figuratively whacked on the side of the head to sorta knock some sense into us. The author’s argument was that we don’t usually change our way of thinking through dialogue, but that we need some change in events, some action happening to us directly to get us to re-think our position on an issue.
So for this newsletter note from me, just consider that you’ve been awakened or “whacked” and are now willing to think about homework in perhaps a different way! Most of us probably believe that having homework assigned to children will result in their learning more and in their getting higher grades on standardized tests. So instead of holding onto these beliefs about the value of homework for our child’s learning, let’s look at what the current research tells us about homework.
Dr. Harris Cooper of Duke University, a well-known researcher on homework, says that elementary school students get no academic benefit from homework. High school students who are studying until dawn are probably wasting their time because there is no academic benefit after two hours of homework a night. For middle school students, their drop-off rate is after one and ½ hours of homework.
There’s a new book by one of America’s nationally known educators and parenting experts, Alfie Kohn, called The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. In this book he reviewed much of the research regarding homework from the past 40 years. He also cited trends in homework assignments. The first and perhaps most startling trend is that during the past 20 years homework, which was previously given to mostly high school-aged students, is being assigned to younger and younger children. Today it is not uncommon for kindergarten children to have homework. And children in the first three grades have as much homework as children in 4th,5th, and 6th grades.
Some of the recent research cited in his book sought to answer four questions regarding homework for students from 2nd grade through 12th grade. Those questions were: what is the effect on students’ grades of the amount of homework assigned; what is the effect on test scores of the amount of homework assigned; what is the effect on grades of the amount of homework actually done by the student; and finally, what is the effect on test scores of the amount of homework actually done by the student.
… to be continued
The researchers concluded that for all ages there is no significant relationship between grades and the amount of homework assigned. For all ages there is no significant relationship between test scores and the amount of homework assigned. Regarding the effect of grades on the amount of homework done, there was a negative relationship for younger students and a positive relationship for older students. And finally, the effect on test scores of homework done for all ages was not significant.
So after reviewing the research, the author concluded that there isn’t enough research to support the academic benefits of homework, and that it would be a mistake to conclude that homework is a meaningful contributor to learning even in high school.
WOW! So why are we educators assigning so much homework, and why are we parents looking for our children to do homework and thinking that it will improve our children’s grades or test scores for college? We have mistaken beliefs about homework. Homework is not what will result in higher levels of learning. Ouch, that was a whack on the side of the head!
So, what will improve our children’s school work? Well, there are lots of ideas about that! One that was presented to us last month at our teacher’s retreat by consultant, educator, and author Mike Brock, is that the highest predicator of child performance and happiness in school is based on three factors:
Does the child/student feel significant in his home? Does he have meaningful ways to contribute to the life of the family?
Does the child/student receive affirmation in her home; does she know that she is valued by her family as a person?
Does the family have regular family dinners together?
It’s time that we, the true advocates for our children, become educated in the kinds of activities that maximize our children’s childhood experiences. Our child’s home life experiences are the real gifts we give to them. Perhaps they’ve been undervalued, overlooked, or seen as trite, but the truth is that our family values really are valuable for all of us. Childhood is brief and fleeting. Every child deserves to live it at its fullest in a family where s/he is valued, feels significant, and experiences what it means to be a part of a family, your family, as the family gathers together each evening for their family dinner.
It was the biggest American flag I’ve ever seen, and it was staffed on an extension ladder of a hook and ladder fire engine across the street from the long line of grievers surrounding the funeral home where the young man’s body lay. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, the premature untimely death of a teenage child, and yet it’s a reality made even more possible by the time in which we live filled with fast cars, alcohol, drugs, and the normal belief of most young people that they are invincible. To make it even worse and to make us ever more worried, it’s happening with almost regularity in our community, a couple of times a year it seems, and we all know it. One of my daughters thought about making her three-year-old son a scrapbook for the future filled with the newspaper clippings of these tragedies hopeful that when her young son becomes a teenager he might be able to learn about the dangers of fast cars, alcohol, and drugs from these horrific life experiences of others. It’s a lesson we desperately want all of our children to know, yet we struggle with how to teach it to them. How can we protect our children, our future teenagers, from making bad choices that may in fact endanger their lives?
One unlikely place to find a suggestion for us is in the recent children’s movie, “Nanny McPhee.” Here a magical nanny transforms a brood of unruly children into kind, well-mannered, considerate children by focusing on teaching them five life lessons. It’s lesson number three that we need now, a simple lesson to be sure, but one that sometimes eludes us. Lesson number three is LISTEN; in our case it’s listen to your children. Make time and take time to listen.
Oh, sure, you say, you’re already listening to your non-stop little chatterboxes. But what will you do when your little ones become – if they haven’t already and what they will surely become in time – adolescent children when their ceaseless chattering stops and they don’t talk to you about the real, important stuff in their lives? What will you do when there’s nothing to listen to? Prepare now for that eventuality by refraining from TELLING your children what to do or what to think and instead by ASKING them what they’re going to do or how they’re thinking on a matter. We can’t simply make our children safe by telling them how to be safe. Even if they learn to mimic our guidelines, they will have a lot more trouble following those guidelines when their favorite friends are assuring them that dangerous actions are not really dangerous at all. We can’t make them refrain from alcohol, drugs, smoking, etc. by telling them not to do it or even by scaring them or threatening them about doing it, especially when some of the friends they trust are saying something else. At the point when we’re struggling in a conversation with our teenagers about all this, we’ve already missed the boat. We haven’t been listening. So prepare now for your child to become a teenager by listening and asking questions instead of talking and telling answers.
It’s sort of like teaching math. You know, if I were to sit with your child as she did her math paper and I were to tell her all the answers to her problems and she were to then write the answers on her paper, she wouldn’t be learning how to do the math problems at all. Instead, if I want her to learn math, I must ask her questions, listen to her answers, and then be guided to ask the next question based on her past answers. That’s how a child learns something. The child’s brain needs to be engaged. It’s obvious that teaching is not telling in the academic world. It’s not the way for children to learn the lessons parents want them to learn either. I repeat, no matter how much we as parents want to tell our children how to be safe, our telling them can’t ever make them safe. Instead we must learn to listen to them and to ask the right questions in order to help our children think for themselves and be able to solve their own problems when they occur.
Sometimes it’s helpful to use role playing to help your child think of what he would do in a certain situation. Starting with a lead-in question like, “I wonder what would happen if…..?”, or “Have you ever thought of …..?” It’s important to listen to your child’s answer and to give positive feedback about what she’s saying. If you don’t know anything positive to say, just repeat what she said, “So what I hear you saying is that…”. At least in that way your child knows you are listening to her. No one keeps on talking or taking a chance on talking if the person listening puts down the person talking. Open your head and your heart as your child talks so that she will want to keep talking. Refrain from “constructive criticism”, which is a sure-fire way to inhibit your child’s willingness to talk to you. You need her to talk to you, and to keep on talking, so receive her words without judgment.
By working in this way you could be establishing a relationship with your child that shows respect and acceptance of him as a human being of value and worth. A relationship constantly fostered in this way will grow and deepen as your child grows and may prove to give your adolescent child the strength of character he needs when wisdom and good judgment are still years ahead of him.
My cell phone provider made a change in their system which affected my being able to access my phone messages. So I called the virtual customer service technician who then made the changes I needed to be able to retrieve my messages. While I had him on the phone I remembered to ask him if my cell phone would work in our vacation destination, Argentina. He told me that my particular cell phone would work in all of the states. I said something like, “Wait a minute, Argentina isn’t a state,” to which he replied that it sounded like a state to him. Now before you lose all faith in the American system of education let me tell you that I was talking to a fellow North American, a Canadian! But that doesn’t really get us off the hook because we know that all too many Americans couldn’t name all 50 states or even the countries of the continent to our south.
I just walked through the Elementary I classroom where the 6 to 9 year olds are studying geography with the beautiful Montessori puzzle maps, the ones that don’t have any names on the puzzle pieces. One by one, each child picks up a colored puzzle piece and calls out the name of the state or country until the entire map’s pieces are lying on the mat surrounding the puzzle frame. They’re showing us that geography is child’s play, at least in a Montessori setting. Whether it was because Maria Montessori was a European where it’s still important to know the neighboring countries that touch one’s borders like states touch ours or because a hundred years ago people took the study of geography more seriously, geography is a vital part of the cultural program in a Montessori school. Sometimes I think we don’t really appreciate the gift our children receive when they become so knowledgeable about the political geography of our planet. At first glance it’s impressive when a small child is able to say the names of the continents or the planets or name the countries of a continent. Traditional schools don’t usually teach political geography until middle school, so hearing smaller children know this stuff makes us think the children must really be smart. But it’s not that, really. Oh, of course your children are smart, but their knowledge of geography isn’t how we measure your children’s intelligence. Rather their knowledge of geography is a reflection of what their school values for them to learn and subsequently what they’re being taught.
Most of us parents think a lot about reading and mathematics, and well we should; both are important, but they are not the only subjects that define one’s education or the worth of one’s education. We must look deeper, as Montessori did, into the nature of the child at each stage of the child’s development to know what to teach, what to offer for the child, and what to expect from the child. Unless we begin looking at the children and learning about them our curriculum will never be well suited for the child but will only require that the child herself amend herself to what we’re teaching.
We Montessorians think that children deserve more than a blue-plate special, more than a standard curriculum dissected and sliced for incremental bites. They deserve a smorgasbord of lessons that are not only interesting, challenging, and inviting, but that are also related to the inner needs of the child and that change and adapt as the child inevitably changes and matures.
At a time in our history where knowing exactly where Iran or Nigeria or Argentina are may make the difference between having a world vision or being stuck in the mud, we need to realize the value of a school whose curriculum is bold, overt, and founded on understanding the needs and characteristics of the children it teaches. My mentor, Dr. Caleb Gattegno, originator of the “Words in Color” reading approach, used to say, “the truth walks slowly and has short legs” as a metaphor for reminding me to be patient and tolerant of others who took so long to see things I felt were obvious. Well, it’s been 100 years since the first Montessori Children’s House was created and I think the truth about children and their learning is still moving slowly through our senses. Someone needs to nudge us a bit, and I’m willing to do that for you, over and over again, because your child is worth it.
Probably one of the most misunderstood times of a person’s life is what we call adolescence, especially the years from 12 to 15. Not only are these years difficult for the person who is living them, but this is a challenging time for those of us educators and parents who interface with these youngsters, too. It’s even harder for us if the child about with whom we’re interacting is our first-born child. Oh, the first-born child – forever an enigma! Once we think we’ve got the hang of the child, she changes ages, gets older, and we transform again into inexperienced parents. Fortunately when the next child comes around, we can be more confident because we’re no longer parent novices. To exacerbate this problem further, we parents unfortunately judge ourselves as parents by how well our first born does! So we’re even more vested in how that child does in every aspect of life. And you know what, that makes us not quite as good as we could be, because when we focus on judging ourselves, we’re misdirected and our child knows it. This in turn causes him to focus on us, on either pleasing or not pleasing us, rather than focusing on his job – namely that of becoming the best person he can become, the one who is the truest to himself. How wonderful it would be for each child, if she could be free to become who she needs to become. But we parents are afraid to trust that, so instead and with a well meaning attitude we guide our child to become what we think he should become in order to have a good, happy life. That’s a natural way for us to think and behave. But it causes a lot of avoidable conflict in our relationship with our adolescents.
As a proponent for the child at every age Maria Montessori did what no one before did and few since have done. She studied the adolescent, his characteristics, and his needs. She found what has been confirmed by modern day scientists, that in early puberty the adolescent finds it hard to concentrate on academic and structured learning. There is a decline in his motivation from elementary school into middle school probably because of puberty. So Maria Montessori decided it wasn’t right to match traditional schooling to the budding adolescent, who is so full of exploding hormones and consequently unsure of himself, full of self-doubt even. No, Maria Montessori did not see the adolescent as a miniature high schooler. She did not create junior high schools or middle schools that were patterned after high schools. Instead she created a unique curriculum appropriate for the adolescent. It was called Earth School, or Erdkinder. In her school adolescent children would live in a communal setting, away from their families and close to nature, eat fresh farm products, and carry on practical work related to the economics of supplying food, shelter, transportation and so forth. Intellectual work would still be done, but only of the child’s interests and free of all pressure.
But, you protest, we can’t send our adolescents off to the farm today. America isn’t an agrarian society anymore. And you’re right. A lot has changed from 100 years ago when Maria Montessori began her work. But what hasn’t changed is the biology of the child, and that is something we shouldn’t overlook.
… to be continued
Off to the Farm- part 2
Let’s look at today’s research and see if we can find what’s right for today’s adolescent. Researchers tell us that adolescents need opportunities to develop higher order “formal” thinking skills through reasoning, debate, and personal expression. They need a broad academic curriculum emphasizing the interrelationship of subject areas and practical “hands-on” experiences. There needs to be a sense of community among teachers and students to establish the classroom as a safe place to learn and grow.
Academic competition between students and contests with limited winners need to be de-emphasized and group work needs to be encouraged so that team building and leadership skills can be developed. (According to Tom Friedman in his best seller about the global economy, The World is Flat, these skills are the ones adults of the future will need to be successful.) Focus should be on the process rather than the final product with an acceptance of learning from one’s mistakes, allowing students to redo work, and encouraging students to take academic risks. Emphasis should move from the departmentalized approach to curriculum to thematic and interdisciplinary approaches. Problem solving and comprehension should be encouraged rather than rote learning, memorization, and over-used worksheets and textbooks. The use of extrinsic rewards, the imposition of deadlines, and an emphasis on evaluations decrease intrinsic motivation. It is important to recognize that students’ early attempts at regulating their own work may not always be successful. Teachers must remember that good decision making and time management require practice. Teachers can help students gain these skills by providing limited choices between acceptable options, by assisting with breaking large tasks into manageable pieces, and by providing guidelines for students to use in monitoring their own progress. And finally, adolescents need social experiences that teach students how to be active, contributing members of their society.
What has just been described by today’s research is the program that Dr. Edidin (Robin) has created in our Montessori middle school. It might seem strange to you because it wasn’t what you experienced; you might not be comfortable with it. You might not realize how essential a program like this can be for your child’s future academic success. You might not even know how to respond to your child’s perception of it. But for your children, for every middle school child, it’s just what the researchers have found works best. This kind of program helps the young adolescent succeed on his path to become the best of himself, the best for himself. Isn’t that what we all truly want?
Probably the furthest idea in your head is that your child would quit school at the age of maturity, 16. I imagine it was also far from my grandparents’ minds, too, so I can almost imagine how they felt about Lloyd’s decision to quit school at the then permitted age of only 14. Of course a youngster of that age could not possibly project the consequences of such a choice; he would probably have to live them to understand the lifetime weight of such a decision. So Uncle Lloyd faltered and jumped blindly into the abyss!
My grandfather, Henry Hummel, was a proud man, the son of German immigrants. When he heard Lloyd’s decision, he asked Lloyd if he would like to be his driver. It seemed to Henry a perfect solution for both since having a driver would contribute to Henry’s need for importance and it would be a job Lloyd and probably every other 14-year-old boy of his time would love. But it was not an idea that my grandmother liked at all. However, by the time Uncle Lloyd told her what he did the deed was completed and he was well on his way to becoming a chauffeur for his father! My grandmother sighed, relinquished her position, and ultimately accepted Lloyd’s fate for at least the time being.
And so for several months life went on for Lloyd and his father. Uncle Lloyd was happy driving Henry around town and was eager to be of service to his father at any moment. But one day something happened that changed all that. Henry got very ill and, within a matter of a few weeks, died. Not only was this a family tragedy, Henry leaving his wife alone to care for their young family of five children ages 14, 12, 9, 7, and 4, but it was a personal crisis for Lloyd who now had no means of employment. Life was transformed immediately for all of them. Minnie, Uncle Lloyd’s mother, took on Henry’s job as superintendent of the Lancaster, Ohio Old Folks Home. But with so many small children to raise she was unable to properly assume that job which had included a residence for the Hummel family as well. Now she was out a job and out a place for her and the children to live. Fortunately, Henry’s older sister, Rosie, was sympathetic to Minnie’s situation and she was also financially able to help Minnie. Rosie provided Minnie and the children with a duplex in which to live which would also produce an income from the rental of the other half of the building. Minnie and the children left Lancaster and moved to Columbus, Ohio. Before leaving, Minnie sold Henry’s car.
Uncle Lloyd arrived in the city thinking he could find work easily. But because he was not skilled or educated, there were few jobs for which he could qualify. He spent several days looking for work without finding anything. Finally, he got a job at the corner grocery store bagging groceries and then delivering them to the customers’ homes. Now Uncle Lloyd was a healthy and strong young man, but he was worn out every day after work from walking as he delivered groceries to so many houses. He longed for the times he was in his father’s car, driving him all over Lancaster, feeling like an important person.
I would like to be able to tell you that by looking ahead at Uncle Lloyd’s life one could see a successful grown man. But alas, I cannot. This one decision to quit school could never be undone and its effects plagued Uncle Lloyd throughout his adult lifetime. Now I am sure that there are people who have made poor decisions as youngsters who managed to recover from them and to create successful lives nonetheless, but this was not the case for Uncle Lloyd; he was never able to turn his life around. The only redeeming part of this story is that if one listens and thinks about Uncle Lloyd, it is possible to learn from his mistakes without suffering the way he did! It’s called learning by proxy and it’s available to all of us, including our children!
Families are the best thing that ever happened to children. How wonderful for these tiny angelic presents we receive, our babies, to arrive into a constellation of people who are related to each other by love and who will devote so much of themselves to the new lives for so long.
As our babies grow older, we begin to initiate them into our own individual family rituals. One way we communicate our family values and history is through our stories. We all have them, stories about ourselves, about our parents, our grandparents, and even further back to perhaps our ancestors who came to America on the Mayflower or our great-great grandparents who entered at Ellis Island. Whatever the trails, we acquaint our children with our collective past through story telling.
I, too, have such stories which I’ve told not only to my own children, but also to many of your children. The stories I have shared with your children are called, “The Stories of Uncle Lloyd.” Uncle Lloyd was the oldest of my mother’s brothers and sisters and became the center of my stories for one reason. He lived a most unfortunate life of bad luck and almost by happenstance, bad choices. The moral of the totality of these stories is simple – and I tell the children – whenever you think things are going badly for you in your life and you’re feeling really blue, just think of Uncle Lloyd and all of his troubles and you will see that your troubles aren’t as bad as his were.
When Uncle Lloyd started first grade, he was so excited. He went to school on the first day and was all ready to be a first grader. But because it was a one room school house with only one teacher filled with children from grades one through eight, the teacher announced that she couldn’t teach all eight grades. So that year she would teach second, fourth, sixth, and eighth grades. Lloyd raised his hand and told her that he was a first grader, to which she replied that he would have to take second grade this year. He found second grade very difficult because he was the youngest in the class and since he hadn’t been in first grade the year before, he didn’t know how to read or do numbers. He felt pretty dumb even though he wasn’t. But he tried his best and managed to finish his work each day. Then when the next school year came, he was ready to be a second grader and felt he knew what would be happening. But on the first day of school the teacher announced that she was going to teach first, third, fifth, and seventh grades that year. Lloyd raised his hand and told her that he had done second grade last year. She replied that he hadn’t ever done first grade so this year he would do first grade. Well, Lloyd was glad to receive the reading lessons he had missed the year before, but again he felt a little dumb to be put back a year. When the next school year rolled around, Lloyd was again disappointed when the teacher announced that she would be teaching second, fourth, sixth, and eighth grades and he’d have to do fourth grade. Lloyd told her that he hadn’t done third grade yet, but it didn’t matter. There he was again a grade ahead of himself, feeling like he wasn’t as smart as the other kids who had done third grade the last year.
School continued on this out of order way for Lloyd, always having to take the wrong grade in school, until he completed seventh grade after having already done eighth grade. He’d had his fill of school and their treatment of him, so at the tender age of 14, without telling his mother or his father, he did what a 14-year-old could do in those days – he quit school.
Tomorrow I’ll tell you what he did then and how his life was affected by that decision.
Now it’s your turn to get cozy with your children and tell them some of your family stories. I bet they’ll love them!
Being a non-graded school has so many advantages for the children and only a few disadvantages for the parents! Non-graded as it applies to us has two meanings: it means that by and large the children don’t receive grades for their work, and it means the children are grouped without grade barriers and have multiple overlapping ages. This ingenious idea of Maria Montessori, now practiced in most Montessori schools, to put children of three different ages in each class with a range of materials as broadly based as their ages, enables children to progress at their own rates of learning. No matter what a child’s age is there are appropriate materials for each learner. This system also discourages competition because there are so many different levels of progress and performance that children don’t give a lot of value to being on the same page of the same work as another child. They feel safer to be themselves and frequently reveal themselves more completely, making it easier for a teacher to appropriate her lessons to them and their needs. Of course without artificial grade level barriers above them, children are able to receive curriculum that would otherwise be withheld from them until they reached a higher grade level in school. At the other end of the continuum, children who need more practice in order to master a particular skill may do so without fear of being held back a year in school or some other way of being isolated or singled out. Because teachers are aware of the cumulative effect of learning, the Montessori curriculum is not relegated to incremental learning where in each grade every child covers a specified amount of work; rather, children are permitted to ebb and flow in their learning patterns because we know that learning is naturally uneven many times.
For all the reasons that this kind of structure is so perfectly suited for young and old children, it sometimes challenges parents. After all, we parents like grades. We have been shaped by them ourselves. We want to be reassured by our children’s grades that they are learning, doing well, and are just a smart as we think they are! We are judging ourselves as parents by our children’s grades. When they get good grades, we’re getting good grades, too. In fact, most of us believe that when our children get good grades, it’s because they are so smart. And we then believe that when they get bad grades or do less than what we expected, it’s the fault of the teacher or the school. Grades have a way of tricking and manipulating us and causing us to manipulate our children, too. Grades do a real number on most of us, but it’s hard for us to free our thinking about education from the grading system. We’ve even got it entangled with being a successful, happy person.
But what makes people happy are their own thoughts and deeds and having the freedom to create them. So while we’re doing all we can to create and provide a learning environment where the children are not just physically safe but are emotionally safe, where children feel like their school is an extension of their family, where children feel like the adults around them know them and care about them, where children are accepted for who they are, we must remind ourselves that how well children do in school is a function of how they are taught and of who they are. And at this school how they are taught is our most prized talent.
Communication, if it occurs, is a miracle, or so Dr. Caleb Gattegno, originator of Words in Color, The Silent Way, and author of many educational books, often said. We don’t learn to talk in order to communicate. If we did, we would be much better at communication. Rather, we learn to talk in order to express ourselves, and we work very hard at trying to express just what it is that is on our minds. We may even restate it many times, perhaps trying to choose just the right words to capture what we think may express what we’re feeling or thinking. But all too often what we’re trying to say is not heard by the listener in the manner in which we were trying to say it and hoping it would be heard. Then we might become frustrated and say to our listener, “Oh, you just don’t listen to me,” or “You just don’t understand me,” or “That’s not what I meant.” We have arrived at an impasse; communication is not occurring.
There is a little book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, M.D. In it the author suggests that there are four agreements we can make with ourselves that will help us better communicate with each other. The first one is “don’t take it personally”. By that it is meant that when someone says something, if we take it personally, we focus on ourselves and aren’t able to hear what is being said. Usually what a person says is more about themself than about us. Often we feel like we’re hearing a criticism of ourself, and we become defensive instead of gaining any insight into what the person actually meant by what was said.
The second agreement is “don’t make assumptions”. Assumptions are frequently wrong and cloud our thinking. They lead us down a doubtful path because we start creating beliefs for which we really have very little evidence.
The third agreement is “be careful with your words” because words are powerful; words can hurt us. Here the author cites how discouraging words, words without hope, can often cause the recipient of these words to become discouraged and to do poorly when otherwise the person might not have failed.
The last agreement is “always do your best”. If you always do your best then you can’t look back and say, “If only I’d tried harder.” By knowing at each step you have done your best, you won’t beat yourself up if things don’t go perfectly. By following these agreements perhaps we can clear the way for better communication happening between us.
Recently, the staff at the Center had a weekend retreat on communication, specifically communication with parents of our students. We value and talk a lot about open and honest communication and parents and teachers forging a bond for the welfare of their children. We studied this at our retreat. We know this is tough stuff. It takes a lot of work because misunderstandings are common outgrowths of people trying to communicate.
So with all of this in mind, let’s be brave! Let’s try to listen to each other with open ears, void of judgments, accusations, and mistrust. Let’s try to say what we mean and when we see that the way in which we’re saying it isn’t making our point clear, then let’s keep trying to get it right.
I don’t know if you have ever heard of a little personality typing called “Top Card”, but when a Positive Discipline consultant visited our school earlier this school year, he played the “game” with us so we could determine one of our personality characteristics. I discovered, to no one’s surprise, that my “Top Card” is control. That means I don’t care if I’m considered unimportant or insignificant, I don’t mind stress or some discomfort, but I want to have control!
I’m writing to you about this because as I meet with parents over and over again, I find that so many parents, too, have this “Top Card.” We want to be in control, we’re sure things will be better if we are. When it comes to our children, we’re overprotective in our methods of using this control, and we interfere (convincing ourselves that we’re “helping” our children) with our children’s emotional, social, and academic growth to our children’s detriment. The tough thing about all this is that we’re usually blind to the effects of our interference. Strangely enough though, others can usually see clearly how what we’re doing is hurting our children.
I’d like to give you some scenarios to ponder. Any resemblance to you is merely coincidental!
First scenario: Your older child is learning to read at just the right time – when she is showing an interest and a willingness to do the work necessary to accomplish the task. So when you meet with your other child’s (who is younger) teacher, you tell her that this child is really interested in learning how to read, that he sees his older sister learning and wants to learn, too.
Suggestion: When control is your top card, it’s good for you to delegate control and power to others. Release your child’s timetable for learning to read to the teacher who is trained to recognize readiness for reading and is eager to have your child learn to read, too. Instead of telling the teacher what you think your child needs in school, ask the teacher if she has noticed any readiness to read in your child. Also ask her what kinds of academic lessons are appropriate for him.
Suggestion: After listening to the older child read, ask the younger child to sit with you for special time, too. Instead of reading, do a puzzle with him or something else that he likes. Don’t make the younger child feel that he needs to do what the older one does in order to get approval from you.
Second scenario: Your older child is not a particularly hard worker at school. Over time you have struggled with issues of motivation. You are harboring fears that somehow you missed doing something for that child which explains how he became this way. You are also worried that your younger child, whom you perceive to be very bright, is showing signs of lack of inner motivation, too. You decide that what this child may need is your special attention to keep her on track. So without consulting the teacher to see if your help is needed, you attend school, sit with your child, and watch/help her work. You don’t notice that your child is embarrassed to have you there.
Suggestion: Play games with your children at home. Make your focus something other than school work. School work belongs to school and one’s home life belongs to the home. You may best help your child be motivated by doing something with him in another arena, not an academic area. Try playing card games or other games that are challenging and exciting and that require some strategizing and thinking.
Control Issues – part 2
Suggestion: Since the “baby” in the family is the one that is closest to the mom, avoid putting pressure on him to please you by exerting this control over him in school. In addition, become aware that your presence in class may cause him to feel embarrassed and to feel “too different” from the other children.
Suggestion: Visit school just for the fun of seeing him or having lunch with him. Find out from the teacher what kind of parental interaction in the classroom is appropriate.
Third scenario: Your playful toddler exhibits an inability or an unwillingness to control some of his impulses when playing with other toddlers. When he gets aggressive with a fellow playmate and pinches him on the cheek in a way that you perceive is rather forceful and without remorse, you swiftly whisk your child away and pinch both of his cheeks so he may know doubly well how what he did felt to the other child.
Suggestion: When your toddler hurts someone on purpose, simply remove him from the activity and say very calmly something like, “It hurts Sam when you pinch him. We can’t play with our friends when we hurt them. We’ll try to play again later.” Take your child somewhere else and let him play alone. Don’t act angry! Children are children after all, and hitting, biting, and pinching are some unsavory things children do. Usually children learn to control themselves and this behavior subsides.
Suggestion: Patience is not a virtue when dealing with children; it is a necessity. If you don’t have patience at the moment your child does something wrong, don’t interact with your child. Wait until you are calm and then interact with your child calmly and quietly. If waiting would make things worse, ask your mate, who isn’t so emotionally involved in what you witnessed, take over. Remember, children are best at learning the lessons we’re not trying to teach them. We don’t want to teach them that when someone hurts you, you doubly hurt them back. We want to teach our children to use words, kind words, to solve problems. Therefore, we must use words, too!
When we use our power to control our children, what they learn from us is that power works. We in effect invite them to use power to manipulate others. They then become expert at using their power with us and their friends. Some children eventually become bullies because of the mistaken way they think about power. The interactions created by using power to control children results in what we call “power struggles.” And the really tough thing about that is that the children ultimately win, just like the horses do that we can’t make drink.
Being a parent makes grown ups of all of us. It’s tough to grow up but I know you can do it!
Homework. It’s a word most adults understand and accept, and one most children come to loathe. What exactly is homework? It is the work one does at home. More specifically, it’s the work the school chooses for the child to do at home. Why would school feel entitled to a child’s time outside of the school day? Surely the school can do its job of educating a child by keeping the child at school for six or more hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year? How dare a school think that what it deems important for the child’s after-school hours could be more important than how the family wants to spend its time together or even more important than how the child herself chooses to spend her time? After all, time is the only real commodity the child has, it’s her only valuable item, and it’s a finite item. There’s a limited supply of it for each person. So how has it come that in our culture we control so much of the child’s assets – his time and his schedule?
We’ve fallen in love with information. We’ve given it a value, we’ve assigned dollar signs to it, we reward it, we respect it, we sacrifice for it. We’ve even found ways to make it grow faster than ever before. We’ve been able to make it accessible to some and not to others. We’ve found ways to store it. We’ve made so much of it that no one can hold all of it. We’ve given it an air of mystery, and yet we trust it completely. We are living in the information age and one thing we want to give to our children is this valuable information. How can we give this to them? While a few of us think we can do this ourselves, most of us turn to the halls of education. It is here that we believe information dwells. But since there’s so much of it and so little time, we must not only use the school day to give this information to our children, we must also trade their after-school hours for this stuff. By doing this, we are assuring that our child will amount to something in this world because she will have acquired a lot of this information.
But folks, there are lots of kinds of knowledge, and so much of it isn’t in books or on disks, or even written down. It’s knowledge of the kind we have in our own beings; it’s our own sense of what’s true and real and valuable. All we have to do to access this kind of knowledge is to trust ourselves as human beings. When we do this, we free ourselves and our children to be more than just bearers or receivers of information. Then we can transform our concept and practice of “homework” into something of value for our children and even for ourselves.
Let’s look at how we can maximize the value of “homework” by making it something pleasant we do with our children, beginning with toddlers. I suggest that our school-related homework as parents of toddlers is to introduce books to our children, but not just any books. The books we use must be chosen with the toddler in mind. What is the toddler doing at this time of his life? He’s acquiring language, learning the names of things and the efficiency of words. So when we choose books for our toddlers, they should be simple books with pictures of real things that can be identified by the pictures and may even include a simple story line that can be read or told to the child, page by page. The work of the home is to introduce good books to the toddler so that the toddler’s interest is held by the book. The continued presence of the adult is vital. While the toddler may look at the books on his own, the real value of the book is experienced when the parent takes the child on his lap and lovingly wanders through the book with the child, using oral language all the time. This can be done for a few minutes several times a day with emphasis on looking at books just before getting ready for naps or bed time.
When the child becomes a preschooler, as parents our homework remains to foster the love of books. Only now the amount of time at a sitting increases to 15 or 20 minutes and the work is played out in the same way. The child sits comfortably on the adult’s lap or somehow is physically touching the adult to make that sensorial contact, and the adult now reads the story to the child. The books we offer to our children must meet very rigid standards to be acceptable for this homework. They must be beautiful, their pictures must be works of art, they must lure the child inward to their pages, and they must have a story that not only is interesting and will captivate the child, but that is written so a child can understand it without being demeaned by it. Care must be given in handling the books and the books must have a home where they stand safely and to where they are always returned. Books need loving treatment.
There’s a job we’re all doing for which none of us were trained. Not only are we unskilled, perhaps even inept, but many of us are content to fly by the seat of our pants as we work at this job and to be satisfied with whatever casual on-the-job training that happens to us. We may even accept advice or believe information from others who were likewise untrained. To make this scenario even worse, this job which we are content to do on the wing and without professional training is probably the most important job we’re ever going to have in our whole lifetimes. We wouldn’t let this happen to us in our regular job. Not only do we train for our professions, but we train for years to gain these understandings and skills. We even continue to train once we have the job by going to seminars or to special meetings. Sometimes experts are brought to our places of employment to further train us. And sometimes, we even quit or change these jobs for other ones we like better. Eventually we even retire from these types of jobs all together. Yet these jobs, as important as they are, mainly give us only tangible rewards. But for the job about which I’m talking you can never be fired and you can never retire from it. Furthermore, you have the potential to receive the greatest gifts life can offer from this occupation. What in the world is this job and how did this all happen to all of us?
Well, fellow parents, this job is called PARENTING, and most of us were tricked into it by Mother Nature herself. She used several techniques to achieve her aim of populating the earth with human beings. One way she enticed us into parenthood was by making the act of reproduction so attractive that few of us could resist it. She added another card to the game by making human babies so cute that some of us, primarily the females of our species, actually longed to do whatever was necessary to get one of them. Then, of course, some of us were doubly tricked because we became parents “by accident!” What we were doing had nothing to do with applying for the job.
While some of you may have had to “work” a little or a lot harder than others at becoming parents, probably most of us made the mistaken assumption that because almost everyone got this job of PARENTING without any apparent qualifications, indeed the job didn’t require any training. In fact, the job requires not only training of a lifetime, but patience unending, love the depth of oceans, kindness that knows no bounds, and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of the child. Suddenly this job that we all happened upon can be recognized for what it is, our opportunity to be more than we thought we could be. For what better thing can happen to a person than to be loved, really loved, by a child.
Hopefully this newsletter has caused you to think in new ways about your job and will serve as encouragement for you to commit to participating in our parent education programs. We are in the process of creating a parenting program which will offer classes for all of you. We look forward to working with you next year, with as many of you as will take these words seriously and enroll in the Center’s parenting program. Your children deserve your best job, and so do you!
Rachel’s grandmother, fondly called Bubba, used to say, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems.” And she was right. The lessons that need to be learned in life often present their first opportunities when our children are small. If the child takes advantage of the opportunity to learn the lesson then, so much the better for the child. If the child chooses not to learn the lesson at its first opportunity, life will continue to present the lesson intermittently for as long as necessary until the child, or, by then the adult, internalizes the value of the lesson. The only change that occurs over time is that the lesson becomes more difficult to deal with as one ages. The best time to learn the lesson is when one is young, when the problems presented by the lesson are small.
I’m telling you this because I think it’s important for you to know this to keep you from doing what parents do so well – rescue their children and thus interfere with the delivery of the lesson! We parents feel our children’s pain and we do what seems quite natural, at the time. We try to ease their pain by solving their problems for them. That’s called interfering and it doesn’t solve our children’s problems at all; rather, it solves our problem. It makes us feel better when we perceive that we are helping our children.
Life lessons are difficult and painful by definition. In order to learn the lesson we have two options. We can experience the lesson in our own skin and learn from it that way. Or, we can learn from another person who has learned the lesson. This is called learning the lesson by proxy. It’s easier and much less painful, but it’s seldom chosen, seldom recognized as the opportunity it is for pain-free learning!
Good examples of how children reject these opportunities is to think of how we lecture our children about something we want them to learn. Take doing homework, for example. We remind our children how important it is to do homework, and what values they will receive from doing their homework properly, turning it in on time, and so forth. Yet our children might prefer to play or watch TV or video games to doing the homework, thinking they can manage time well enough to get the homework done after the fun things. They might not think the homework has anything of value for them. They might hate doing it, might think it’s a waste of time, that it’s boring. Teachers might try to get them to do their homework to no avail. Even by receiving poor grades, punishments, or restrictions, some children still refuse to learn the lesson of the way to successfully complete homework
The longer the lesson is postponed, the more serious the effects are on the child. By learning to do homework in 4th grade, the child will be able to develop good work habits that will serve her well throughout middle school, high school, and college. The child who waits to learn the homework lesson until high school may have been placed in lesser academic classes and thus may have actually learned less in school than another equally intelligent child who mastered the study skills earlier.
So what can we do to enhance the timing of when our child learns important life lessons? First, remind ourselves not to solve our children’s problems. That means we don’t tell our children what to do or how to do it. Instead, we question and converse with our child in a friendly, caring, and open way. Our goal here is to cause our child to think for herself so that she can solve her own problems for herself.
Some things you might say are:
“Gee, it looks like you have a lot of homework to do. I wonder how you’re going to manage to do all that math?”
“Is there any way in which I could be of help to you?”
“I wonder why your teacher assigned this homework?”
“I remember when I was in 6th grade. I hated homework, too. It was always so hard for me to get it all done. Sometimes I had to work on it right after school and not even watch any TV. I hated that.”
“I remember how boring my homework was, but my mom made me do it.”
“Wow, I can see that you’re intent on getting your homework done tonight. That’s really admirable.”
“You look discouraged. Is it about your homework? Do you want to talk about it?”
“I’m available; let me know if you want my help.”
When we change our paradigm and understand that usually by helping (interfering) we are hurting our children, we can ask the right questions and make the right statements that will enable our children to grow their own muscles and learn their own life lessons. When was the last time your child learned how to ride a bicycle because you practiced riding yours?
When my children were small, I read with interest a book on child rearing practices, Children the Challenge. But in those days there were few courses for parents to take to help them use different methods for disciplining their children other than the tapes we all carry around in our heads of the kinds of measures that were used on us. One tactic I wish I had known then was the importance of letting my children say “no” to me.
Most of us parents and grandparents, since I am that too, want children to do what we ask them to do at the moment we ask them to do it. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we can accomplish that and we end up being fairly unsuccessful. But if we were to change our thinking just 90 degrees or so, we might find there are other techniques that could result in more cooperation from our children and also give them a strength of character that would serve them well throughout their whole lives – the strength to say “no” when no is really the desired answer.
When our children are little, we are their world. In fact, babies think we are even connected to them. They think this for many months of their lives and when they realize they aren’t connected to us, they cry when we leave them for fear we won’t come back and reconnect. Our children really love us unconditionally. They accept our failings, our broken promises, our tardiness in picking them up, and even our plain old human frailties without wavering in their love for us. They want only to please us and never to disappoint us. They are very sensitive to us and they know almost instinctively that we would be upset if they were to tell us “no” when we ask them. But they are torn, too, by their own inner desires to not do what we want them to do. So they take another route. They say “no” by their actions. We ask them to hurry and they take forever instead of saying, “No, I’m not ready yet and I can’t be ready as soon as you want me to be.” They simply take a lot longer than we have patience for. We ask them to clean up their room, and rather than saying, “No, not right now, later,” they don’t do it, even when we nag. You know what I’m talking about.
So why is it so important for them to actually say “no” to us? Because there is coming a time when others whom our child really like or even love will ask her or him to do something that is not in the child’s best interests. Our child will not have had the experience in saying “no” to someone close to her or him in order to know how to say “no” without fear of hurting or disappointing that special person.
Our children need to learn how to say “no” so they can know how to state their wishes and if necessary, to negotiate an alternative, perhaps mutually agreeable solution instead. Our children need to gain the power of character to feel secure in saying “no.” “No” to drugs, “no” to smoking, “no” to sex. And the people who will be asking them will be their friends, those people the children like or love and who they don’t want to disappoint or risk losing.
Children need to learn that it’s OK to say “no” to people who love you, and for starters that’s you parents. So how can we teach our children to say “no” respectfully. We can respond respectfully when they say “no” instead of insisting they do what we’ve asked of them. One way is to simply ask, “When would you be willing to clean up your room?” That opens the door for negotiations and agreements and those feel good to everyone. Another way is to preface the question with, “Would you be willing to …..?” This indicates to the child that she or he has some control in the matter, which is an invitation to the child to cooperate out of mutual respect. There are lots more ideas and techniques you can use, but I hope the point is clear. Having permission to say “no” is a life skill our children can best learn from us. How about thinking about it?
There is so much talk in our culture about “values” that it is beholden to every one of us to pause and think about what we value and what it means to value something. Of course, it’s obvious that we value our families and education or else we wouldn’t have met! But let’s look at what that really means.
Valuing family to me means that of all the people in the whole world, the ones most important to me are they. My actions and interactions for and with them take precedence. And I give serious thought to those decisions and actions, especially the ones for my children who are not able to make the choices I do for their behalf. I’m the one who decides where they will live, which room in the house is theirs, where I will shop and what I will buy for them, what kinds of food I’ll feed them, where and when they can go places, …the list goes on and on. And as I’m thinking about it and writing it, I am reminded of how much power we have over our children when they are little. I wonder how they like that power equation? Is that one reason they misbehave? Are they trying to tell us to give them more freedom? And there, parents, is the seat of our dilemma as parents. How can we CAUSE our children to behave, study, work, and get along at school or out in public without using so much power over them that they rebel against us and our actions.
Many psychologists have written about the “will.” We all have within us a will that causes us to act or not to act. It is very powerful in all of us and in our children regardless of their ages. It is the reason people say, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” When children are small, we can fairly easily over power them. We have lots of tricks and we use them well. But as our children grow older, our power equation changes from us having all the power to them having the power! Now not only can they embarrass us and refuse to do what we ask them, or not hear what we ask them, or do it badly, but as adolescents they can harm themselves in order to get back at us, in order to manipulate us, in order to control us, in order to keep the power for themselves.
How can we avoid this or how can we deal with it? Simply stated, make your child’s will your ally. Value cooperation, practice it within your household. Practice mutual respect. If you expect your child to respect you just because you’re an adult or the parent, then show respect to your child as a human being just because she is that. Mutual respect creates a kind of decency that we all need in this world. Be clear; state your boundaries. State what you are willing and what you are unwilling to do. Example, “I am willing to take you to the movies when your homework is finished. By finished, I mean every problem completed, showing the calculations on the paper, and legible so I can read it.” Give no second chances. Hold to your boundaries with kindness and firmness. Say “no” in a nice voice with a smile on your face instead of a stern look. Don’t say things like, “because I said so, that’s why.” That doesn’t imbue respect. Instead that’s an invitation to fight, and adolescents take dares easily.
Remember that while your adolescent is a valued person, she is not an adult. You are the parent and the difference between you and her is that you have been on the planet longer than she has. And in that time you have developed something called “judgment”, and maybe even you’ve grown something called “wisdom,” neither of which your adolescent has had time to acquire. Remember, some decisions are for adults because the consequences are difficult for adolescents to foresee. For those kinds of decisions just state your boundary and what you’re willing to do and not to do. “I’m willing to pay for private piano lessons as long as you’re willing to practice for 20 minutes on all the weekdays.”
Don’t butt heads with your child; avoid those situations as best you can. Instead, work on balancing the power through cooperation.
Our children are little (or sometimes not so little) enigmatic packages. We are so often perplexed by them, not knowing what to do when they behave the ways they do. And we receive so little information about how they are thinking. So, much of the time we are forced to make assumptions only to later find out how wrong we were in guessing. Parenthood is fraught with dilemmas and most of us put enormous pressure on ourselves to be perfect parents. Well, relax, there is no such thing as perfect parents, so just enjoy the moments, trust your children to be the best they can be, and above all else, try to do as little damage as possible!
Now, that’s the hard part because doing damage innocently comes almost naturally to most of us. Why? Because we are control freaks when it comes to our children, and our control delivers trouble to not just our children, but to ourselves as well. Control works hand in hand with judgment and when children feel judged by us, they begin to believe less in themselves and in their own potential, they lose touch with their inner child, their inner director that is their best guide. They grapple with how to dilute our judgment of them and so they defensively try to be whatever it is they think we want. (Later, they try to be whatever it is their friends want them to be — it’s called “peer pressure”.) Unfortunately sometimes the price the child pays for this is a loss of self, something we never imagined when we thought we were only giving them constructive criticism.
What we need to understand is that children grow and develop best when nurtured. Children respond to words of encouragement even in moments of misbehavior. A quiet adult voice that says to the child, “Looks like you need to take care of yourself,” as the child is guided to a safe haven offers opportunity to correct the current behavior without escalating the situation.
We can’t MAKE our children do what we want, but by using kind words of encouragement we can foster an environment of cooperation, respect, and harmony within our families. Isn’t that what we really want anyhow?
When my husband asked his 89-year-old aunt about what she learned from life she replied that she didn’t know her lifetime would pass so quickly. When my mother talked to the parents of her second-grade students, she would tell them that their children had already lived one third of the time they would live at home with them. As we parents acknowledge the passage of time; we must face the speed with which our children grow, change, and develop into adults and somehow learn to deal with that.
Probably one thing we can do for ourselves and for our children is to try to make the time we share as full of meaning as we can. Of course we can’t and shouldn’t run ourselves or our children ragged by trying to make every moment filled with something. Our world is already too frenetic and we do have a tendency to over plan and over schedule our children. So I’m not talking about activities for us to share; I’m talking about making the simple moments the ones we cherish.
Simple moments are all around us. I’ve written many times about family dinners and the value and importance of them for every family member. This is the time near the end of the day when we gather as our nuclear family, whatever its constitution is, and share food and thoughts. It is when we discuss not only our day and our impression of it, but also our hopes, dreams, plans, and even our values. Daily family dinners bring something to our families that nothing else can or does.
Another wonderful way to give meaning to our times together is to tell stories to our children. In a time long ago, when people had no TVs or computers or electronic games, families would sit around and tell stories. The stories would be about many things – sometimes tales of funny things that had happened to a family member. My grandmother used to tell me such things when I’d beg her, as I regularly did, to tell me a story. First she’d say, “A bear ate Grandma,” and tell me that that was a real “story”, meaning “a fib”. And then she’d tell me a jingle, “I’ll tell you a story about Mary Morey and now my story’s begun, I’ll tell you another about her bad brother, and now my story’s done!” I’d moan and groan and then she would finally tell me something about one of her relatives that would be interesting to hear. Of course I didn’t know most of these people. By that time many had died, but the stories brought them to life for me. I can almost hear my grandmother’s mother-in-law, who emigrated from Germany in the mid 1800s, say in her broken English, “You plan and you plan and something comes along and puts a hole in your pants!” Oh, my, how I’d laugh at that! And yet what insight it gave me about how life does sometimes wreak havoc on the best-laid plans, and the fact that my grandmother told it to me in a story form helped me to accept that quality of life and to learn to move on from it.
But the stories I loved the most, the ones I begged for every night when my grandmother spent the night with us, were the stories about Uncle Lloyd. It all began with an old framed print of a baby, you know the kind, those prints people who couldn’t afford real paintings used to frame in rough brown wooden frames, no matting around them. The portrait was pretty large, about 16×20, and it looked like a watercolor of a cherub, only more human so you knew it wasn’t an angel. It hung prominently in her bedroom and when she’d walk past it she’d remark, “That’s Lloyd when he was a baby.” It really wasn’t, but it reminded her of him anyhow with the rosy cheeks, softly curled light brown hair, and innocent blue eyes. I always had that image of him in my mind as she started her stories even though when she began to tell me the stories of Uncle Lloyd he was already a middle-aged man.
The stories all had emotion in them, some were just plain funny, some were historic telling of a time when my family lived on a farm, others were heartwarming, jerking at my own heart strings and making me tearful, while some were sad enough to break my heart as I felt them breaking my grandmother’s, too. But most of all, these stories of Uncle Lloyd helped me to define who I was, where I’d come from, and what my stock had been made of. That’s the stuff the simple moments clarify, and all of your children deserve those stories from you, and you deserve the joy you’ll get as you share them.
In 1958, my mother was selected as Manatee County’s Teacher of the Year. At the time she was the second-grade teacher at Anna Maria Island School, where I attended elementary school. She was, without a doubt, the best teacher I have ever seen or known because she had the most wonderful way of helping each child find the very best in him/herself and of accomplishing it.
Consequently visitors, educators, or parents were always greatly impressed with the achievements of her children and also of the mannerly ways in which they conducted themselves. My mother’s classroom was next to the principal’s office and her principal, Sam Schiek, would sometimes ask my mother to come into his office where he would turn on the intercome to her classroom and then marvel at how well-behaved her class of 30+ children would be without their teacher in the classroom! Times were different. Parents were more supportive of teachers and of the educational system, and children were taught to be seen and not heard! Perhaps that explains some of it, but still, and undeniably, her children, class after class, year after year, were remarkable.
So it was not unexpected that when my mother went to the Anna Maria PTA and requested they purchase a new reading program for her they did happily. This reading program was called “Words in Color”, the brainchild of a brilliant educator, Dr. Caleb Gattegno. And with this my mother became the first second-grade teacher in America to teach this innovative approach to reading.
In a short time she recognized the vast advantages to this approach to the teaching of reading and spelling. Her children, who had a history of performing well on the achievement tests, scored even higher after the instruction with “Words in Color”. It wasn’t long before the Language Arts Superviser, Blanche Daughtrey, came to see what was happening in my mother’s classroom to produce such remarkable testing scores. She was impressed with the children’s ability to read advanced material and to spell challenging words. The school superintendant, Hartley Blackburn, made it possible for other teachers to implement “Words in Color”, and my mother trained many many teachers in Manatee County in how to use this new program. For many years “Words in Color” was used in several Manatee County schools. But, as teachers changed positions, retired, or moved to other places, and after my mother retired, it was difficult for the county to maintain this program and to support the teachers and offer the necessary training for it.
Having teachers as parents (my dad taught chemistry at Manatee High School) it was a natural choice for me to become an elementary-school teacher. I followed in my mother’s footsteps, learned “Words in Color”, and used it in the public schools in which I taught in Gainesville, Florida, Alhambra, California, and Oakland, California. When I moved back home in the mid 1970s, I became my own children’s teacher, teaching them to read at home with “Words in Color”. And when the Center began, I brought it here for everyone else’s children’s advantage. Teacher training was provided and classroom support was given to the teachers as proof of our commitment to the children’s education.
The author of this approach, Dr. Caleb Gattegno, often visited our school and gave workshops to our teachers and classroom presentations. His last visit was about 16 years ago, during the last year of his life. The torch was passed from him to his wife, Dr. Shakti Gattegno, who had shared in his work over the years. Her specialties were “The Silent Way” for the teaching of foreign languages as well as “Words in Color”.
Last month the Center sent three of its staff members to New York City to study foreign language teaching under Mrs. Gattegno. During that weekend workshop our visiting teachers were so impressed with Mrs. Gattegno as one who had great insights into how children learn as well as being a phenomenal teacher herself, that upon their return they insisted that we try to bring her and her influence to our school and our teachers. So we immediately contacted her and requested that she come to us and conduct a workshop for us. Because of her advanced age she no longer travels to present workshops as she used to, but to our delight and surprise she accepted our invitation. She was touched by our enthusiasm for her work, and was willing to travel the distance to honor her husband’s previous work at our school. I must add here that although Mrs. Gattegno is elderly, she is energetic, agile, and brilliantly keen, a role model for how all of us can age beautifully.
On Monday, April 12, Mrs. Gattegno sharpened our minds, challenged our thinking, and stretched our awareness of her husband’s gift to education. By studying how children learn, Dr. Caleb Gattegno discovered the powers of children’s minds and the skills they develop as they teach themselves everything they learned before they come to school. These characteristics and powers of children are still undiscovered and unrecognized by most educators today who frequently dismiss the work of babies as having no relevance to further education. Gattegno studied how babies teach themselves to speak their native tongue, probably one of the most difficult learning one does in one’s lifetime, yet all of us accomplished this without outside instruction and by the time we were three years young. That is to say, we taught ourselves at home. Gattegno marveled how each one of us is our own best teacher and what happened between home and school that caused so many of us to change from being these expert learners who could master the native tongue to poor learners when others taught us in schools. He identified many reasons for this decline, all of which could only be corrected by changing the way we view and teach youngsters. Gattegno knew that in order for children to continue to learn in school as well as they learned before they came to school meant that the school teachers would have to learn how not to interfere with the learners and their work. He reasoned that the teacher’s emphasis was misplaced on creating and perfecting lessons. Gattegno posed that it is not the teaching that needs to be emphasized, but rather it was the learning that needed to be stressed. Once learning about learning becomes more important than learning about teaching, educators can become aware of the mental powers all children have developed before they come to school, and can permit the children to acquire new knowledge through the use of these skills which are already a part of the children’s functioning. This new way of thinking about education was Gattegno’s gift to all of us. He called it “the subordination of teaching to learning.” It is the fundamental reason that children at the Center learn to read through Gattegno’s approach to reading called “Words in Color”. The dynamic of subordinating teaching to learning is present in all of Gattegno’s work.
Mrs. Gattegno refreshed us with ideas of her husband, helped us remember why we teach the way we do, and why we are who we are as educators, inspired us to continue our work, to continue to make the child’s work our mission by subordinating our lessons to the work of the child, and shared her respect for the ongoing work at the Center.
It was a wonderful day for me, a day when I could return to my “Words in Color” origins, bask in some favorite memories, and feel my fellow teachers deepen their understanding of Dr. Gattegno’s work and its applications for us and for your children.
While we may not think our own children are thoughtless or rude at times, we may more readily notice this in other children. So why do kids of today sometimes seem so rude, and what can we do about it?
To understand children’s behavior, we need to understand them. As children grow they pass through developmental stages. At each stage certain characteristics become prominent When children are young and in the Primary and Elementary 1 classes at school, they are rather malleable. They respect adults, the giants of the world, they want to become like us adults, and they want our approval. This guides their behavior so that usually we can deal with them fairly easily. But as children grow out of the Elementary 1 class to the Elementary 2 (4thand 5th grades) and Level 3 (Middle School), their behavior begins to take a different form. What was once important to them – hooking up with us – has been replaced by a fervent desire, growing stronger by the days, to hook up with their peers. And with this change in interest come huge changes in the children’s behavior. One change that seems to unsettle us a lot is that our children aren’t as mannerly as they were, they’ve forgotten the “pleases” and “thank yous” that used to be a part of their vocabulary, they’re making snide remarks, they’re embarrassing us. We also notice that they’re obsessed with private matters, private from us. What’s more, they have a budding interest in members of the opposite sex, which will surely flower in full bloom somewhere in middle or high school. We worry that they don’t seem to be able to control themselves, they laugh at rude comments, they would rather pay attention to each other than their lessons; sometimes it seems like they think of nothing else but each other.
While this behavior varies in intensity from child to child, most of us can tell that our children are now interested and almost driven to create their social selves. They begin to work on relationships with classmates in a new way as girls become curious about boys and vise versa. Children of this age are in transition, and it’s a big transition for them. We can expect them to falter some.
But what can we do to soften these abrupt changes and to help our children moderate their behavior? First of all, we can try to reconnect with ourselves at that age and try to remember what was important to us then. We’re looking for common ground with our child. We can connect through that common ground. Think about your first boy or girl friend, or the first time you noticed someone in a different way.
Secondly, we can provide consistency in our children’s lives. So much is happening to them, we must somehow provide stability in a world that is shouting to them that it’s not safe and secure. But if you think about it, one reason that Maria Montessori grouped children of multiple ages together with the same teacher for a few years was to provide stability for the child. It makes the learning environment, including the teachers and children, something familiar for the child. It gives the child security in times of chaos.
Thirdly, monitor outside influences like movies, TV programming, music, and activities in which your children participate. Try to limit the influence of some of these media-driven crazes. Make clear boundaries for your children and stick to them. Do this with cheerful voices and pleasant smiles on your faces. We do want to stay connected with our children, not alienate them.
Next, be sure to engage in conversations with your children. I like the family dinnertime for this. I hope you are all able to sit during dinner with your children for a while and exchange ideas and events of your day. During these conversations, permit differences of opinions to be expressed. Acknowledge issues about which you don’t agree without forcing your children to adopt your opinion. But be sure to let your children know when you don’t agree with them and why.
Prepare your children for changes in routines or events. Start by telling your children what the event is. Then ask your children to think about ways you could all go together to this event and have fun without disturbing others or whatever your wished-for outcome is. This way of preparing children and early adolescents is very important. There are so many events that happen for which we take very little time to prepare our children. Maybe we think that because our children are older now, we don’t need to do this. But we do if we want our children to behave well and to be respectful of others; we need to take time to discuss our expectations and hopes with our children.
It’s normal for pre-adolescent and adolescent children to experiment with their behaviors. They’re trying to figure out who they are becoming. While they work on that, be kind and firm, set boundaries and state expectations, talk less and listen more. Learn to be less critical and more understanding of their stage of life. Like all things, it’s only temporary.
Powerful Words – part 1
First published on February 2, 2004
Parenting would be a lot easier if someone would just reassure us that our children are going to be fine, graduate from college, maybe with honors, go on to advanced education, and become “successful” and, of course, happy adults. But life doesn’t do that for us. Instead we find ourselves wringing our hands, hoping, praying, asking others for assurances, and wondering a lot how it will all turn out.
I’m lucky enough to have been teaching since 1966 and to have watched a lot of children grow from the tender ages I teach of six, seven, and eight years, to the not-so-tender ages of the 30s and 40s! A few of you Center parents were even students of mine when you were only six years old! The question becomes could I, or for that matter any teacher, have predicted the educational scorecard of the students, their successes, their eventual accomplishments, by what was observed when they were young?
As you might imagine, I think and talk about children a lot, not just at school but at home, too. I think about my own children and the children whose lives I have shared throughout my teaching career.
For years now as I have chatted with my husband he has frequently commented that he was a poor student in elementary school. He remembers that he spent a lot of his school time in the hall, that he had a lot of trouble learning to read, and that he was a wiggly, distractible child. Whenever he has said this, I have refuted it. Even though I didn’t know him as a small child, I have known him as an adult for many years, and I can see by his behavior his successful educational achievements, and by his character that he could not possibly have been a poor student and accomplished all he has. I have also heard his mother say that he didn’t cause her a bit of trouble growing up, that he was just perfect. (The common voice of parents of an only child!) Even his neighbors, whom I know, sing his praises and wish their son had been more like Peter as a child. So for several years I have been curious as to why my successful husband, who graduated from Plant High School in Tampa as a member of the National Honor Society, voted Most Dependable, and graduated from Emory University with a B.S. in chemistry and a medical degree, could be so wrong in reporting his elementary school record.
Then we moved to our new house. We finally unpacked everything we owned including some old boxes of our childhood records that our parents had been saving. There they were, Peter’s elementary school report cards. Here’s a glimpse of his second-grade report:
Growth in healthful living: needs improvement
Growth in social living: needs improvement
Growth in work habits: needs improvement
Growth in the arts: satisfactory
Reading: needs improvement all year
Writing: needs improvement
Spelling: needs improvement
Oral and written language: needs improvement
Arithmetic: needs improvement
Social studies: satisfactory
Child could do much better if he would attend strictly to his own work and never mind the neighbors. He needs much extra easy reading for fluency. Practice in written spelling also advised for him. Does he have 10 or 11 hours of sleep at night? He could do much better if he would learn to be quiet and more thoughtful. He is too eager to see what others are doing so does not do his own work justice. He needs to exercise self control. His reading is not up to his grade level. He does not do any extra library reading at school. Does he do any at home? Instead of making use of any leisure time he has at school for reading, he annoys his classmates by continual chatter.
… to be continued
Wow! He was right – his second grade report card was horrible. But wait, there were other cards in the stack. And upon close examination the kindergarten, first, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade report cards were all satisfactory. They had positive comments like:
Peter is such a sweet child. I just love him.
I have enjoyed working with him.
He is a very interested little boy and I am so fond of him.
Peter is making good progress in school.
So what can we as parents and educators learn from this? First, children tend to believe what we tell them about themselves, especially the derogatory statements. These negative statements are so powerful that in Peter’s case they colored years of his childhood memory. He ignored the rest of the report cards and instead accepted one teacher’s educational evaluations of him and generalized them to the whole of his elementary school performance. Not only did he believe her then, but also he continued to believe what she was saying about him even when others were saying something else and saying it for more years. The impact of this teacher’s words was profound. Even as an adult he still believed her until I challenged that belief by showing him the rest of his report cards.
How can we keep this sort of thing from happening to our children? Well, we have some lessons to learn. Surely we can learn not to be judgmental of our children. We can’t see the future of our children based on their little lives. We have to be patient. Patience is not a parental virtue; it is a necessity. We must wait to see how the child develops.
We have some sensitivities to gain. Children are in formation; they are becoming themselves. Our job as parents and educators is to try to offer the very best educational opportunities we can and then to watch, trustingly, as their wings unfold. We need to be mindful of how fragile children are, not physically, but emotionally. We must be aware of how easily they can become affected by our words, our evaluations of them, and our opinions of them. We have to recognize the power our words have over our children. Try as we might to provide constructive criticism for our children, we would do well to understand that criticism of any sort is not helpful to a child in formation. Encouragement is what children need, and we adults need to find opportunities for and ways of encouraging our children.
All of us who are in contact with children need to be careful. Children are THAT important!
I’ve been struck lately at how futilely we try to force our children to do what we want them to do without our learning the obvious lesson. We can say that our child has a mind of her own, but we can’t seem to really get it, and so we continue to try to coerce our child to say hello to our friend, wave bye bye, take a nap, go to sleep, get dressed in a reasonable time, smile for a photograph – the list is endless and so is the lesson.
Children are born with many powers of the mind. One of them is the “will.” It is their will, it belongs to them, they direct it, they control it. We can try to force our children’s will, we can try to scare them so they yield their will, we can try to coax them or even bribe them and get some success. But we will never get anywhere with the power of a child’s will until we stop trying to engage it and recognize that it is the child who has this power.
What then can we do to create a congenial household with cooperative children instead of producing a child tyrant? We can make the child’s will our ally. There are lots of ways of doing this, but we’re not very good at most of them, so we need a lot of practice. First, practice disengaging; don’t get into power struggles. Admit out loud to your child when you’re wrong. Agree with your child. Support and validate her feelings. Offer choices to him so he can feel the power of choosing. Ask his opinion. Ask her to teach you how to do something. Realize that you don’t need to get your way 100% of the time. Learn to negotiate win/win solutions so you both feel like you got what you wanted. Don’t tell him what to do to solve his problem; don’t tell her what you’d do if you were she. Instead ask her if she wants any suggestions and respect her answer, especially if she says, “No, thank you.” Commiserate with her without telling her how you’d respond. Listen. Resist the temptation to judge, to lecture, and to criticize. Those just give children reasons to defend themselves. Never discuss with others your child’s behavior within their earshot. Don’t offer explanations to others to account for why your child isn’t doing what you want her to do, things like, “Oh, she’s shy.” The reason she isn’t talking is that she has a will and she is willing herself not to talk. By judging your child, you’re being disrespectful of her. Model the behavior you hope to receive.
Our children are who they are and part of who they are is their will. Work with this will and reap the benefits. Otherwise, wring your hands. It’s up to you.
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher