When my daughter was born, I began an age-old quest, one known to all parents. A quest to find out what is best for my child, and how I can provide it. A scary question for a young inexperienced mother. My first hesitant steps on this journey led me to plunge into the unsolicited advice, which flooded in from all sides. There were moments when I thought I might drown in commercials for all sorts of baby stuff. It seemed everyone did their best to make me believe their opinion or their product was essential for my child’s healthy development. Thank heavens Pinterest wasn’t around yet, or I might not have survived. The Montessori Method seemed like just one more product someone was trying to sell to me.
I heard about the Montessori Method from a friend, who was paying a lot of money for a private Montessori preschool, the first (and at that time the only one) in Slovenia. At the time, it seemed a bit snobbish to me. I mean, how important could it be? It was just preschool. Why would one want to waste so much money on tuition when there is a public preschool just around the corner? It cannot be that different, can it? And was it really as important as your child listening to Mozart while taking a bath in a tummy tub, after a walk around in a mei tai, with just the right fabric design of pink elephants with earrings and fairy wings?
Then I came across an article about Dr. Maria Montessori. I was fascinated by her extraordinary life story. As the first woman to ever study medicine in Italy, she was a paradigm shifter from early on. A feminist, an advocate for children’s rights (and a mother of an illegitimate child she was forced to give up), she was a revolutionary, giving lectures around the world. For her work on early childhood development, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, not once but three times. Such an achievement for a woman born in a time when women were not even allowed to vote, and when, in some parts of Europe and the US, child labor was still common and legal.
I was intrigued by her persona, as much as by her pedagogy, and decided to take a two-weekend course on the subject. When the first day of lectures was over, my mind was set. This was what I wanted for my child. This was something I wanted for me, too. This was something I could believe in.
I could respect the child and teach them to respect themselves and others. I could follow the child. I saw the sense in letting the child dictate their own development through independent choices of prepared activities, which Dr. Montessori referred to as “work.”
Dr. Montessori noticed specific periods in development (which she referred to as “sensitive periods”) during which a child focuses on a particular activity, with such vigor and intense concentration, that they temporarily lose interest in other activities. Today, neuroscientists believe that children are drawn to an activity because they are at a stage of intense development of a certain part of the brain needed to complete that particular task. Sometimes they will want to repeat the activity, over and over and over again. And we should let them.
After learning about sensitive periods, I realized this was something I noticed with my toddler. As pointless as the activity may have seemed to my adult self, I realized the logic of letting the child do it. It could be something as simple as picking up tiny objects from the floor, or something as risky as climbing a set of stairs without holding onto the rail. On the other hand, it could be something that makes a parent burst with pride, like a desire to learn all the letters at age two, or something as frustrating as the determination to put shoes on, all by herself. Or wanting to pour the milk from the pitcher, all by herself. Or brushing her teeth, all by herself. Or pretty much everything, all by herself.
The vocabulary of a toddler is somewhat limited. Most of the time it’s down to just two words. “No” and “myself.” For a parent, toddlerhood is usually a period of intense negotiations which result either in a spilled pitcher of milk, or a very loud temper tantrum. Which is the lesser evil? As Maria Montessori would put it: “Only practical work and experience lead the young to maturity,” and: “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”
The best thing you can do for your child is to buy a smaller pitcher that the child can manipulate by herself, load up on milk, always have a towel at hand. Then just roll with it.
No matter how tiring this approach may seem to young parents, the reward is worth it. If we follow her principles, Dr. Montessori promises no less than a happy, calm and content child. A child with a love for learning. A child who is free to develop their abilities to the fullest.
What more could a parent ask for? World peace?
Well, so did Dr. Montessori. And she believed that the key to world peace is healthy education and mutual respect. “Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.”
After that introductory course almost a decade ago, I was hooked. I took the first teacher training course available. Since then, I have worked in a preschool as an assistant, hosted parent-child classes, given lectures to parents and teachers in training. As part of their training course, I have been observed working in my classroom by teachers in training, and I have observed and assessed those teachers in their classrooms. Most of all, I have tried, to the best of my ability, to follow Dr. Montessori’s teachings, both in the preschool and at home, with my own three children.
I still remember the first day of my teacher training. After the introductions and the opening lecture, the lecturer asked us what it was that inspired us to take up the training. Answers varied from person to person. Mine was: “Respect.” I wanted my child to be treated with respect, and accepted for who she is. I want the same for all children.
Today, 65 years after Dr. Montessori passed away, her method has spread all over the world. World peace is still far away, and Dr. Montessori still has a lot to teach young parents. The most difficult lesson is probably that your child knows best what is right for them at each particular stage of their development. And, like it or not, it may not be a pink elephant-patterned mei tai, but patiently picking up tiny dust particles off of your living room rug.