Sunday, March 05, 2006


Philosenpfeffer!: Answers to the Persistent Question of "What's Your Point?"

I have heard various manifestations of this question from family, friends, bloggers, and my own husband, and I think it bears examination. Why would a sensible parent want to follow such a strict code in her interactions with her own natural, beautiful child? Why follow all these rules? Why don't you just follow your instincts? The answer to that question is admittedly more complicated the more I think about it. Please indulge my dissecting it in print.

Philosophy and Conduct

You can dichotomize people into oblivion, so I'll see how far this gets me. You can live according to philosophies or you can live according to instinct. I think most people do a bit of both, and both extremes are uncomfortable to those of us in the middle. People who live on the extreme philosophy end we call zealots, and those on the extreme instinct end we call anarchists (or out of respect for the zealously philosophical anarchists out there, we should call these people Ferris Beullerists, "A person shouldn't believe in an 'ism', a person should believe in himself"--benign lawlessness, no?). Most of us acknowledge rules, if not whole philosophies. We follow rules we find beneficial and dismiss rules that don't suit our purposes. The degree to which we do this defines us in more ways than we'd like to admit.


If you agree to follow a rule, you are agreeing to an assumption that the best course of action in a given situation has already been decided, and as such is not negotiable. Rules are usually at least strategic, if not philosophical. Sometimes the strategy is for keeping things fair, sometimes it's for keeping things unfair in the same direction all the time. Observable trends in rule-making can turn into philosophies (or the other way around, I suppose). A philosophy is a system of broad intellectual rules that gives us a framework for thinking about things, and helps us make all the little rules. So putting aside the chicken and the egg, that brings me around to...


Strategy is what develops by trial and error when you do something a lot of times: like playing chess or cards, or driving to work or investing money. You learn from your mistakes. A person who plays chess or bridge follows either a strategy she's developed through experience or one she's read about in chess/bridge books. I will now follow the chess analogy a little farther than many people care to go. The easily bored should skip this next part.

Tortured Chess/Parenting Analogy: One thing's certain about chess. If you play chess a lot, you will be better at it than you were the first time you played by virtue of avoiding first-timer mistakes. If you really play a lot and you have a talent, you might develop a good strategy through learning from your mistakes. Possibly, you could get so good at chess that people would want to hear and follow your strategy, and you might be able to sell your chess book or give lessons.

Of course, any bonehead can learn the rules of chess and write a strategy book but if your strategy isn't any good, or is good but already widely known, people are going to stop listening to you pretty fast. Further, different people who are experienced at playing chess will come up with different strategies. People who are interested in chess strategy will read the various strategies and pick and choose what they think will help them.

It's often better for inexperienced chess players to follow one strategy to its logical conclusion, rather than to try to cobble something new together from a lot of different strategies because in the cobbling, the strategies lose their integrity and the inexperienced chess player, while perhaps better off for having picked up a few good tips, has not gained as much insight as he might have. This is because his choices about good advice and bad advice are informed by the same ignorance that previously informed his trial-and-error decisions.

Most of the very best chess players have a combination of experience and broad knowledge of the strategies in chess books, plus a little talent, and are able to innovate based on these elements. There is no question that practical playing experience is a key factor here. The very best chess players all have one thing in common. They play a lot of chess.

So how is parenting strategy like chess strategy? I think you can get better at both parenting and chess by experience and by reading. However, the number of children you can raise is a lot more limited than the number of chess games you can play, so it stands to reason that you'll have to rely on the wisdom of others. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can canvass lots of parents, or you can listen to smart people who deal with a lot more children than they could actually parent (like teachers or pediatricians), and extrapolate from what they say works for them. You could just listen to your mother (I do that a lot), but strategically speaking, unless she is VERY prolific, she is not much more experienced than you are.

But wait! Instinct is a kind of strategy! Yes, instinct is nature's strategy, which develops when death is the result of bad decisions and continued life is the result of good ones. However, a few things bother me about it. For one, learned behaviors can override good instinct (witness the average American diet). For another, I am not always able to distinguish sound reason from gross rationalizing from moment to moment. I don't trust my instincts in the face of stress or marketing, which are demonstrably powerful influences. That's why I have decided ahead of time to stand on principle.


The conclusion I draw is that I would do well to follow a known strategy that appeals to me (within the Montessori philosophy, which appeals to me) all the way to its logical conclusion rather than to follow my instinct through trial and error, or cobble together pieces of strategies in my inexperience. I don't see this as blind zealotry, but measure-within-blindness. I have exactly no experience in parenting, and some experience with the Montessori philosophy (enough, I think, to choose a strategy within it), So I have chosen a strategy--to which even now I have made certain modifications, evident in previous posts--and I plan to stick to it. With a little luck, my humble experience in this regard will be a useful addition to the common wisdom.

Anyone buying that?


Anonymous said...

I am so pleased to have found your blog. My son is almost 4 months, I've served as a Montessori toddler and infant teacher, have not been formally trained, but do have an elementary ed degree.

I'm working my way through similar questions. It means the world to me to know someone else has done the same in such a thoughtful and light hearted manner.

You're a brilliant writter too, and it feels so good to have some intellectual stimulation again.

Thank you!

Charissa said...

Your previous commenter says it so well & so do you! I'm a certified Montessori directress (ECE) but have no formal training with infants. Now that I'm a mother of an 11 month old daughter I'm searching for Montessori information to help me give our little Lani a leg up. I feel very prepared for the years to come but feel very much at times like I'm bumbling through till then. Especially now that she's toddling I feel at a loss of what to put her into contact with. She still puts everything into her mouth but is ready for a bit of a challenge. She's standing a lot but not walking. I love your blog. It's a rare jewel in the world of Montessori infant literature & so very very well written! I second that Thank you.