Monday, November 24, 2008

The world is full of what she wants.

Quickly now, so the Montessorians don't hear...

My girl believes in Santa Claus. She's beginning to have childish wants, instead of just babyish needs. She is interested in Santa because she wants something, and she believes he can deliver. This feels like a big beginning to me, the beginning of Nuvy's desires. It also feels like a goodbye. Goodbye to the baby for whom I was everything.

There's also quid pro quo. If you are very, very good...

Before, if anyone asked me what Nuvy "wanted", I smiled to myself knowing she wanted nothing. There was no need I couldn't meet, and I just saw that turn on a dime. I just watched a great big well of want open up, and with it bubbled up excitement and anticipation, and all those wonderful wide-eyed emotions. They will be followed shortly by disappointment and loss and letdown, too. Someday, the "Believe" in Macy's window will look like a cheap "buy" to her, too, and she will begin to look for the machinery that drives the magic--but not yet.

Montessori's Stealth Grace and Courtesy Lessons

While still mulling around my ramblings about authoritarian parenting and the toppling of totalitarian political regimes, I ran into a friend who has a company that endeavors to teach children social graces in a "fun, engaging way". We talked a little about the importance of grace and courtesy to a Montessori model of education, and she aked me for a consult. I hope I will be able to give her a good one, but while I love white-glove tea parties as much as the next girl, I worry that many of my ideas about grace and courtesy might not be marketable as fun and engaging.

As it happens, I ran into her in just the kind of social situation we would like to prepare young people to enjoy, and as I looked around the room at all the very well-behaved ladies, I mused that, while it's all well and good to learn how to pour tea, putting on manners is rather less than what we want in graceful and courteous people.

Somebody said that fashion is for people who lack style, and manners are for people who lack breeding. This is how, I hear, social climbers of the hoi-polloi are tsk-ed about by their (our) betters at the tables to which they (we) are not invited. This is also where Montessori has it all over modern parents who want their pre-teens to learn how to act in public where there are no interactive electronic media available to occupy them. The breeding in question is more a matter of cultivating habits. The catch is that habits of grace and courtesy are meant to be invisible. In the company of "cultivated" people, only the mistakes show.

The core of grace and courtesy in the Montessori philosophy is respect. It is the mutual respect between child and teacher, and among children. This is also the core of Montessori's philosophy of self-discipline. I am amazed that I don't see more of this around on parenting sites. Aren't you? There was plenty of advice to be found about making sure you model good table manners at the dinner table each night (like we all do, right?), and about how you should never ridicule or put anyone down in your child's presence (as if it might be ok if the child were out of earshot?), and plenty of how you should let your child "practice" thoughtfulness, such as pulling out chairs for people (could be dangerous without sufficient practice!)

I looked all over the internet for comparisons of discipline strategies for an idea of respecting children, and I kept coming up with the same tired trifecta: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Authoritative is the preferred style by, well, by just about everyone. While I do think the "Authoritative" parent sounds much better than the other two (I don't know which of the bazillion of these articles to link to , just google parenting style), I think there should be a fourth option--the "Respectful" parent.

Here's a brief outline of what I think are Montessori's most important lessons in grace and courtesy. Primary teachers and Assistants to Infancy may note that these lessons in respect are not always filed under the Grace and Courtesy tab in your binder, but then Grace and Courtesy are hard to define in lots of situations, aren't they?

1. Teach, Don't Correct.
The cardinal rule of good behavior is that you never, ever call someone out on a faux pas. (Some day I'll tell you about the fancy business lunch at which I goofily put my bread on the charger instead of the bread plate--thus flummoxing the waitress who wanted to deliver my soup into making this very grave error. Poor thing. ;-) ) Montessori teaches that the way to teach children is by modeling and positive direction, and that the graceful way to handle a mistake is to overlook it, and re-introduce the correct behavior. ("See, I can chew with my lips closed, like this. Can you?" not "Close your mouth when you chew. It's disgusting to chew with your mouth open.") In all areas, Montessori cultivates this model of teaching. Graceful! Courteous!

2. Defining one's space.
The cross-legged posture and the work mat are two of the most sublime peacekeeping tools in the Montessori arsenal. It is the very beginning of "Mind Your Own Business" to define what is one's own business. The mat clearly indicates to the self and to others what is the child's business at hand. The cross-legged posture allows the child to sit comfortably while taking up a minimum of space on the floor, thus avoiding collisions and conflicts. Is there anything more completely polite than to mind one's own business and, by absence of intrusion, to facilitate the business of others?

3. Walking on the line.
Walking on the line goes hand in hand with defining one's space. Children carefully walk along a line drawn on the floor as an exercise. They do it slowly, quickly, to music, carrying objects, alone, and with friends. The idea is to develop a kinesthetic sense (that is, knowing where all your parts are located at any given time) and a sense of balance. Great for ballerinas and basketball players, but also great for grace and courtesy. It's the preventive part of politeness--the ability to avoid upsetting other people's things, and so their feelings. Doesn't it conjure images of girls in finishing school walking around with books on their heads? Good posture and balance aren't just for looks, see?

Montessori goes on to develop a whole curriculum of politeness, including the art of introductions, holding up one's end of the conversation, ceremonious meals, offering and receiving things, and a whole host of other etiquette lessons which are extremely useful, but I keep coming back to the above three as the base that holds the whole thing up. After all, a charming person can make charming mistakes, and "correctness" can be obnoxious without its underlying community spirit.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And now for something completely different...

Yep, you guessed it. Van's first birthday was yesterday.

I know this is supposed to be a Montessori baby-mama blog where we always talk about how best to respect and nurture our joyful children, but some of you are already familiar with my occasional dabbling in Nuclear Homemaking, often in the form of Pastries of Mass Destruction.

(see, I was able to get that out with no reference at all to yellowcake... almost.)

So here is a photo of his birthday cake. Laugh all you want. I'll give you the whole story.

Some of you will recall the Martha Stewart 15th anniversary series where she did a year's worth of "best of" issues, the crown jewel of which was the "year of cakes" issue. I still haven't recovered. This was my attempt at making Miss October, the "Darkest Chocolate Crepe Cake", which I have dreamed of making for Van's birthday since about the 12th week of his gestation. Sadly, it took about six hours to make and wound up looking like a fairly substantial cow pie. This is why God made burnt sugar decorations. (Oh, wait. I made those, too...)

If I may, this is the worst cake recipe I have ever attempted. The instructions are completely asinine, and the thing simply will not hold together with the "meringue buttercream", It slid around like a jello mold until the glaze hardened to hold it together. Why anyone would take a beautiful meringue and deflate the thing with three and a half sticks of butter is beyond me. It further calls for a mysterious product called "hazelnut cream" which apparently no one on the first ten pages of a google search can identify, other than that every Whole Foods on earth is out of it. I have heard of people using everything from hazelnut coffeemate to Nutella (I chose the latter) to get hazelnut filling to go between the bazillion crepes it takes to make it this tall. It did slice in a nice stripe-y way, but collapsed after about half of it had been served, so the last third of it had to be eaten layer by layer, short-stack fashion.

The recipe included the cool candied hazelnuts with the long spikes, but when I tried to follow the sugar-candy recipe, I began to understand why so many of the other fallen bakers used strawberries to decorate theirs. What lunacy!! For the record:

Anyone who tells you that the first step to making caramel sugar is to add water to the sugar and boil the resulting syrup until it browns IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

As I knew (but wanted to be a team player, so I tried it Martha's way), the way to make caramel sugar is to dump sugar in a pot, light a fire under it, and stir. Water is not necessary or helpful. I dutifully added it though, then boiled it away until all I had left was a bunch of lumpy sugar that made a cloudy, grainy syrup. Once I threw that away, I made the caramel sugar the right way, and got not only gorgeous candied hazelnuts, but plenty of extra caramel for making birdcages and other sugar-string delights with which to gild my cow pie. Splendid fun!

Van also had developmental follow-up today, so there is actually a relevant post to be made--but it's for another day! The one year Montessori stuff from Nuvy is here, disjointed as it was in the middle of our move. I'll try to do better this time.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And when she was bad, she was horrid.

It's another discipline post. Really it is. But first...

Here's Nuvy in her "Purple Butterfly With A Big Dress" costume, stuffing a chocolate between houses on Halloween night. I love this costume, but I was looking forward to making her into a "Shark", the first iteration. The second, "A Pink Bear with Big Purple Teeth," left me totally at a loss.

So, butterfly worked out great, third year in a row. Poor Van, he got stuffed into Nuvy's old butterfly costume from two years ago--completely adorable, by the way--Sans wings-- and was a caterpillar.

Anyway, on to the discipline part. NOLA mom asks what I think about ignoring bad behavior, as negative reinforcement is still reinforcement. This is a topic that keeps me up at night from time to time, because I read that, too, and I'm pretty jumbled in my feelings about it, and will now make another overlong post to that effect.

I think it's a nice idea that you can effectively discipline a person (or an animal) with no negative feedback, but I have to admit that I also think the approach is somewhat limited.

Here is an article I read about using dolphin training methods to train your husband, which espouses pretty much the same idea. Reward positive behaviors, and ignore negative ones. This woman reports some success training her husband in this way, and I can certainly see the appeal of the idea. It's a fun read.

The Montessori Approach
Montessori relies heavily on peer pressure to guide children's behavior. The teacher models the correct behavior and points it out in other children. Likewise, the other children point out to the errant child his error, and so there is a kind of "movement" toward good, community-oriented behavior. Acting out produces its own consequence, in that the offender is shunned by others who don't want to play with him in his current state of activity, and so the teacher is pretty much there to help reintroduce the child to the group once the acting out is over. Fights and other group expressions of inappropriate behavior are usually discussed in a general way at circle time, and the children will come to an understanding of why a behavior is inappropriate or ineffective. It's not called "normalization" for nothing.

This works splendidly in large groups of children. (Please remember that Montessori herself worked with orphaned or otherwise abandoned children whose parents exerted no influence, and who lived in the facility.) I have always maintained that Montessori teachers have a much easier time than parents, since there is nobody else to point to at home, it's just you and your child. Oh, and all your emotional baggage.

My Home-modified Montessori Approach
Now that we're staring down the juggernaut of our own tempestuous offspring, let's get real. For children, there are certainly some behaviors that it does not pay to reinforce in any way. There are also some behaviors that have to have immediate, real consequences, and some of the Montessori school consequences just don't have as much weight at home. My own modification of Montessori school discipline includes some categories of behavior that need different categories of response.

Acting Out
Acting out or "protest to the contrary", I define as an outsized emotional response to an authoritative decision the child opposes. For example, "I want/don't want to go to school/bed/table/bath", but the decision is already made. Really, I don't advocate negotiating on this, once you've made a pronouncement, and I think this is a good time to ignore bad behavior. Here's why: If the tantrum precipitates "five more minutes", then the tantrum has been successful. If the tantrum elicits yelling or violence from the parent, this is the kind of negative reinforcement you don't want. Not necessarily because it's "attention," but because it's "effect." While she didn't get what she wanted, at least she managed to make you as miserable as you made her, so it's a draw.

This is why I think it's important to be completely unmoved by protest tantrums. This kind of behavior will not get you anywhere in life. It will not get you friends, or a job, or a loan from the bank. You have to keep your wits about you, and learn how to play ball. The lesson is that tantrums get you nothing at all.

Violence against others
In real life, contrary to a little raging hyssy-fit, violence against others will get you something indeed. It will get you arrested. That is why I think hurting other people is an actionable offense, and should not be ignored. With toddlers, I think you have to express disapproval in no uncertain terms, and I think it should be personal. "Nuvy, I will not let you hurt Colin (hit Van/bite me/throw things at people...). If you hurt us, we cannot work/play with you." I think a toddler needs to know not only that violence against others is not allowed, but that you, the parent, intend to prevent it.

When Nuvy is violent with me, I feel like it's ok for me to show her a little attitude, because I really think this is the logical consequence. I mean, on the playground (or in the girls' restroom in high school) what is the usual result of physically assaulting someone? They get really pissed off, right? Naturally, I don't hit her back, but after the first "I will not let you..." I say sharply "Go away from me, now! I won't let you hit me!" Likewise, after the first warning with others, I remove her abruptly from the situation. So far, this works pretty well. She seems to understand it.

Interrupting another person's work (snatching toys, mostly)
This one is hard with toddlers, and I think it's more a situation for dialog than for "consequences." Even though she's pushing three now, I still think the concept of sharing is a little nebulous for her. "Share" means "give it to me." For now, when she fights her brother or her friend over a toy, I try to walk through it with her. "Hey, wait a minute. I know you want that spoon, but Van wants it, too. Please let him finish his turn, then you can have one." The advantage is that Van is 11 months old, so once she gives up the object of desire, I can easily redirect him, so she can have what she's after. Positive reinforcement for waiting your turn, not punishment for grabbing. In Montessori school, it's easy to tell when someone is "finished" with something, because the child has returned the work to the shelf. Not always so at home, unless you are very well disciplined in your environment. Sometimes you'll want to help it along...

By the way--It is a little trick I've developed in the "non-Montessori" parts of the day at school, and at home, to ask one child to wait her turn, then quickly encourage the other child to another activity, giving the first one over to the waiting child to quickly achieve positive reinforcement for waiting.

So there's a start--anyone have more?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NO! NO! NO!: Logical Consequences and the Crisis of Opposition

I had forgotten how much I love writing this blog. Thanks for all the 'welcome back' messages!

I got a comment about oppositional behavior, and I just couldn't wait to post about it. Remember when I last left off talking about Montanaro's three crises? Remember how I said I was hoping against hope that "this" was the terrible twos?

It wasn't.

There are lots of useful analogies about challenging toddlers. People often say it's like having a preverbal teenager, which is my favorite, and a sentiment I can totally get behind. Before I go on, I just have to say that, for us, entering the crisis of opposition has been a little like early labor for a first time mother. There comes a point at which the hurt is so intense, so unlike anything you've ever felt before, that you're sure it can't get any worse than this, and then it does.

In any case, I think we're really here, now. Nuvy is a delight as long as I don't ask anything of her. She is adorably verbal, heartbreakingly affectionate, and generally sweet and well meaning. But...

THE MINUTE I invade her interior monologue to ask her to (insert benign request here--come to dinner, put on shoes, take off shoes, get sweater, etc.), it all falls apart. I am given to understand that this is not only normal, but healthy, and that it is a phase she'll grow out of. Here's hoping.

So in the absence of having raised up a perfectly cooperative two-year-old, I consulted the literature. I found a few articles here, and here, that are good opening discussions of the "natural and logical consequences" discipline strategy. I think (have been trained to think) that this is a superior method to corporal punishment or "time out". In my educational experience, it is miraculous. In my limited parenting experience, it does work, but somewhat less dramatically for parents than for teachers. By now, this should surprise nobody.

I will state for the record that I am absolutely opposed to corporal punishment and all sorts of intimidation tactics in child-rearing. In the next breath, I have to admit that I am bossy as hell and tend to insist on my own way (I'm glaring in your direction, peanut gallery dwellers), and sometimes pretty forcefully. I have, in fact, yelled at my toddler on more occasions than I like to think about, and have, in extremely tense situations, impulsively smacked her on the hand or bottom three times that I can remember right now. I'm not proud of any of this, but it can and does happen, even to people who KNOW it isn't right.

Now that that's off my chest, I do not believe that yelling or corporal punishment has ever, EVER improved a bad situation with Nuvy. The best that ever happened was that she was temporarily intimidated into obedience, but it was at the cost, of some modicum of her respect for me. I'm sure all you old friends of mine out there are smiling wryly. I would say to you just what you think I would say. ;-)

So, if your family and friends tell you you must discipline your child by corporal means to be effective, I would suggest that there is ample evidence to the contrary. Here is a very nice article from Tomorrow's Child regarding the Montessori approach to discipline. It is an empowering, child-driven philosophy that aims to nurture a self-disciplined child, in contrast with methods that aim to produce an "obedient" child.

The difference between self discipline and obedience is an important one, and it represents a fundamental difference between two ideas of "good" behavior. As you might have guessed, I hope that I am nurturing a self-disciplined child. I think that intimidation methods like corporal punishment, yelling, and even time-out in certain applications, tend to pretty effectively produce obedience, at least for a while. Unfortunately, the effect is only maintained as long as the child's main objective is to please the parent, and parents will find--sooner or later-- that the child's desire to please the parent is, well, intermittent at best. Once parent approval is no longer the child's primary concern, discipline strategies that rely on the child's desire to remain in good standing with the parent fall apart. I know I keep coming back to this (as in my post about praise), but I believe it. Montessori-style discipline, or "normalization" is about a child's learning to make good decisions whether or not adults are there to impose them. Sounds like a tall order? I suppose it is, but I'll try briefly to provide a few central pillars for discussion. Of course, please read all these articles I've linked to. These are just a few quickies:

1. Choose Rules Carefully: There are lots of "rules about rules" that you could read up on, but my rule litmus test is to ask myself, "Do I REALLY mean 'No.'?" I mean, am I willing to pick up my marbles and go home over this? Could I reasonably be persuaded otherwise? Is it just because I'm tired? If not, it's not a rule. I try to make as few rules as possible and make them real. Other things are open to negotiation, and I do think it's ok to negotiate with toddlers, and even to be persuaded by them, because it empowers them, and helps them to understand that talking can sometimes work (whereas whining and hitting do not) to get you what you want. There's lots more about that, but I said I'd be brief...

Corollary: mean "no" when you say it

2. Model the behavior you want: This one was a no-brainer for me, but the very devil to live up to. The argument goes like this: How do you expect to teach your child to be respectful and kind by hitting him or speaking to him in an angry/threatening tone? Do you anticipate the day when he yells or hits back? Again, you can achieve temporary obedience by intimidation, but there is a time coming when you will no longer be as intimidating as you are now. Just something to think about.

Modeling is also a way of keeping the rules clear. If standards of behavior are different for you and for your child, you can imagine the confusion, and the precipitant devaluing of the standard itself.

The fact that we are not perfect parents (are you?), and we slip up now and again in this regard gives us another modeling opportunity. We find we have the opportunity to model appropriate conciliatory behaviors. I have had several opportunities to model for my daughter a sincere apology when I have made a mistake. It's not that I like screwing up, but I think it's valuable to her to learn that errant behaviors can be adequately dealt with by apology, discussion and reconciliation. A child who is asked to forgive, and has an opportunity to offer forgiveness, also learns that she will be forgiven her mistakes, and so may learn to acknowledge them. I think most of us could use a little of that.

Caveat: Kids have a keen nose for insincerity. Remember when you were a kid and an adult tried to bait and switch you? Believe it.

Of course, self-discipline is a process and obedience is a behavior. I want my child to obey me, in the short term, but to obey her own better nature in the long term. The thing is, if she's to develop her own better nature into a strong will, I may have to sacrifice some part of the immediate obedience that would be convenient (not to mention aesthetically pleasing) to me. To people who have raised children, or have been raised themselves in a more authoritarian style, this will surely look like "spoiling" and you will be cautioned to apply more direct heat. I would encourage you to stand your ground.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe children are "spoilable", but I don't think it's respect that spoils them. I think it's lack of discipline on the part of the parent--learned by the child through modeling inconsistent behavioral cause and effect, a frequent by-product of authoritarian rule. Political analogy: ever notice how it's always a totalitarian government that gets overthrown. It's not overthrown because it's oppressive, but because it's subjects discover that it is weak.

But that deserves its own post.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Van-the-man in stage 4, Nuvy in underpants!

I'll bet you thought you were rid of us, eh?


Just thought I'd drop by my neglected blog to check on Van's progress in Stage 4 (I blogged about that when Nuvy was his age, and thought it would be fun to compare), and also to talk about something I've been asked about several times, and am finally able to speak about from real parenting experience: toilet training.

First, my Stage 4 man. Isn't he sweet?

He's now 10 months old, right in the middle of stage 4, and seems to be more or less where I'd expect him to be, but doing it all very differently from the way Nuvy did.

Motor development: As far as walking development, he's crawling efficiently on all fours and pulling up, but not yet cruising the furniture. I discovered with Nuvy that the "walking curriculum" is completely superfluous in my home environment, as my own lazy-susan coffee table, doorknobs, and staircase seem to fulfill all the functions perfectly. However, you can check out Montessori's walking curriculum here, and buy elements for your environment if you like them. A word in defense of orthodoxy, though, the walking curriculum is introduced in a very specific order, based on motor readiness, so if you're going to do it, please read up and do it right.

Of course, for me, babyproofing (um, baby-resistant-ing?) has been all the walking curriculum we have so far used. Walking is hard-wired and develops naturally for most children, so my walking curriculum is mostly defined by absence: an absence of apparatus to hold the child in a standing position. I don't have any exersaucers, jumpy doorway chairs, or other things that help babies who can't yet stand to do it before they're ready. I know. Them's fightin' words, but I say them only in the spirit of Montessori assistance to infancy. Please know you can let your child jump in the doorway with no lectures from me about his development. I'm so over that now.

Language development: Van is much "babblier" than Nuvy ever was. It seemed that all her noises were intended for communication with us, whereas Van's often seem to be just for his own entertainment. He does babble with about the same variety that she showed at this stage, just more generally. Check out the Stage 4 post from 2006 for specific expectations.

Cognitive development: Van is much more into toys than Nuvy was at this stage, so I'm able to see a lot more of the purposeful play that is discussed in the literature than I saw before with Nuvy. He does now pick up toys with the intention of playing with them, and he does love dumping things and removing things from containers in general. All the world is his drum these days, and he's invented a version of Simon Says, where we all take turns being "Simon", which he can maintain for about 15 minutes at a stretch.

Social development: As for mealtime, he is a champ with the weaning table! So far, Van sits happily at the table and eats until he's full, then fingerpaints with his food to show that he's done. I think I recall that we had a moment of this with Nuvy, before she mastered getting in and out of the little chair, so the jury's still out. He does eat in the high chair with the rest of the family when we're all eating--a mealtime adaptation that works well for us. I did get a lot of questions about implementing this with two children, but I think it may actually be easier with an older sibling. Nuvy likes to sit at the weaning table with Van (I just stick her booster chair under it, and she is able to sit there pretty comfortably), which seems to keep them both happy.

So, to Nuvy. I'm finally feeling qualified to write a toilet training post. Nuvy is 2 years and 9 months old now, and has been out of diapers completely for about a month. She does have rare accidents, and will wet the bed if we don't remind her to go at bedtime, but otherwise it's pretty painless.

I used to tell parents at our school that the easiest way to toilet train was "cold turkey" that is, no pull-ups. I still stand by that--for school-- but I did modify it a little for our home. We actually went to pull-ups long before we started training--immediately when she became able to take off her own clothes (for several reasons, I don't consider pull-ups to be an effective toilet training tool--even the feel-wet kind--but they are great when used in their natural capacity as a diaper). I'll share our training experience with you, in case you're interested.

Phase one: Naked Nuvy, was introduced as soon as she started announcing that elimination events were in progress. ("I'm making peepee/caca"). We first bought four portable baby potties (they are about 4 bucks at Ikea). The Ikea training toilet is HANDS DOWN the best toilet training product on the market, in my opinion. It costs next to nothing and is just one piece of plastic with no cracks or lift-out pieces to wash. You just run the whole thing under water to wash it. We placed a potty in each bathroom, one in the living room, an done in the kitchen. Then we took a deep breath and took off her pants and diaper.

I tried not to make a "thing" of it, just showed her to the toilet each time anything happened. With nothing on her bottom, the consequences of making peepee/caca were immediately obvious to her, which I think was a big help. It was summer and, admittedly, this is easier done outdoors, but we did our share of mopping.

So we let this go on for a couple of weeks without trying underwear, until she had achieved reliable success. We did it only at home, didn't even try to take her out of the house without a diaper.

Phase 2: Under-Wonder. Underwear proved to be a bigger hurdle for us than I had anticipated. I think it reminded her of her diaper, and caused some initial sensory confusion. However, it only took a couple of days for her to get the hang of it. At this point, I considered her "housebroken". Still didn't even try leaving the house without diapers.

Phase 3: Under and Out. Once we had good conditioning to underwear at home, I put one of the Ikea toilets in the back of our car, and started taking her out. I asked her about every half our if she needed the toilet, and if she said yes, I pulled over immediately, set her down on the toilet in the back of the car, and took care of business. So far, we have never had a traveling accident with this method.

So now she is fully a Big Girl. She is able to manage even a standard size toilet these days without trouble, and is able to detect "need" in plenty of time to, say, come in from outside to use the toilet, or to ascend a couple of levels of stairs to get to the bathroom. The whole process took about two months for complete training, and while I know there are many faster methods, I like that she did it all by herself. I encountered no resistance or frustration from her, I had only to show her the toilet and remind her to use it. At every phase, Nuvy was almost immediately successful, I think because she was ready for success. It all felt very natural and child-driven, and very "Montessori".

I hear boys are harder.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Silvana Montanaro's Three Crises of Infancy

Only Three Crises? Would Somebody Please Tell the Kids?: Dr. Silvana Montanaro Hits the Highlights.

Did I say soon? I guess I meant "someday."

A reader asked me about Chapter 11 of Montanaro's book "Understanding the Human Being". It is the case with many Montessori riffs, and I suppose mine is no exception, that many aspects of Montessori philosophy come in and out of favor in the general literature, and can often fly in the face of the common wisdom du jour. Maria Montessori lived and worked in a moment in history, as do we all, and time does march on. Parenting and education trends wax and wane, pediatric wisdom fluctuates, and developmental academics come up with ever more sophisticated ways in which we are all damaging our kids to death.

So, Dr. Montanaro, before I begin to tease apart your three crises of infancy, I bow to you in your time (1955, to the publication of this book in 1991), but must nonetheless live in mine. Many of my ideas will surely seem wacky in the context of Dr. Montanaro's experience, and also to the folks who take the next MMI Infant-Toddler course they offer. As I said, time does march on.

A Crisis according to Dr. Montanaro

Montanaro defines "crisis" in a more neutral tone than we commonly associate with the word. Crises, in our common parlance, are associated with horrors, and generally seen to involve some experiential meltdown. To be sure, her three crises: birth, weaning, and opposition, come with plenty of inherent trauma, but crisis here means a transitional challenge of everyday epic proportion, rather than an extraordinary or malignant catastrophe. Dr. Montanaro's commentary on these crises is focused on helping the parent support the child through each crisis with respect.

The crisis of birth.

This one, certainly, is a crisis in the traditional sense (childbirth is definitely dramatic every time, isn't it?), as well as in the classical sense (the greek "judgment") of Dr. Montanaro.

Montanaro riffs a bit on the ways in which the infant is "tested", such as essentially coming off life support and into a totally foreign and newly variable environment. Her take-home message here is that the parent should be careful to recognize the competence of the child, recognize what must be a staggering degree of disorientation associated with birth, and to allow the child to do what he is capable of doing independently. I have often said a version of the same thing to the parents of infants, toddlers and bigger kids, too: "Your child is at least as smart as you are, only less experienced."

She discusses Montessori's "unveiling of the environment" in the context of allowing the baby as much opportunity for independent discovery as possible, while providing all the necessary support. Please see the Stage 1 post for more on that. She also invokes a little Freud, in defining birth as the beginning of the oral stage of development, with the mouth as the barrier between the self and the experience of environment.

I think the major benefit of discussing the crisis of birth, which seems pretty self-evident, is to set up some reference points for discussing the subsequent two: weaning and opposition.

The crisis of weaning.

Ok, as many of you know, here is where I get off the bus and walk for a little while. I am not entirely sure I'll reach the Crisis of Weaning before I reach the Crisis of Opposition, but Dr. Montanaro posits that one should press the issue at eight or nine months. She seems to anticipate the resistance of mothers like me, who decline to wean their children on time (I am--gasp!--tandem nursing.) by invoking the idea that the time has come to foster our child's independence by taking him off the breast. She asserts that nature has indicated his readiness to wean by making him receptive to other kinds of food, and so to prolong nursing is to retard the child's progressive independence. She has some fairly stern words for those who elect to continue nursing beyond this point. I have to say that I'm very much on the fence about it.

Yes, it's true that the "sensitive period for weaning" occurs at about the time a child begins to take an active interest in food, some people time that as early as five or six months. The nature of a sensitive period is that it is a developmental window that can be missed, if one is not attuned to the child's developmental needs. Montessorians have a sensitive period for everything and, by and large, I try to support them.

I have to concede that she might have a point about the missed sensitive period. With the introduction of food, the milk demand and supply did naturally diminish for us, so that I kept expecting Nuvy to just quit nursing one day, and there really was a time when she would go for days at a time during my second pregnancy, when the milk went to nothing. Oh, but once the baby was born, I had the goods once again, but now the dynamic was much, much different. Nursing became a negotiation. If Van can drink from the boobie, why can't she?

As we all know, there are so many nuances to the nursing part of a mother-child relationship that it can hardly be viewed as just feeding. The AAP now recommends a year, at least, but they also recommend a lot of tummy time, and I don't do that, either. I can't really judge the degree to which extended nursing has prolonged her emotional dependence on me. She seems not to have failed to exercise her independence by putting physical and behavioral distance between us intermittently--as she is expected to do at this age, but if I could turn back the clock, I would have tried harder to give her a "lovey", as now she relies on a peculiar combination of thumbsucking and Relentless Nipple Torture (RNT) to get to sleep. Mind you, only Mommy is subjected to this flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Daddy, both grandmothers, and the babysitter can all talk their way out of it.

Montanaro asserts that, at this point, a hug and a snuggle for the purpose of pure loving physical contact is what is needed, and that nursing keeps the child dependent. Possibly true. Nuvy has been pretty clingy since Van was born, so it's hard to tell if it's extended nursing that's to blame, or if it's baby-displacement trauma.

Montanaro is concerned that those of us who wean late do so out of fear that the weaned child will break off the relationship with the mother and go off independently into the environment. I don't really identify much with this fear, and I do definitely remember her going out and exploring her environment very actively by way of her mouth, and every other means she had, at about the time Dr. Montanaro recommends weaning to facilitate this exploration.

Maybe I protest too much. So I didn't wean her. I decided that self-weaning, it might be argued, falls under the "follow the child"/empower the child heading, rather than the parent-centered/child-centered heading. At this point, it's all child-driven.

The crisis of opposition.

Dr. Montanaro, in my (wishful? hopeful?) opinion, times this crisis a little late. 30-36 months is the time frame she gives, but for us it seems to have started earlier (please tell me it has, and that we are going to get through this soon). We were experiencing the described behaviors at about the 24 month mark, and now, at 27 months, we are fully engaged in the "terrible twos".

It doesn't really feel as if there is anything revolutionary about the suggestions or the philosophy in this segment. Dr. Montanaro offers the very same platitudes about offering limited choices and respecting the child's place in the family that you can read in Parenting magazine,, and pretty much any mainstream source for parenting support. Of course, it's entirely likely that this strategy proved so absolutely reliable that it has, since the time of writing, become the common wisdom.

I am definitely a big believer in offering choice and encouraging participation. However, you will probably find, as I have, that your child will find the sticking point and oppose you there, no matter what you do, or how much you mean to enfranchise her. Case in point, the choice-between-two strategy is short lived, once the child is aware that more than two options exist. It goes like this: "Nuvy, would you like an egg or some oatmeal for breakfast today?"

"I want pasta!"

"We have eggs or oatmeal. Which would you like?"


She is able to hold in her mind all the options for food that might appeal to her, and does not consen to be limited by my limiting her choices. We run into this with footwear often, too.

I will say that, contrary to my "firm and consistent" instinct, I do offer Nuvy opportunities to persuade me with a bargain. To bargain with two-year-olds might seem a dangerous game, but it does seem to make her more open to discussion when the tables are turned. We do not, however, bargain over rules. I think it's an important distinction. Bottom line, so far I haven't found any magic bullets here, and believe me, I'm looking.

The good news is that Nuvy's newfound self possession has made her feel both empowered and responsible. She begins to want to take care of things, talks to dolls, sincerely tries to comfort her crying baby brother, and has even become intermittently kind to me. So far, two is still more sweet than terrible.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Saving Grace: Our Family Blog

Dear Readers,

My niece, Gracie, was recently diagnosed with Hurler Syndrome, a nasty genetic disorder, and is about to undergo drastic medical measures to save her life. If you'd like to meet Gracie and the rest of our family, please visit us at Saving Grace.

Oh, and I promise to finish this post about Silvana Montanaro and her crises of infancy soon!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Moving into Consciousness: Two to Three Years

Birthday To You, But I Digress: The Experimental Toddler Goes Conscious
Nuvy turned 2 years old on New Year's day, to the tune of a billion hangovers. Given that Nuvy's birthday is January 1, we've started a "hair of the dog" party tradition with New Year's Day southern food, and the leftover midnight sauce reincarnated as Mimosa, Bellinis, and Irish Coffee.

My girl does love a party. She seems to share my taste for occasions. Birthday cake is one of my favorite foods, because it's sweet and festive, and a great excuse for an art project. We made the cardinal cake for her first birthday, and the cherry blossoms were this year's effort. Almost a month later, she still says "Birthday to you!" and taps the rim of your glass with hers whenever anything with bubbles is poured (seltzer will do), and when asked what she'd like to have for a snack, she'll often reply, "Birthday cake!" Last week, coming home from a trip to see the southerly grandparents, she pointed out the window of our plane at the sparkling city of Philadelphia and exclaimed, "Look, Mommy! There's Christmas!" All these brand-new associations are coming together right on cue, as the pre-conscious infant starts to put things together, to become the conscious child.

How's that for a segue?

Neurological and Physical Development

Between two and three years of age, a child's brain is two to three times its birth size. Sensorimotor integration--the coordination of sensory information and motor response--is rapid and refined. The child is drawn to activitys of maximum physical effort and will try to carry or pull the heaviest object available.

Proprioception (awareness of the whereabouts of her movable parts) and kinesthesia (awareness of the direction, speed, and force of her movements) are highly developed and the two-year-old is eager to explore them. She loves to tumble, spin and dance. She practices balancing and hopping on one foot. With all this awareness and control comes control of the muscles of elimination, and thus readiness for toilet training. What also comes is a sense of empowerment. More on that in a minute.

Awareness of directions of movement makes pushing, pulling and twisting motions very interesting to the TYO, and you will find her using her wrists to open and close jars, turn water faucets on and off (ad nauseam), and open and close doors (ad infinitum!).

Cognitive Development

Here we notice a rapid refinement of verbal skills, a continued and deepening interest in the naming of everything, and much more sophisticated sentence structure, and all at once, too. We call this sudden burst of linguistic complexity the "explosion into language". It occurs when the passive vocabulary and communicative experience converge in the child's intellect, so that language just falls into place. Of course, the prior experience with lots of passive language is key--to talk, talk, talk to that preverbal child!

At this stage, the child begins to refine her ability to place objects in categories. She can differentiate categories and subdivisions of a category. For instance, she might recognize dogs, cats, and flowers as three different categories, but also be able to divide the same set of objects into two categories, animals and plants. At our house this refinement is evident in the trusty Audubon birds (can I go on enough about those?). Until recently, they were all just "bird, bird, bird". Now, suddenly they're "cardinal, tufted titmouse, and pileated woodpecker". Go figure.

One-to-one correspondence is well established now, and table setting is a great activity to support this understanding. If your table's too high, as ours is, you might do what we do and lay out a tea party for Mommy, Nuvy, Peter Cottontail, and the Squid.

She can understand increasingly complex verbal instructions, like "Please bring a little diaper for Van and a big one for yourself, too." She also understands that she has the power to refuse. She weighs consequences and begins to learn to negotiate her position (and she thinks it's funny when I get annoyed with her. Just the response I was looking for--and HEY! No snarky comments from past and present cohabitors in the peanut gallery. I am well aware that my anger really is funny, jackass.)

Emotional and Social Development

A two-to-three year old shows a keen interest in family affairs. She imitates parents' activities, enjoys chores and wants to help. She is able to content herself with playing alone, but will usually choose to play where she has an audience.

With other children, parallel play gives way to interactive play as verbal communication improves, and children are increasingly capable of cooperating in play.

Emotionally, she begins to recognize "shades" of emotion. she knows happy and happier, sad and sadder, angry and angrier, and is able to modulate a response that feels appropriate to her perception. It does not, of course, follow that her modulated response feels appropriate to my perception! Her verbal skills provider her with a range of expressions to match her more subtle emotions and desires. She will make fantastic experimental use of these expressive and emotive nuances.

The Supportive Environment

An appropriate environment contains numerous practical lifeactivites. PRactice in dressing is provided through dress-up costumes with everyday closures, and putting on and taking off shoes independently. Child-size versions of household implements are delightful for children at this age, because they allow imitation of adult activities while circumventing the frustration the child may encounter when trying to use a too-big tool.

Table setting, water pouring, and hand/furniture washing are delightful activities, and you might find your child enjoying them whether or not you put them out. (Ever had her pour her milk over her dinner? You know, just for fun?) Early language materials may be incorporated, including picture cares and, later, three part cards.

Sensorial materials can be more sophisticated, incorporating shades between sensory extremes, and more subtle differences in sorting and matching. Silverware sorting is a great at-home sensorial activity for two-to three year olds.

From here, we move into the realm of the Primary classroom, to which children are usually admitted at two-and-a-half or (more usually, but less appropriately in my opinion) three years of age. This means that I'm shopping for Montessori schools in the Philadelphia area. Any local reviews are appreciated. :-)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Subject 2/Stage 2: One to Four Months

Wailing Through Stage 2: Everybody Is!

subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one.

See, things are different this time. As I suspected, The original Experimental Infant was, well, the easy one.

What's up with that? How many times have I heard this story. It's the one that goes "If I'd had my second child first, I might only have had one." Has anyone out there reading ever said this? Are second babies really, categorically pains in the ass? Or is there something more sensible at work here, like my being too busy to be as tuned in to him as I was to my first, only infant. I mean, I dimly remember certain evening bouts of crying with Nuvy, but nothing, NOTHING like what goes on with Van. From about week 3 to 9 weeks or so, he's been pretty much crying every minute he's been awake. Well, ok. Many, many waking moments are devoted to crying. Some others are devoted to looking astonishingly cute (let it be said that, after Nuvy, I thought I was no longer astonishable by cuteness. Was I ever wrong.). The moment pictured above was devoted to wavering on the edge of sleep. We have several of those a day, too. But anyway, so he cries a lot. In the meantime, lets discuss Stage 2--since I didn't the first time around. For those who are counting, Stage 2 is the period between one month and four months of age.

Practice makes...myelinated pathways make...muscle memory!
So, in addition to various levels of fussiness, Stage 2 is all about practice. Van spent his first four weeks mastering his basic body functions, and now, in Stage 2, he's beginning to experiment with motor control, and to make his first observations of the world that exists outside him. What he learns will begin to suppress his infantile reflexes during this stage, and they will continue to disappear in a pretty predictable pattern throughout his infancy. Neat, eh?

The chief result of Van's experiments will be a kind of preliminary organization of the brain through myelination in the cerebral cortex--that is, the thinking part of his brain. Myelin is an insulating material that brain cells put down around electrical connections that get repeated often (successful experiments and purposeful activity), and not so much around connections that are only made once, or just a few times (random activity or failed experiments). The point is to keep the signals flowing in useful directions, and not to have neurons firing randomly all over the place, looking for something good to do. This has already happened, to some extent, in the deeper, more basic levels of the brain, but now begins in earnest in response to the baby's repetitive experiments. Patterns of movement (schemata) evolve as the baby devises ways to accomplish the things he wants to do.

Myelination is a recurring theme in discussions of brain development. It's an important manifestation of learning and memory. "Muscle memory" is what Van is beginning to develop at this stage, through repetitive practice. Right now, he's learning to smile, laugh, and reach for things. Later, he'll learn to walk, run, make the sounds of his native language (in the Philadelphia accent he'll grow up with, alas, and not my own charming southern drawl.) and maybe play the piano, or play golf. Practice affects the brain this way throughout life.

Developing just after the parts of the brain that control vital functions and reflexes are the parts that control the senses. At birth, Van had all the equipment he needed to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, but he had to wait for the areas of his brain that interpret sensory signals to develop to make sense of the signals it receives.

Let's look at some of the things Van's been practicing:

Resisting gravity: at between one and four months, babies discover that, with effort, they can lift their little heads and achieve a different view of things.

Swipe and grasp: the palmar reflex (the one that makes your newborn grab hold of your finger and not let go) is strong at birth, but a one-to-four month old baby learns that by controlling the opening and closing motion of the hand voluntarily, he can manipulate his environment. Right now, for Van, this involves looking at his hands a lot. I imagine that if he could talk, he might say, "Look at this! Don't tell anyone, but I think I can control it with my mind!"

Holding objects and bringing objects to the mouth: We're not there yet, but these are variations on the hand-mind coordination theme.

Cognitive, Emotional and Social development: A whole lot of goo-goo going on.

It starts with the hand-gazing, and then looking at other things in the environment that move, deciding which ones he can control, and which ones move independently of him. Kind of like a life-size game of Myst, isn't it? This looks to an observer like staring, gazing, or tracking objects with the eyes. If an object disappears from the baby's field of vision, he'll fix his eyes on the spot where he last saw it.

Gurgling and cooing, raspberries, and other vocalizations mark his earliest attempts at verbal communication. The Montessori folks tell us to talk to the baby in a normal, conversational tone, and to do it all the time.

Mercifully for those of us with crybabies, self-soothing behaviors begin to emerge during this stage. We're still waiting for Van to get hold of his thumb. So far, he's sucking his fist. Right direction, but not quite satisfying for him.

The supportive environment: baby zen.
The baby's curiosity is evident, and needs support without overstimulation with too many choices. A few simple grasping objects placed at the edges of the baby's reach are developmentally appropriate. I use a cotton bandanna, a little rattle, and a toy bird (he digs the cardinal). All this practicing requires space and time for self-induced motor activity. In other words, floor time. He has to get out of that carrier and kick and stretch it all out.

Montessori infant gurus warn that we'll be tempted to "entertain" the baby with a lot of toys, baby talk and other kinds of performance, and they urge us to resist this as far as we can. Give the baby time to really explore simple objects. Let him hear and participate (as far as he is able) in normal conversational speech, and take time to make a safe space for him where he needn't be restrained by a carrier or other apparatus. We're waiting and watching, as he tries to communicate with us.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Praise and Punishment Game Part 1: Praise

The Montessori Dictates Against Praise and Rewards vs. Getting the Little Buggers to Do What You Say.

Yes, believers, it's true that my gurus are opposed to praise and rewards, though the jury is still out on what constitutes punishment. However, their only real beef is with the praise part, because life provides its own rewards and punishments. Here, let me explain as best I can. Please pipe up in the comments if I miss anything, all you Montessorians out there. Thanks, NOLA mom, for asking one of my favorite questions. Now I know how Judith Martin felt the time a Miss Manners reader asked her to explain how to send secret messages with calling cards.

A big part of the Montessori philosophy is that, if you work to please yourself, success is its own reward. This is the core belief behind all the self-correcting activities, aids to independence, freedom to choose your own work, and community-building care-of-environment (by "environment" we mean dusting and polishing as much as we mean composting) activities. According to the gurus, praise from adults works against independence. It sounds like a tough quandary, but actually, it just takes a few small changes of habit--often only habits of speech--to turn the focus of success away from the adult and back to the child.

A little child is working to perfect herself--that is to be a successful member of her society--and so naturally seeks approval from adults, whom she perceives (on some level) as having accomplished this goal. Simply put, the child is hard-wired to try to be like the adults she sees around her. There are several ways in which adults can indicate acceptance and approval of the child's efforts. One way is applause and verbal praise, and another is respectful acceptance and a normal, courteous reply.

It's easy to see why adults want to applaud and praise children. After all, we are already (for the most part) accepted as worthwhile members of our society. To feel that our efforts have been recognized, adults look for accolades. Accolades help us believe that what we have done is a little bit better than expected, or than what everyone else did. It makes us feel special. As we have all experienced, this is a double-edged blade, no?

Praise is certainly an expeditious way of getting a person to do what you ask/want them to do. However, some inherent pitfalls of praise-driven obedience are: what happens when no one is there to praise the child? Will she still behave? Will the child be able to maintain good habits when those habits don't feel special? What happens when the child becomes an adolescent and is no longer willing to work for the praise of parents and teachers, but in an effort to carve out her own identity, is pointedly indifferent to such praise? The list goes on.

The (arguable) premise is that a little child does not need to be made to feel special, but to feel welcome and appreciated. Children, of course, enjoy applause and praise, and will work very hard for even the simplest reward. Ask any elementary school teacherwhat a child won't do for a sticker by his name. Children, just like the rest of us, learn through our praise/reward system that "special" is king. They develop an appetite for praise and applause, and can begin to feel that efforts that are not applauded are not worth making. Ever feel like that? Right. We could, and many Montessori types have, follow this thread to the root of a litany of common social pathologies and self-esteem issues.

The fact is, everyone can do special things, but much of life is not particularly laudable. Most of what we do is not special, but habitual. Montessorians strive to lend integrity to a child's habits and to make him feel successful even when he is not feeling particularly special. What we hope is that this helps the child maintain his personal integrity even when nobody is looking.

Everyone wants to feel successful, but perhaps that feeling can be had without anyone else's approval. By shifting the "reward" back onto the child, we have a way around the applause cycle, and can allow the child to experience her own success, instead of developing a need for adult-driven incentives to succeed. One can achieve this without a lot of stilted "how does that make you feel" language. Saying "thank you" instead of "good job" is a subtle language change, but it effectively shifts focus away from the act itself, and the adult's judgment of it, and back to the value of the child herself. After all, it's not the work, but the child that needs appreciating. You could also try "You must be so proud!" instead of "I'm so proud of you!" You can do this little trick with any number of praise-y phrases.

What's a little harder (at least in my family) is to back away from "Hooray for You!" and thunderous applause whenever the child does something cute or clever. A great performance ought to be applauded, it's true, and I encourage outrageous whistling and applause following living-room concerts, but life doesn't have to be a performance to be good. Sharing a child's satisfaction might mean meeting his success with a hug, a smile, and a "Look at that! You did it! Aren't you happy about that?" They light up just as much for that one as for a big round of "YAY!" I swear.