Monday, July 06, 2009

Surprising Quirks of Dr. Montessori: She was into AP!

Move over, Dr. Montanaro, Dr. Montessori is IN!

I'm not sure where I've been all this time, but it sure wasn't reading Montessori's chapter on "The First Days of Life" in The Absorbent Mind.

I remember this chapter being sort of glossed-over in my infant-toddler training. As I recall, it was glossed over in no more than a few sentences, something to the effect that, "Montessori clearly believed that the first two years of life should ideally be spent with the mother. However, as we are charged with the care of children under two, we believe that this is the next best thing." The only further information about extended nursing and babywearing was from Montanaro and others writing after. The admonitions to wean at the first sign of readiness for other food, and against wearing the child in a "contraption" seem directly at odds with Montessori's sentiments in The Absorbent Mind. I'll pull a few choice quotes for you.

Montessori discusses "the many peoples of the world who live at different cultural levels from our own (eek)." She states that, " In the matter of child rearing, almost all of these seem to be more enlightened than ourselves--with all our Western ultramodern ideals. Nowhere else, in fact, do we find children treated in a fashion so opposed to their natural needs."

Elevating the "primitives." This is getting interesting...

She goes on to say,

"In almost all countries, the baby accompanies his mother wherever she goes. Mother and child are inseparable. All the while they are out together, mother talks and baby listens....And this lasts for the whole period of maternal feeding, which is the reason for this close alliance. For the mother has to feed her child, and therefore she cannot leave him at home when she goes out. To this need for food is added their mutual fondness and love. In this way, the child's need for nutrition, and the love that unites these two beings, both combine in solving the problem of the child's adaptation to the world, and this happens in the most natural way possible. Mother and child are one. Except where civilization has broken down this custom, no mother ever entrusts her child to someone else. The child shares the mother's life, and is always listening."

Well, knock me over with a feather! I mean, yes, you did say that Montessori believed mothers should be with their babies and all, but certainly she would not go in for such primitive practices as babywearing and extended nursing, right?


"All the great human groups, nations and races, have their individual differences; for example they have different ways of carrying the baby....In most parts of the world, mothers put the baby in a small bed or a large bag, they do not carry him in their arms...some hang the child from their necks, others tie him to their backs, and others again put him in a small basket; but in all countries mothers have found a way of taking their children about with them."

Now before you say that Montessori is just reporting that all this primitive business goes on and is not really advocating it, I submit to you this:

"One observes, too, that the little one, going about with his mother, never cries unless he is ill or hurt in some way. Sometimes he may fall asleep, but he does not cry....Yet the crying of children is a problem in Western countries. How often do we hear parents complain of their children's incessant crying? They discuss what to do to quieten the baby, and how to keep him happy. The reply of modern psychology is this: "the baby cries and becomes disturbed, has screaming fits and rages, because he is suffering from mental hunger." And this is the truth. The child is bored. He is being mentally starved, kept prisoner in a confined space, offered nothing but frustration to the exercise of his powers. The only remedy is to release him from solitude and let him join in social life. this treatment is naturally and unconsciously adopted in many countries. With us, it must become understood and applied deliberately, as a result of conscious thought."

Of course, this is only the babywearing part. I feel validated in my decision to go against my training and wear my little babies. But my favorite part is Montessori's distinctly non-judgmental view of the late weaners:

"Another point is the custom of prolonging the period of maternal feeding. sometimes this lasts for a year and a half; sometimes for two, or even three years. This has nothing to do with the child's nutritional needs, because for some time he has been able to assimilate other kinds of food; but prolonged lactation requires the mother to remain with her child, and this satisfies her unconscious need to give her offspring the help of a full social life on which to construct his how his face lights up when his mother argues at a booth about the price of fruit. You will readily see what a depth of interest the words and gestures arouse in him."

Why have I missed this before? Can it be that Montessori herself is more aligned with the Dr. Sears set than with her own proponents in Montanaro, Gerber, and all the rest? Or is it that she holds up these examples as lofty ideals, to which real western women of certain means or ambition should look for inspiration, rather than as concrete examples of how to get by without wet nurses.

Is it that Montessori's actual ideas on infant life are at odds with the idea of women in the professional workplace? There's a real dilemma. I can see where that would present a problem, particularly for people trying to organize child care for women who choose not to live according to Montessori's "natural" ideal of mother-child unity. Clearly, as a professional woman herself, she would have advocated some kind of compromise, and might even have made some outline for how that should look. I do think it's interesting, if this were the case, that the pendulum has swung so far the other way as to suggest that to wear a baby around in a sling, or to wean later 9 months of age is to compromise the child's progress toward independence. Call me crazy, but did I not just read that Montessori herself held these practices up as not only acceptable, but superior?

Somebody please straighten me out on this! I'm starting to think that Dr. Montessori wants me to wear my baby and nurse him as long as I want!!

Also, thanks to Chris for backing me up on the tummy time thing. (comments on "Motomontessori"). This comment is a really interesting developmental perspective from someone who deals with musculoskeletal problems in adults. It agrees with both my training and my instinct. Boy, I was beginning to feel a little lonely out here...


My Child's Diary said...

I am so glad you are back!!! Please tell me how I can persuade you not to leave us here alone for such a long time again...:)
I think the only thing you should ever listen is your tummy. It will always tell you what is right for you and your babies. "Following the child" is also about "following your own inner child", as long as you indeed have your own reasons, after doing a research or whatever you need to do to receive your decision. As you once said, it has never been about doing something because "Maria Montessori said so".
If you ask me, I believe that the most natural place for a child is to be with his mother, if the circumstances allow, until he is confident enough to leave. This is the general concept I try to follow.
As to the tummy time thing, I've always tried to do what seamed to be comfortable for my son. If he liked to be on the tummy (he slept on his tummy from the very beginning), I helped him stay there for as long as he liked.

Marcy said...

I may have to go back and read that chapter, too! I remember first reading Montessori From the Start and being APALLED at the suggestion to wean at 9 months no matter what! It just seemed so odd, both from a practical standpoint (so mom then either pumps exclusively or has to give baby artificial formula?? how does that make sense?) and also from the Montessori ideal of following the child in his own development and needs (when it is so clear that breastmilk is better). If mom or baby really wants to wean early, sure, go ahead, but it seems wrong to tell a mother to wean her child so soon if she and the child would rather keep nursing longer. Seems to me there's plenty of other opportunity for independence during the rest of the hours of the day when the child is not nursing...

Interestingly, this also reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my Montessori mentors who is a primary teacher, how in training it seems like the teacher/guide needs to retain a certain distance from the children for the sake of independence, and she always felt like the children need a more (emotionally) involved teacher to truly fulfill their needs.

Testdriver said...

You know, Montessori herself actually does have a very interesting rationale, which I am sort of on board with, for the teacher's maintaining a certain emotional distance from the children in the classroom. I hope to post about that soon, but you can read it, I think, in the "Education for Life" chapter.

I do find it interesting that, for Montessori, the teacher's role is very different from the mother's role--and we tend to look on the teacher as a sort of surrogate for the mother, providing all that emotional support that the child so clearly needs. I would like to explore that more thoroughly.

LeeandLoren said...

I didn't read "The Absorbent Mind" until child #1 was 2, so I thought MM taught that you were supposed to wean @ 9 months. It's so interesting to me that often times my gut goes along with Montessori(once I've read for myself). With my first child I was going to nurse as long as she wanted to, Montessori and the western world be d***ed. Well, my little darling weaned herself @ 10 months, to my dispair. She literally covered my breast with both hands and looked at me as if to say "What kind of drugs are you on, Mama?" I really wanted to force her on there, but instead, I pumped and gave her (gasp) sippy cups of my milk. DH has been slow to jump on the Montessori train, that's where the sippy cups come from. And yes, it was a ridiculous amount of work, and when she turned 1, I gave up and switched her to regular milk. I had also been told that baby wearing was out, but I found that it was impossible to live without having her in a sling. To people who oppose the "confines" of a sling(or anything else based on MM), I ask, does this mean you hold your child in your lap while driving? Or do you lay them on the floor or seat of the car? Because I've never encountered anything as confining as a carseat. MM said follow the child, keeping in mind the goal is independence, and I'm sure safety was also paramount. (That would be my soapbox on confining a child)As far as feeding on demand, my sister said that I should feed on demand and keep the baby awake as long as possible after eating, and the baby would find their own schedule, as well as start sleeping thru the night quickly, b/c he would be satisfied both mentally and physically. That was the advice that I took that actually worked. The same sister is horrified by the floor bed, her exact words were-"He could break his neck!" I wanted to ask how fast she thought the little guy would be moving, but I just ignored her and refrain from pointing out that he's alive each morning. Montessori seems so unconventional to the Western world, and yet, other cultures look at us and say, "You're just _now_ figuring that out?!" I agree with My Child's Diary-don't leave us for so long!!

Melissa said...

You know what I say? I say if she were alive today, she would have a Moby Wrap and a Beco (and it would be in Joel Dewberry's Orchid Ginseng like mine:) and she would be a fabulously productive person. Of course, I guess I'm assuming that she would actually be raising her own child, but you get the drift.

I tried Montenaro the first go-round. I really did. And I stressed and cried and had angst right along with my baby. It was awful and my foundations were shaken. This time, I said to heck with it and wear the little guy everywhere (mostly out of necessity as the toddler does not appear to want to sit quietly in a chair for very long...) and we are all so, so happy. He doesn't ever cry except when he's drifting off to sleep-- and if it doesn't stop in a minute, I go get him. And nurse him. So there.

I'm a huge, huge proponent of baby-wearing, and comfortable baby carriers (no slings, please!) because everyone is happy. And I'm incredibly productive while he's on my back, and I think he's learning a little about spreadsheets and marketing plans and web design.

NOLA mom said...

Wonderful post! Now I love Maria even more.

You know, the whole issue of how to mother and work is such a complicated one. I think babies should be with their mamas, but even still, when I started my family, I had to work full time, then part time, and currently just every now and then. I had to make lots of compromises, but was lucky to be able to pump milk at work and flex my hours. This issue often gets posed as a feminist versus traditionalist argument, but I think it's really about how society supports and values mothers (women) and children.

Old-school feminists bought into the (mostly male?) prejudice that traditional feminine roles were undervalued because they weren't valuable. I think modern feminists value traditional female occupations (mothering, teaching, nursing, etc) as much as traditional male ones.

We just need to rework the model of the professional workplace.

I think I also take issue with the presumption that breastfeeding = dependency. Babies TELL you when they want to nurse, and this is in fact,the first circle of communication that gets opened and closed between mother and baby. Crying and rooting eventually turns into signing/gesturing and vocalizing, and if you nurse long enough, this evolves into actual request ("Mommy, nilp pease!").

Could it be that interpreting nursing as keeping the child dependent is just another symptom of ingrained cultural disrespect for women? It's interesting to me that traditional childcare methods that promote bonding between mother and child are viewed so suspiciously!

Testdriver said...

I smell what you're cooking, NOLA Mom.

I once worked with a Montessori group that was providing child care to a federal government office outside DC, where mothers frequently left their desks to come down to the school and nurse their infants. Since then, it has been a fascinating exercise for me to try to pick apart the machinery of professional women who are mothers and their relationships with their child care providers.

Often we find day care workers looked upon as belonging to the same underclass as wet nurses once did by many of the women who employ them. It is a difficult relationship, to say the least, I think largely because there is such internal difficulty for the mother--particularly the mother who is allowed only six weeks of maternity leave.

Add to that the idea that because child care is necessarily a low-wage job (for child care to be financially feasible, it must be less expensive than to forego the mother's own salary--a built in class divide) it is easy to conflate the monetary "value" of child care (low) with the actual value to society of allowing childbearing women to remain in the workforce.(immeasurable).

And so, we treat child care in the most offhanded way. We regulate it as we do restaurants, mostly for cleanliness and safety, but with very little regard for the actual work of caring for the children. In talking to many parents of children in day care, I have found their understanding of the programs into which they have entrusted their children to be startlingly unsophisticated. No one feels good about the "day care industry", but everyone likes their own day care center (unless they have just left it.) It seems that it is necessarily so for the mother to be able to leave her child at all.

But she does leave him, either in a licensed day care center, about which she may know only that it is clean, and that the government certifies it as safe, or at home with another woman whom she often views as inferior.
(Not out loud, of course--but you know what I mean, don't you? And don't get me started on "feminists" who malign or abuse the women who care for their children. In what universe is disrespect for the real work of women feminism?)

How much better would it be if more working women worked more closely with the women to whom they entrust their children? Would it take them away too much from their "real work"?

Anonymous said...


I read Chris's comment about tummy time too. I tried to follow your recommendation of back, back, back...but I got so impatient. Next time I'll restrain myself.

Waiting for your posts is always worth it. Always thoughtful and focused on the questions that really matter.


lilpeasinmypodfrom~God said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lilpeasinmypodfrom~God said...

hmmm why not just follow what feels natural and right for you instead of what any gurus say? Why even HAVE to justify? I babywear, extended/tandem nurse, I have 6 kids, I homeschool with Abeka this year(though we have mostly unschooled/Charlotte Masoned it in the past), I am quiverful.....but I do my own thing, what feels right to me....kwim? I dont do anything because some guru says its good, I do it becuause it feels right to me and I justify it to no one

Testdriver said...


Congratulations on such a beautiful and bountiful family, and on doing your own thing, no matter what anyone says.

I think, to a large degree, we all already do this as mothers--I mean, do what we feel in our hearts is best.

The focus of this blog, though, is a particular philosophy that I learned in some professional child care training I took, and which does inform, to a large degree, what feels right to me. A lot of us have studied this philosophy, and seen children's societies that work in amazing ways based on it, so that's why we keep discussing the finer points of it, it is a common reference point.

As someone with a deep and abiding interest in children and raising and caring for them, I think you would probably find The Absorbent Mind a good read. The take-home message is always "follow the child", which is basically a way of applying some discipline to the natural instincts most of us have as parents.

Give it a try!

Shaz said...

So please to find this blog - especially the notes by Chris on tummy time. My baby (no5) is nearly 8 months and he is only just happy to be placed on his tummy. Until now he has prefered to be held or placed in a seat. he had had reflux. Yet he only sleeps on his tummy! I gave up long ago listening to what I was suposed to do and went with what baby wants. Loved the comments on child care workers. I was one (before kids) and frankly considering what we were paid I don't see how anyone can say that baby's first 5 years are very important. If they were, more respect and thought would be given to the people who care for them. To all those families out there who are making the sacrifices to have mum there full time and to all those mums who are searching out and sharing and encouraging the rest of us to go with our instincts, a big thank you.

Gypsy said...

I'm so pleased you posted this - I really got turned off Montessori when I read 'Montessori from the start' as it just seemed so alien to how I am as a parent, whilst Tim Seldin's 'Amazing Child' book (dreadful name though) was just perfect for me ... so I'm so pleased to read these quotes!

littlepuffyclouds said...

we tried tummy time a few times and our daughter screamed in misery. And then we found RIE ( which advocates for not placing your child on their tummy until they can roll over on their own. I so agree with you on this. And the reasoning behind it, to avoid flat heads (plagiocephaly) is not true either. My husband who is a pediatrician, did some research and children who had flat sides, rounded out as soon as they started rolling over and spending more time on their tummy's and upright. And by age 2 the children who had to wear helmets and the children with no intervention were all fine, with ro undheads! phew...i get passionate about this issue! : )

ps. I don't know much about Montessori yet. My husband and I are sending our daughter to Austin Montessori next year, because we loved the school visit we attended. But we are attending Montessori parent training classes soon. Actually the first one is tonight!

Jess said...

I know this post is a bit old, but hopefully you'll get this comment and have some suggestions. Do you have any other references on what MM actually said/wrote about the 0-3 age? I'm 3-6 trained and am following a sort of Montessori-AP hybrid method for my now 7-week-old baby. While there is a lot of great information in the Montanaro/Gerber interpretations of Montessori, I sometimes find their writings to be misaligned with both my own experience as well as my understanding of MM's observations. Quotations like the one in this post from The Absorbent Mind make me wish to read more of what she herself said! (If only she'd had another 50 years, eh?)

Deb Chitwood said...

Great post! Even though I’m a Montessorian, I just followed my instincts - and what Maria Montessori said in the Absorbent Mind. I practiced baby wearing and didn’t wean either of my children until they were 2 years old. I think following the needs of the child trumps all.