Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Second Big Goof

The Second Big Goof: The Montessori Baby at Palau de la Music, Barcelona

Kent, Nuvy and I spent the past ten days in Barcelona on vacation with my parents. It was the second trip for me, the first for Nuvy and my parents, and Kent's parents live there in the winter. I probably have several posts in me about the trip...

Boys and girls, I would say, "let this be a lesson to you," but no parent in her right mind needs this lesson. You will all rightly say of me, "that lady is out of her mind," which precisely sums up the looks on the faces of the music devotees of the fair city of Barcelona, when they saw me saunter past the ticket counter of the Palau de la Music, the spectacularly beautiful Art Nouveau concert hall, with my two-and-a-half-month-old angel.

Now, before you send the butterfly nets and white coats (wait, no, don't click away!) let me just say that Nuvy is a very VERY mellow chick. Since she fell in love with her left thumb two significant things have happened:

1) Her right hand has struck up a feverish affair with the right ear, and deserves every happiness I think, jilted as it was.

2) Nuvy has stopped crying.

Seriously. This child now cries maybe once every other day, or whines for the 15 seconds it takes her to find the thumb. When alert, she coos and gurgles and charms the socks off of everybody--including any nearby bevy of flight attendants-- she can reach. When hungry, she sucks the thumb loudly, pulls her right ear, and closes her eyes tight. When sleepy, she moves the thumb from side to side in her mouth and tries to stick her fingers in her eyes. The child can communicate all her needs through the conduit of the thumb. Frankly, this is starting to freak me out a little, but my point is that I thought I had a pretty good chance of getting through a short concert.

The people at the concert could be, loosely, visually divided into three categories: middle-aged locals, elderly locals, and tourists. The middle-aged locals were fur-collar clad forty and fifty-somethings with careful coiffure and snappy-looking shoes. They usually appeared in couples or fours and were openly hostile to me, an obvious tourist and obvious lunatic for bringing a baby to a concert.

The tourists looked dirty, wore comfortable walking shoes, khakis and fanny or backpacks, and looked self conscious and a little alarmed that I was about to give them all a bad rap for being rude, loud, and marginally insane.

The little-old-ladies and gentlemen were pulling for me. They were dressed as if they were going to the market, came in threes, twos, or alone, and were visibly and actively delighted to see Nuvy, and seemed to enjoy my confidence and pluck in having brought this potentially dramatic little inconvenience out, just so we could all enjoy some good music. Perhaps there was a glimmer of the bullfight in their gleeful grins, but they were unfailingly encouraging. After each number, several of them would look back at me--in my aisle seat by the door--with silent applause and encouraging nods.

She made it all the way through the Mozart, the snoring of sleeping adults was louder, and was the belle of the intermission, drawing crowds of little old ladies who tested the limits of my spanish (Si, gracias. Si, una nena. Dos meses y media. Si, se gusta la musica) telling me how guapa she is (oh, and she is!) and asking about her vital statistics. The second act was a Hayden mass, a glorious chorale. She started to squirm at around the sixth of the seven pieces, so I took her out into the side aisle, not quite ready to leave, and thinking my swaying might keep her quiet. The piece, a solemn, quiet appeal for forgiveness, ended. She wound up for a whine and I took her out into the lobby. There, she let fly the single most piercing wail I have ever heard from her, and no amount of anything would bring an end to her solo performance. I spent the last 15 minutes or so (last number and encore) nursing her in the high-design, marbly bathroom. What I had envisioned as my moment of triumph, all the old ladies cheering, all the middle-aged scowlers and tourists grudgingly acknowledging the superiority of my fantasy child, became a scramble to duck out of the music hall quietly (there was nothing quiet about us!) and avoid the judging eyes that knew it was a bad idea from the start.

This exercise was the very antithesis of "follow the child". Maria Montessori would give me a good talking-to for having taken Nuvy there with the express intent of keeping her quiet, relying on my ability to predict and control her behavior to allow her to succeed in a wildly inappropriate setting. She really did almost make it, and if she had, I would have missed that lesson. To follow the child is to decline to burden her with your expectations. The "better" her behavior is, the harder it is to do. It was so easy for me to expect my tiny baby to behave appropriately in an adult-oriented setting. She had done it so many times before! I think this is a dangerous cycle for "good" kids. Adults just kind of forget what it's appropriate to expect--forget the reality of the child. I think this probably gets even worse as the child gets older, as adults have more direct influence over the child's behavior (through praise, punishment, scheduling, etc.) The well-behaved, obedient child finds herself in a pressure cooker of rising expectations. I hope this experience will help me remember that.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Diary of a Thumbsucker: Day 72

Diary of a Thumbsucker: Day 72

6:20am. I wake my mother with a big slurping noise in the right ear. By this method, I procure the morning milk without letting go of my thumb to cry.

6:32am. Mother thoughtlessly chucks me over her left shoulder for a refreshing burp between courses. What a clod! She knows that I'm a left thumb sucker! The oaf has my left thumb over her right shoulder--which might as well be in Cleveland as much as I can get it into my mouth. In the language of my people, I express this as "Waaaaaauugh!" She is not too dumb to get the message.

6:36am. What is it with this woman and the boobs? She tries to replace my thumb with breast number two. The unmitigated gall! She persists and I relent. My thumb twitches restlessly.

7:00am. Thirst slaked, it's time for "Monkey in the Middle" where the bigs lie around on either side of me and tell me how perfectly and uniquely beautiful I am. It's sweet, but I have to be "on" all the time for them--smiling and gurgling and the like. The audience is going wild, but the thumb calls to me softly with her music sweet and sublime. No time now, lovely digit, for he carries me away to the changing table, where I'm expected to deliver sparkling conversation while he tends my nethers. The morning passes.

8:00am. Have we been apart so short a time? I return to you, thumb, as if from six months' journey at sea. I take you in my right hand and crush you to my lips--in my convuslive rapture, you slip away across my cheek--but I will have you. I trap you between my head and right hand and press you, sweet protrusion of the left hand, between my waiting gums. Ah, rapture! Thumb, I will kiss you into dreamland.

1:00pm. She has it in for us. She is against our love, I know it. Now it's to be a walk, eh? Sleeping in the sling? She can tear us asunder, thumb, but she can never erase your sweet, wrinkly memory.

10:00pm. So in love... so in love... so in love with you, my thumb, am I! But soft! Is that a tiny pang of hunger? Just a twinge? I'll cry for milk--but no! Hush me! Here she comes to pry us apart again with food and sleep. A thousand times goodnight, thumb! Parting is such sweet sorrow that I would say goodnight 'til it be morrow...

Friday, March 10, 2006

A Walk Without Hats

A Walk Without Hats

Today we walked out without hats into a warm breeze, up hills, around corners and past a small playground where nobody was. A beautiful woman with broken teeth said her eight-year-old daughter had been shot, with a gun, in daycare. She had received a call from the hospital. She stopped us on the sidewalk; pronounced my baby beautiful. I had not read about it in the Post.

The Rock Creek Church cemetery is charming. The one for soldiers across the street is soul crushing, with its regiments of white crosses and stars. We wandered past the church, past gatherings of monuments, past a white truck surrounded by workmen and absurdly outfitted with a snowplow.

We came to a sort-of ornamental retention pond full of broken reeds and winter's refuse. Beside it was a low, rounded stone under which one Josiah Neuman Perry had lain now eighty-five years and death, it was written, had no more dominion over him. The same might not be said of his father, Rev. Josiah Bedon Perry, D.D., Rector of St. Andrews for 23 years, whose dominion over him was evident in the cool shadow of a looming monument. I sat on Josiah Neuman's marker and adjusted the buckle of my shoe, adjusted my sleeping baby, and looked out over the reed-choked pond. I wondered what diminutive name Josiah Neuman must have endured from his mother, Frances, to distinguish him from Father Perry.

Among the bread bags and leaf litter in the pond there was a flash of orange, then another and another. The pond was alive with carp of every color--orange, white, black, mottled, hundreds and hundreds. Many more than any sensible person would have stocked. I had to guess that these were generation upon generation of fish, surely as many as that little bit of water could sustain. I looked at my Nuria, with her mouth open in sleep and her grandmothers' names, and laughed at how life just kind of goes on like that. We threaded our way down the little lane, through the graves, out through an open iron gate and onto our street. The sun shone pink through her tiny ears all the way home.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My Dad, Unsung Parenting Guru

My Dad, Unsung Parenting Guru: or How I Came to Disregard My Bellybutton Lint Just Now

"There are some things you just don't need to have."
--My Dad, as quoted by my Mom, regarding my brother's desire and mine to upgrade our beloved Atari to a Nintendo, sometime in the late 20th century.

He was totally right about that, and it occurs to me that I have a great tool, right here in my hands, for stepping outside the Montessori books and refining my parenting strategy by listening to real human beings instead of people selling books. So how about an interactive post!

Given my stated commitment to minimalism in the infant environment, and the impending necessity of actually giving my child things to use/play with, readers, bloggers, and lurkers, I'd love for you to tell me--

If you are the parent of a baby or young child:

Tell me about something you decided not to use with or give to your child, and why you made that decision. (Feel free to post anonymously, so whoever gave it to you as a shower/birthday gift won't recognize you.)


Tell me about an element that is/was unexpectedly essential to your infant environment, and why you couldn't have done without it.

If you are the parent of an adult or older child:

Tell me about something your children lobbied hard for, that you might have given them (meaning you could have afforded it/ had room for it/ it wasn't illegal...) but didn't, and how you feel about that decision now.

If you don't have any kids, or if you do but can still remember being one:

Tell me about something you really wanted (and really could have had if your parents had been willing to give it to you--see above restrictions) when you were a kid, but didn't get. Do you still feel the lack? Are you better off for having missed it?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Philosenpfeffer 201

Philosenpfeffer 201: Now Quit Trying to Spin your Bellybutton Lint Into Gold and Tell Us Why Your Kid Can't Have An Exersaucer!

Ok. So you all went to college and even if you were totally baked all through freshman year, you still came away knowing what a philosophy is. If you were so baked that you can't remember what a philosophy is, or you think maybe I can't, or you just have some time on your hands, read my previous "Philosenpfeffer" post. That other post addresses why I decided to follow all these rules, but not why the rules are what they are. This second question is addressed right here.

Why Montessori-types don't do "infant stim"

Life is already stimulating enough. Like all the Montessori people I keep telling you about, I do not believe that the real world is boring for babies unless we make it that way. Singing crib mobiles, swings and bouncers and Baby Einstein all work to distract the baby from reality, and if you slow down and look at it, reality itself is plenty stimulating for someone who has lived up to now in a tiny, soft, quiet, dark ninety-eight-point-six-degree womb. There is a book I love called Trees Make the Best Mobiles. It says all this better than I can.

The hand is the chief teacher of the child. One of the primary tenets of the whole Montessori philosophy is that children first learn with their hands. For that reason, a Montessori classroom is full of beads and pegs and sticks and sandpaper to count, sort, touch and examine. None of these things "do" anything at all without the child's manipulating them. These materials are very powerful learning tools, but try putting a computer with a math game on it in a Montessori classroom and see how fast the kids drop their geometric solids to go play with it. The point is, reality sometimes has a hard time competing for attention with special effects, and I think a lot of valuable things get missed because of this, especially when you're young and it's hard to tell what's real and what's special effects.

Desensitization. We have become desensitized to too many things. The evening news and movies have desensitized us to all kinds of violent horrors. We are able to watch real people killed and maimed over our dinner plates, and we hardly give any thought at all to all the pretend people we see killed and maimed in movies. We have seen so many buildings blown up and people mown down with machine guns that it hardly registers when somebody sets a fire or throws a punch. This goes along with the previous point that too much artificial stimulation causes people to lose the ability to see and respond to real things, and I think that's kind of a shame.

Why I don't think I'm overreacting.

ADD. I see a lot of little kids in my line of work, and even though I totally believe in ADD as a real psychiatric disorder (though I do think three years old is a little early to tag a kid with a diagnosis), parents who suspect their kids of having ADD have--to a man--reported that the kid is totally content and focused while watching educational TV, and is successful in learning through computer games. Now I still remember the one about the chicken and the egg, and I know correlation does not constitute cause, but I have a theory that overstimulation desensitizes kids and can cause focus and behavior problems in a low-key environment like a Montessori classroom.

Sensorial Acuity. A primary tool in Montessori teaching is heightening the child's sensorial perception, so why not try to keep my kid's senses "sensitive" to lower-levels of stimulation by cutting out some background noise?

Why I don't believe my baby is bored.

So far, she doesn't look bored. She talks to me a lot, she looks at the bumblebees embroidered on the curtain, she smiles and coos when her arty, Calder-esque, totally quiet, too-high-to-bat mobile gets blown around by the ceiling fan, she sleeps well, and she stares and reaches for toys that don't do anything but sit there. She doesn't watch commercials yet, so she doesn't know what she's missing.

How long do you think she will let me get away with this?

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?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement: User's Manual for the Montessori Home Environment

In addition to all the restrictions on my environmental design, the Montessori infant-care gurus would also restrict my behavior around my baby. So far, I am reasonably compliant and tolerant of these restrictions, looking for the zen within the method. In many ways, I've actually found it pretty liberating.

Talking To the Baby

Baby Talk. I am supposed to talk to my baby in a low, familiar, normal tone of voice--like the one I would use to talk to a good friend. High-pitched "mommy-ese" is to be avoided (yes, I catch myself at it now and then). So what do you say to a 2-month-old? I play baseball-announcer. I tell her everything I do, such as "I put my left leg in my pants, now the right, now pull 'em up, button and zip. All done." Diapering, bathing and dressing are all "sports-announced", and they are all done much more slowly than is really necessary, so that the child may help where she can. Also, I try to help her hold up her end of a conversation, a la "Tell me that story again, the one about where you lived before you came to live with me. I didn't understand it all the first time." She responds with delighted "Guh, goo" syllables.

Result: I don't find this as confining as I thought I might. I have come to actually think of her as a rather quiet friend. She looks at me when I talk, either concentrating on my lips--trying to figure out how I'm making all those sounds, or else with complete comprehension--as if to say "yeah, I totally get you." At first, I felt like my tone was sort of flat, but once I got into it, I find that I am able to express a broad spectrum of emotion to her, just by thinking of her as a person, rather than as a baby when I talk.

Puppy Talk: Puppy talk is just what it sounds like. Things you would say while scratching the head of an especially beloved family dog, and that you would not be likely to say to a good friend. "Good girl! What a good girl!", "No!" and the like. These are to be more pointedly avoided than mommy-ese, as the goal is to respect the child as an empowered individual. The idea is that we do what we say, whether we mean to or not, and making value judgements about the child, such as whether she is "good" or not, depending on her obedience to you, is seen as a bad verbal and mental habit.

Result: This is kind of hard, as I actually do often think of my baby as someone I am "training", and at this level, she does feel behaviorally a little like a puppy. It helps me if I keep in mind that she is, in fact, training herself. I am just showing her by example how people are supposed to behave. Unlike a puppy, she is hard-wired to try to be like me (then later to try to be as unlike me as she can) so I don't have to praise her for cooperating. Instead, I can thank her. "Can you pick up your bottom so I can put the diaper under you? Thank you!"

This rule is even harder for Kent. He is such a daddy-type, and really does treat her like a scruffy little dog. It's cute, and sometimes I would like to just give in and do it. It'll be interesting to see how she reacts to our differences as she gets older.

Questions: I ask my baby questions she can't answer all the time. "What's wrong?", "Are you sad?", "Do you want to tell me something?". However, I am not supposed to ask her permission to do things if I'm not willing to take "no" for an answer. I'm not to say "May I pick you up now?", "Should we change your diaper?", "Would you like to go to the grocery?" because I know damn well that we're picking up/changing diapers/ and going to the grocery whether she likes it or not. Instead, I am to simply tell her what's coming up next, as in "I'm going to pick you up, then we'll change your diaper, and then we have to go to the grocery."

Result: My enforcement of this one is a little spotty, but I'm working on it. I am so looking for a reaction from her (she is really making a lot of sounds now) that I find myself phrasing things as questions, probably because I'd like her to answer me. However, I really do think it's a good habit to speak accurately, especially with people who are trying to figure out how language works, so I really want to achieve this one. Again, Kent is even spottier than I am in doing this. The only argument I have that sticks is that one day, it will matter very much how you talk to her, and you never know what day it will be.

Baby Sleep

I am lucky. My baby sleeps easily and a lot. I have heard a lot of horror stories from people regarding their babies' sleep habits, so I'm not a good reference for what works with sleepless kids. Here's what I'm doing, and it works for my easy-sleeper.

Bedtime: I am to put my baby to bed while she is awake. This way, she is not disoriented when she wakes up--she is in the same place where she fell asleep. Likewise, I am not to move her from place to place without trying to wake her up first. I am also to leave her alone before she is actually asleep. The idea is that she falls asleep alone, she won't need me to help her get back to sleep if she wakes during the night. This is meant to empower her and build her self-confidence, and I see the logic in it.

Result: This has gotten WAY easier since she found her thumb. (Aside: My baby has learned to self-soothe without ever being left to cry. I don't know who scores a point for that, but someone probably does.) Before, it was pretty hard, and required a lot of work at night. Now, when she starts to get cranky, I just lay her down, read her a little poem or something (she goes to sleep during long stories, so that's out as I am supposed to leave her to fall asleep alone) and either walk away, or roll over and go to sleep myself. It works beautifully for me.

Nap time: The same principle applies as for bedtime. She is not to be left to sleep in her play area, or encouraged to play in her bed. Ergo, no toys in the bed.

Result: Ok. She doesn't really play with toys yet, so I'll have to come back to that. It's a little harder than the bedtime rule, since her daytime sleep schedule is still kind of unreliable. I have to watch her for signs that she's tired and try to put her in her bed before she passes out. It takes a jeweller's eye, I'm here to tell you.

Baby Feeding

Breastfeeding: I am to do nothing else but feed her when we're nursing. I am supposed to find a quiet place where I can give her my complete attention while she's suckling. The Montessori gurus consider breastfeeding to be something close to a sacrament, and do not encourage carrying on casual conversations or watching TV during such an important bonding moment. When presented with the argument about breastfeeding in social/public situations, the gurus sternly respond that such situations overstimulate the infant and shoud be avoided if possible.

Result: I am not religious about this. It sort of flies in the face of my quasi-militant public breastfeeding attitude and my tendency to travel around a lot with my young infant--kind of a no-no. Can I help it that she has far-flung grandparents whose homes are in attractive, exotic locales? However, when I'm at home, I really do stay away from the TV and other people (though I am susceptible to blog-reading).

Table feeding: Remember how I told you we had no high chair? The Montessori baby has her own table and chair for eating as soon as she is able to crawl up to a little chair and sit in it. before that, she is fed while seated on someone's lap (and that someone is wearing a raincoat!). There are all kinds of further rules about how the containers have to be transparent so she can see the food disappearing--and if you want to stop a Montessori teacher cold in her tracks just bring up the spoon placement question--but all that gets a bit anal-retentive after a while. Also, no sippy-cups are allowed at the table. The infant drinks from a little glass. Technically, sippy-cups are not allowed at all, since food and drink should be taken only while seated at the table, but who lives like that these days?

Result: Yeah, I know you're all snickering at me now because I have no idea what I'm in for. Ok, I can take that for now. There are lots more rules regarding play and the like, but I'll just let you chew on these for a minute while I go and respectfully nurse my quiet (mostly) friend.