Friday, September 15, 2006

The Unprepared Environment

The Unprepared Environment: Montessori and Your In-Laws

FULL DISCLOSURE: My own in-laws are completely supportive of my Montessori tendencies and habits and would never, ever laugh at or scorn me in any way. Neither would they behave toward my child in any way contrary to my wishes, which I have painstakingly laid out. I uphold them as the very pinnacle of in-law existence, exempt them from any and all oblique or direct criticism, and sincerely hope that you should be so lucky.--A

When you tour a Montessori school, it all looks so easy. All the kids are perfectly normalized in their perfectly prepared environment at their most perfectly photogenic hour of the day--sometime between 9:00am and 11:00am. Over and over, parents like you and me (well, let me not speak for you...) say the same thing.

"My kid is not going to act like that."

And of course, the clever Montessorian who is leading your tour is ready with a reassuring, truthful response. Mine was always, "Almost all children do behave this way here, because the environment is carefully and minutely prepared to encourage them in this kind of work."

This often precipitates a discussion about the very real and intractable differences between the Montessori-school "prepared environment" and the rest of your often un-prepared, un-didactically-controlled life. There are just so damned many other people in your life, right? And doesn't each one come with her own confounded ideas?

One of the things that invariably intrudes upon a parenting strategy is the degree of license grandparents take with it as their god-given right to spoil. Call it a generation gap, call it amnesia, call it indulgence or call it grandparenthood--it's all in good fun. You can compound it with interest if you make them paternal grandparents because of the Daddy Factor (see post "The Daddy Factor"). The fact is, all these rules about "aids-to-independence" can be a tough sell for the grands, but it's not an impossible sell!

Can you feel me prepping you for Thanksgiving and everything else until January? Good.

Here are a few plays from my book, in case you're interested, to keep your family time in line with your Montessori home environment--especially when you are in someone else's home.

1. Go outside!
Take your child outside. If your in-laws are outdoorsy, they'll enjoy and enhance this experience for the baby, and if they aren't, they're likely to follow your lead (or at worst, be absent, which is OK in a pinch, right?). Taking a fussy child outside is, above all, calming to the child. Incidentally, it diminishes the temptation to do all kinds of invasive, distracting things to try to make the child stop fussing. Birdsong instead of knee-bouncing! Who can argue with that? Oh, and bundle up for the weather! It's good for you!

By the way, you don't need to live in a park to enjoy the outdoors. Why just today, due to an unplanned automotive event, Nuvy and I had a lovely nature walk around the perimeter of an Exxon station near the DC beltway, with rush-hour traffic going by. (The gas-station-people had planted marigolds, morning glories, and petunias, and had a delightful population of crickets and sparrows.)

2. Let them see you enjoying it.
Oh, you know it sells itself. Do it just like that tour guide did. Point out your child's independent activities in front of your in-laws. Engage them in following and observing the child by saying "Watch her _______!" and "Look! She can _____". Use hushed tones to heighten the effect. Really do it, and with feeling. They will all be charmed, and many of them will get right into it.

3. Hang out in a room where there's no TV--or don't be the one to turn it on.
I'm sure I don't have to map out for you how this is exponentially easier than asking your father-in-law to turn off The O'Reilly Factor.

4. Try not to be a toy-snob.
Let me be the first to tell you that Montessori-toy-snobbery will get you some measure of civil disobedience from the rest of your family. Trust me when I further tell you it is SO not worth it. Yes you can get Montessori-appropriate toys at Wal-Mart, you just have to be careful, as you would anywhere else. Plastic toys can be aids to independence, like the old-fashioned wooden ones, and for every Tickle-Me-Curious-George, or whatever, there is a plastic rainbow stacker, a xylophone piano, a bouncy ball, a baby-doll that doesn't do anything, a board book, or a string of plastic teething beads that will satisfy the gift-giving urge without compromising your principles.

5. So, what do I do with the singing-dancing-vibrating toy my mother-in-law couldn't resist?
It's so easy you'll laugh. Give it to your child, but don't turn it on or demonstrate it--or let anyone else do so. Tell your mother-in-law that you want the child to discover all the features of the toy on her own. With no direction, your child will play with the toy in a natural, constructive way--perhaps figuring out how to get a rise out of it--or not. Let this happen and let no one interfere. This is much more peaceful than refusal, and we're all about peaceful living.

6. I'm doing the weaning table/floor bed routine. What do I tell the grandparents who want to buy a high chair and a crib for their house?
Of course they do! They're as excited about your baby as you are, right? A corollary issue would concern the high chair and crib they already have for all their other grandchildren, but Nuvy is the first grandchild, so that's where we were. Improvising with readily available stuff is easier for everyone, and you'll get less eye-rolling. I discovered that a Bumbo seat (the thing you get at Target-- and not until your child can get out of it on her own) combined with one of those collapsible bed trays, the one with the white formica top you got as a bridal shower gift, (also available at in case no one gave you one) makes a fine weaning table. Throw a bath towel under it and let 'er rip!

Also, if throwing the crib mattress on the floor makes your in-laws squeamish, or if you sleep in hotels often, One Step Ahead ( has an inflatable sleepover bed designed for older children that looks like a little blue raft. I find that it makes a great traveling floor bed. I got it when Nuvy outgrew those little newborn travel bed/boxes. (to state the obvious: One Step Ahead does not advertise its inflatable bed for this use, and I am not an infant-safety authority. Use common sense. If it doesn't feel safe to you--don't do it.)