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?