Montessori and My Outside-the-Lines Kid

This time I got a normal one!  I almost did a little jig this morning.


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Girl 2, my almost-two-year-old, spent at least a half hour this morning carefully scooping from a dish into an egg carton.  She worked happily, quietly, deliberately, filling up each of the twelve little cups.  We then moved on to pasta, then little beads.

It was exactly the kind of activity I’ve been encouraged to try at home during the three and a half years I’ve had Girl 1 in Montessori classes.  And it was the first time it’s ever worked.

Until about age four and a half, Girl 1 would never ever sit still long enough for this sort of thing.  The rice would end up on the floor, she would be bored, I would be frustrated, and in five minutes she’d be pestering me for something else to do, while I was still on hands and knees cleaning up the mess.

I have a love/ hate relationship with the Montessori method.  Mostly love, but a little hate.  It emphasizes the innate capacity for learning that every child has, and the way the child naturally learns things in a certain order, at certain stages.

Montessori contrasts with the American tendency to want kids to learn everything faster, earlier, so they can get into the best college, get the best job, earn the most money.   (Pamela Druckerman has an interesting discussion about this when she contrasts French and American approaches to childhood education in Bringing Up Bebe.)  I get a bit disgusted by the way every child’s toy and book seems to be geared at getting kids to know their alphabet and read read read as early as possible.

For instance, Girl 1 started reading over the summer.  Pat and I nudged her along, introducing her to the concept of phonics and reading to her a lot from the very beginning.  But putting letters together to form words only clicked for her when she was ready.  And now, a few months into her pre-K year, her reading has plateaued.  Every now and then I ask if she wants to read to me from the BOB books, but most of the time she declines.

And I’m not worried about it.  Girl 1 can do anything she wants if she’s motivated enough, but you are in a world of hurt if you try to get her to do something she doesn’t feel like.  If I weren’t immersed in the Montessori philosophy, however, I might feel obligated to push her along at home and pester her teachers to push her along at school.  Instead, I really do trust that Girl 1 will read just fine when she is ready.  Loving books, knowledge . . . wisdom . . . is so much more important than checking off the “reading” box as early as possible.

But.

But.

Montessori emphasizes the different phases of child development, the sensitive periods, the child’s (supposed) natural inclination to model what adults do.  This put me at a loss when my child didn’t fit the mold, didn’t want to model adult activities, didn’t get with the program the way the other children did.

Because Girl 1 was my first child, I didn’t know: is it her?  is it me?  is it all in my head?  am I not disciplined enough? am I too strict?  am I not patient enough?  am I not doing enough to nurture her development?

So, watching Girl 2 scoop rice this morning was like a little epiphany about Girl 1.  It’s not me.  It’s just her.  And she’s fine.  Some attention/ sensory issues probably, but overall she’s right on track.  And even if she isn’t right on track, I can accept that.  I just need to get my bearings straight so I can know.   It’s not me.  It’s her. 

And thank you, God, for giving me a normal one next.

One of the many things I don’t understand about God, though, is why he gave me Girl 1 as my first.  If I
had my “normal” child first, I don’t think I would have felt so distressed with a later-born outside-the-lines-child.  I think I could have been more patient, with myself and with her.  But maybe because of Girl 1, I’ll be more relaxed and patient with Girl 2.

A lot of parents refer to the eldest child as their “guinea pig.”  I think ours is also a sacrificial lamb.

Except she’s more like a lion.  And I guess that’s a good thing.
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6 thoughts on “Montessori and My Outside-the-Lines Kid

  1. You know what? Maybe you’re right and you would have been tougher on both of your girls if you had the “normal one” first. I could definitely see myself being tough on SK and ultimately all of my kids because of what a sweet, bright, typical first child she is. She sets the bar high. I’m truly terrified to see what comes next! One of my sisters had a very atypical (read difficult) first child and she said it taught them humility to deal with her first and realize that it was just her personality and not them.

    I really appreciate you writing this. It can totally be applied to parenting techniques too. It’s important to keep the child in mind and not try to force them into the mold of some sort of educational or parenting technique. I guess it’s important to keep your personality and your spouses personality in mind too. Things are not just so cut and dry as they make them out to be in parenting/educational books!

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