A Montessori Book Review: “Montessori From the Start”
I read this version of Montessori From the Start, and all pages cited are from this version. (ISBN 0-8052-1112-8.) To hopefully help you decide whether it is worth a read, here are my impressions.
I Hated The Book’s Tone
The book’s tone was sometimes condescending, unapproachable, and even impractical. Instead of being encouraging and inspiring, I often found it to be overly serious and judgmental at times. Parenting should be (at least a little) fun, no? Here’s an example:
“Recently, we visited the home of parents who are expecting their first baby and have just completed our parent child course. Let us describe what the room prepared for their new baby looks like. The walls are a rich sky blue. They are bare except for a framed photograph of a landscape. It hangs next to a rocking chair where the infant can see it when she is on her parent’s shoulder being patted and burped after feeding. There is a large window giving the room natural light, and there is a ceiling light that gives off a warm glow. A large, double-bed-size futon is on the corner of the room. …. There is a mirror attached to the wall at one end of the futon, and in the ceiling above it there is a hook for hanging mobiles. A low, wooden shelf holds a small basket and one tiny silver rattle. … a colorful pile rug covers the wooden floor next to the futon…..” (Page 27.)
The authors then went on for two more full paragraphs to describe the changing table, trash can for diapers, trash can for washcloths, armoire, “bowl for warm water to use for wipes”, cloth diapers, hairbrush, etc. As soon as I read this, I wished I could tell the authors, “ugh, get over yourselves.” First of all, get real. No brand-new parent is going to fill a bowl of warm water and take it to the nursery every time they change a diaper. While warm water and a cloth probably would have been a more comfortable diaper-changing experience for D, it would have taken much longer, and D (and I) sure as hell didn’t/don’t have the patience for that.
Worse – and maybe this is just me– I read this passage to imply that if parents don’t set up their child’s bedroom in exactly this way (and if they don’t use a bowl of warm water that they fill every single time they need to wipe their kid’s butt), they are doing it wrong. It left me with the impression that the authors (disapprovingly) judged parents who don’t go all-in with Montessori. This really bothered me. While it’s helpful to understand the rationale behind a parenting philosophy that’s being promoted, it’s not helpful when authors of a book presume to usurp our jobs as parents.
But Its Contents Were Informative
The book does explain the Montessori philosophy well, although not necessarily in a straight-forward manner. It discusses some of what I understand to be the overarching themes of Montessori, and it explores those themes throughout the book. Here are some of those themes, my quick summary, and passages taken directly from the book, to better explain the theme and to illustrate the authors’ tone.
Respect the child while maintaining your role as the leader
Don’t treat your child as an accessory or a chore. He is an actual person entitled to respect and dignity, so treat him that way. This goes beyond just not ignoring your child and not yelling at them. For example, if your child crawls/walks away from you, don’t sneak up behind him and pick him up. Get in front of her and stop her motion by facing her. “By redirecting the child in this way, you are showing her that she is not a ‘lump of clay’ to you; she is a developing person.” (Page 209.)
BUT! While your child is entitled to respect, he is still a child, and you are still the adult. It’s your job to lead and be your child’s role model. Don’t let your roles get confused. I loved this quote: “American culture today is ambivalent in its attitude toward authority in general and toward parental authority in particular. Movies and television shows, for example, routinely depict children as more capable than their parents. These unrealistic messages encourage an unhealthy bravado in children and a belief in their own superiority. When they become adolescents, they find that these false beliefs result in insecurity, fear, and a sense of inferiority, as they discover the reality that they are far less prepared to deal with life than they were encouraged to believe.” (Pages 218-219.) I don’t necessarily think kids shouldn’t ever watch tv or movies (as long as they’re age-appropriate and there’s context provided by parents), but this describes my exact objection to the culture to which children are exposed and to which parents sometimes accept as a given.
The idea here is to show your child how to do things themselves. That goes from household tasks and self-grooming (practical life), to encouraging him to walk (safely! while holding your hand!) in a parking lot instead of carrying him from your car to your destination. We are big on this at home, and always have been, because selfishly, we knew from the outset that we didn’t want to do everything for our kid forever and we wanted him to learn how to take care of himself. Also, we know from our own experiences that doing things ourselves is incredibly empowering. We want D to know that feeling.
Showing D how to do every little thing, and encouraging him along the steps involved, is time- (and patience-) consuming. “This independence in the child is not to help make life easier for the adult. In fact, at least initially, helping children to establish independence requires a great deal of effort and thought on the adults’ part.” (Page 20.) “By including the child in their own work, parents are slowing down their own efficiency and the time of accomplishment.” (Page 95.) So true. But we’ve learned that the effort we put in up front pays off significantly.
Encourage your child to participate in real-life activities, instead of trying to keep them entertained all the time. Instead of sitting them in front of a TV, get them involved in what you’re doing and encourage them to learn how to do things themselves. This includes household tasks, self-care, and grooming. The book’s authors suggest thinking about all the tasks (including the ones we take for granted), breaking them up into steps, and performing those steps methodically for the child:
“After you have planned each detail of an activity, organized a tray of materials, and practiced with them, you can model a cycle of activity with them for your child. Do so very slowly and methodically, pausing briefly after each step. Your child wants to imitate you but his thinking skills are limited. He relies on habit, pattern, and repetition. You need to show him what to do exactly in the same manner and in the same order (left to right, top to bottom).” (Page 98.)
Routine and Order
Related to the step-by-step approach to practical life, another theme is to use routines to help your child learn about the world around him and how to do things himself. “Routines give information to the young child that words cannot.” (Page 207.) D’s vocabulary consists of about 10 words, so the idea of communicating via routine is very appealing.
Not only does routine help convey information to young children, it models an orderly, methodical approach to problems. I believe this is a valuable life skill. “When we are orderly in our daily actions, children experience the disciplined thought that it in our minds. Because our mental order is visible to them, they can incorporate this order for their own use. …Ordered thought can lead to simplifying what may at first appear an overwhelming task and transforming it to a manageable, even enjoyable, one.” (Page 202.)
Prepare your child’s environment in a way that facilitates his discovery of the world and his ability to do things himself. Remember that bedroom discussion I hated so much? It’s a good example of how to go about “preparing the environment” for your child. The floor bed enables your child to get in and out of bed himself. The low shelves that aren’t crammed with playthings enable your child to reach things to explore, without being overwhelmed. The laundry basket is on the floor so your child can access it and put dirty washcloths in. “The adults’ role is to prepare an environment for the child, to guide her interaction with that environment and to give her freedom with responsibility.” (Page 25.)
Focus on Reality
“Materials must be of the real world.” (Page 41.) This refers to pretty much anything your child is exposed to and is able to explore as part of his developing understanding of the world. Kids don’t understand fantasy and imagination, so a talking animal that wears clothes doesn’t make sense, and in fact, could confuse. “Toys for kids under three should enhance our ultimate goal: connection with others and an understanding of his world.” (Page 188.)
The book’s discussion related to this theme tended to impart an overly serious and “no fun” tone to me. To be fair though, I may be taking it this way because although I get the rationale behind the idea, one of the things I enjoy most as a parent is sharing some of my favorite childhood experiences with D, and those experiences include things like Mickey Mouse and Sesame Street.
All in All…
My reading of this book was a love-hate experience. If you knew nothing about Montessori and wanted to dive in and get all academic, this is a great book for you. But I can’t recommend it if you are looking for a resource that’s approachable, realistic, and empowering.