Can Montessori Be a Way of Life, Even at Home?
by Sandra Nickerson
“The greatest sign of success for a teacher [or parent] is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’” ~ Maria Montessori
When parents visit our school, one of the many things they observe is children as young as 3 years old independently choosing a work, doing the work, and finally, returning the work to its rightful place on the shelf, prepared for the next child who might choose it.
Astonished, parents ask, “How do you get them to do that? I cannot imagine my child doing that at home!”
Our teachers respond, “We prepare work that excites, challenges and allows a student to feel successful. Our expectation is that every member of a classroom contributes something positive to the environment. This, of course, includes working together to take care of our classroom.”
At the risk of sounding… well, old, I recently realized my parents were better Montessori parents than I was with my own children. I am not sure when my daily home responsibilities started, but I can say they were well in place by the time I was in third grade and my sister was in first. Every evening, we cleared the table after dinner, washed, dried, and put away the dishes. My mother would leave the kitchen after dinner, lay on the couch, and read the paper. Of course my sister and I spent countless hours complaining to one another about how unfair that was, and how lazy our mom was for making us clean up after her family. Despite our commiseration, my sister and I clearly understood that the job was ours, plain and simple. My mom had made her expectations known for how the job should be done, and she often inspected our finished work to see if we met these clear expectations. There were two constants: we had to do the job, and we had to do the job right.
The process, well, that was up to my sister and me. I remember sometimes we were very efficient and got the job done quickly. There are other vivid memories of arguing about who would wash and who would dry. There were the philosophical concepts to be wrestled with, like why my brother did not have to do dishes. We were sure that his lawn-mowing job was more exciting and easier. Sometimes we turned the whole watery affair into a game. In any case, my mom never interfered. If we took two hours to do the dishes, that was our problem and not hers.
Sometimes, these long sessions meant not going outside to play or not being able to watch TV because there was homework still to do. These were the “natural consequences” of our inefficient ways. I must add that even while looking at our tear-stained faces and listening to our rants of injustice, my mother never felt sorry for us or guilty that she somehow had caused our harsh predicament. I believe now that she thought she was preparing us to make independent, responsible choices.
I became a parent in 1980, and my wish for my daughter was simple. I wanted her to be happy. What I did not realize then was that the subtext of that wish was appointing myself responsible for her happiness. I wanted my daughter to feel free to express herself and discover herself without the confines of others’ expectations. My daughter was going to know and feel her uniqueness. While my daughter was busy expressing and discovering herself, I was busy doing the manual tasks around the house. I did ask her to help, and she sullenly obliged, but we had no routine. She did not feel the responsibility of having to do something each day that was really hers, no matter what. And then there were the negotiations, “Do I haaaave to? I have soooo much homework…. I canNOT miss dance class… this is my ONLY time to be with Addie.” Often I would buckle under her woeful cries. Why? My self-appointed job was to be responsible for her happiness. After all, her completed homework, her dance successes, and her meaningful friendships were certainly more important than clean dishes.
Today, children engage in multiple activities and keep a schedule that exhausts me even to hear about. I wonder if we are even getting enough rest, let alone getting the time to think about instilling independent responsibilities. Parents are striving to provide their children every opportunity to become successful in life. While diligently providing a rich and nourishing childhood, can parents also create space for a child to take on responsibilities at home that contribute to the care of his whole family? Although knowledge is critical and experience inspiring, I believe that a child taking full responsibility for and ownership of a job is essential.
Have I let my own children down by not having assigned each a job that benefited our whole family, by not having clearly defined the parameters of that job, by not having let them struggle, fight, laugh, argue over what a complete job looks like, by not having afforded them the feeling of doing a job completely and well? Yes, I think I have. So in answer to this frequently asked parent question, “How do I bring Montessori into our home?” My advice is this: assign your child a regularly scheduled household job that everyone in your home needs done, one your child can complete on his own, one she can do successfully, one that might slow him down a bit. Once you teach her how to do the job, walk away. Keep your expectations clear and stand unwavering in the face of multiple pleas for exemption. In the end, your children will thank you.
In the end, I do thank my mom for the dishwashing job and my dad for the Saturday morning trash bin emptying job. You see, they knew I could do those tasks, and they believed that I should recognize the satisfaction of a job done well.
Sandra Nickerson, Head of School and Elementary II Art Teacher at Bridgeview Montessori School has been on the faculty since the school’s inception in 2000.
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