Montessori Philosophy & Practice

AGE 1-3 YEARS—Family Life: Food

The following is the text from this section of the 2009-2010 edition of The Joyful Child, Montessori from Birth to Three
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The child can only develop by means of experience in his environment.
We call such experience "work."
—Maria Montessori

Adults and Children Working Together
Practical life work provides valuable opportunities for adults and children to spend time together. We parents often wish for more excuses to be with our children, and to use our hands in the time-honored and calming traditional work of the artist and homemaker. Most of us have some talent we could share, or would like to develop - cooking, gardening, sewing, woodworking, making music. Even half an hour a week of sharing with a child is a great beginning.

This collaboration can be of great benefit to ourselves, to our children, and to our developing relationship with each other.

Following the Child
The Montessori Assistant to Infancy is well trained in observing children and knowing just what activity to offer when.
During the training year for the Birth to Three Assistants to Infancy course, aside from 20 weeks of lectures, one carries out 300 hours of observations. This is a very special experience and teaches so much about children. Parents often have too many other responsibilities for this kind of observation in the home. But when they realize the importance of observing—in getting to know and understand the child—and build it into the schedule for even a few moments each day, the benefits are great.

It is quite a pleasure just to sit and watch, not having to do anything else, and nothing can help a parent more in getting to know his unique child.

The Child's Research
Some people call the search for limits "testing," but there is negative connotation to this word. When a child is trying to learn the rules and procedures of the society in which she lives this is a very positive undertaking. It is actually important research.

A good example is the question "What is the meaning of the word 'No'?" I remember an incident in our home between a good friend and her two-year-old daughter, Julia. The two-year-old had climbed up on the piano bench and was reaching for a bust of Mozart kept on the piano. As she reached toward it she looked expectantly at her mother, obviously for some kind of a response. The mother said "No, don't touch it." Julia stopped, lowered her hand and then reached toward it again. The mother said "No" again, a little louder. Again the daughter reached and looked at her mother. This happened several times with no resolution.

I watched this communication, and the confusion on both sides, and offered the suggestion "I don't think she knows what 'No' means and is trying to find out".
The mother laughed and said "Of course." Then she went to Julia, said "No," gently, and, as she said it, picked Julia up and moved her across the room to a pile of building blocks. Both were completely satisfied.

In the first exchange perhaps the child thought "No" meant "I am waiting and looking and expect you to eventually pick up that statue. And I am getting mad at you."
In the second exchange the message was clear. "No" meant "stop doing what you are doing and move away to another part of the room or another activity," (and, thanks to the clear and gentle way of speaking, "I am not mad at you").

Children do not understand the language of reasoning until around age six. They need clear demonstrations along with words.
It is very helpful for parents to realize that their child is not trying to be bad, but she is being a normal, intelligent human being trying to find out how to behave. She is carrying out research.


Teach by Teaching, Not by Correcting
The most powerful tool parents have for sharing their way of life and their values is the example they set. In every waking moment of the child's life, especially in the first three years, she is learning and becoming more and more like those people she finds around her. She will imitate the way of walking, moving and talking, the vocabulary, the handling of objects, the emotions, manners, taste, the respect and consideration (or lack of) for others, and on and on. The first important thing we can do is to surround her with the kind of people we want her to emulate. These are her first teachers.

The second is to avoid correcting when the lesson can be taught in another way. (Of course if a child reaches for a hot pan handle we correct!) For example, if a child is continually slamming the door very loudly, the best approach is to: (1) Note that the child needs to be shown how to close a door carefully and quietly. (2) Choose a neutral moment (which means not an emotionally charged moment when the adult is upset by the door-slamming). (3) Give an amusing, exaggerated and interesting lesson, showing the child how to close the door— turning the handle so carefully and slowly that there is no sound whatsoever. Try other doors, do it over and over, as long as it is being enjoyed by both. With these lessons the adult can teach many important lessons, such as brushing teeth, putting away toys, pouring milk.

Manners lessons, like saying "please" and "thank you," come from the culture in which the child lives. We used to practice over a large bowl of popcorn, offering and thanking over and over and sometimes laughing hysterically at the end of the lesson, at the exaggerated and fun manners.

When parents and children begin to spend more active time together the need for these lessons comes up often and can be enjoyed by both adult and child. And life becomes more and more pleasant.

Offering Choices
Another way to show respect for a child, and at the same time exact the desired behavior, is to offer choices.

One summer I discussed this philosophy with my eight-year-old niece. The following day she and I were sitting on the lawn talking and I noticed that she was watching carefully as a mother and small child were having a verbal battle across the street because the child wouldn't let the mother put on her shoes.

Finally my niece said "Look at that silly mother. She is doing that all wrong. She should have said 'Do you want to put your shoes on yourself, or do you want me to put your shoes on?'"

She was right. The normal healthy two-year-old who is just beginning to be able to function independently on many physical and mental levels is not interested in being told what to do, but very interested in being given choices.

Let us say we are in a situation where a certain action is necessary—such as a child getting down from a table he has climbed up on. The worse approach is to say "Get down from there!" The child will be embarrassed and will try to save face by refusing. Try saying "Do you need help getting down from that table or can you do it yourself?"
Even in casual every day situations giving choices makes the child feel that you respect her opinion.

"Do you want to wear the red gloves or the blue ones?" "Are you ready for bed now or do you want to hear a story first?" "Do you want your applesauce first or your pasta?" (Rather than "Eat your food.")

I know of no behavior on the parent's part more assured of creating a peaceful atmosphere in the home of a two-year-old than that of giving choices.

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© Susan Mayclin Stephenson, 2010 (
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