I had the most wonderful garden outside my kitchen door when I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. H, who was four at the time, was a painfully early riser (still is). He and I would make our way to the kitchen super early in the morning, open the sliding glass door and let in the cool mountain air.
I would brew my coffee as H would go in and out the back door, eating green beans he’d just picked.
We grew many things in our sweet little garden, including several varieties of peppers. I remember once, we had a houseguest who was so concerned that A, a toddler at the time, was clumsily tromping between the tomato plants and touching the jalapeños. She hovered over A, following closely behind him, uttering a constant stream of warnings and words of caution:
“Don’t step on the watermelon vine…”
“Don’t touch the peppers…”
“They will burn your hands and mouth…”
“Put that spade down, it’s sharp …”
“Don’t pick that tomato, it’s not ripe yet…”
Our well-meaning houseguest wanted to prevent A from injury. I know her heart was in the right place. However, it seemed to me that most of her interactions outside in our garden were peppered with fear and negativity.
That’s when I realized that I am a believer in natural consequences. I don’t think we should rescue our child every time they are uncomfortable.
I know what it feels like to eat a jalapeño. They’re really spicy. When I worked at a Mexican restaurant in college, I experienced a capsaicin burn from a jar of pickled jalapeños that went all the way up to my wrist. Now that hurt!
As I watched A explore the fruits of our garden, I knew that he may try to pick something under-ripe, taste or touch something spicy, or bring me something sharp. I knew that if he did, he might cry or be uncomfortable.
I also knew that if he did, he would survive the whole ordeal and come away with the new knowledge of what he should avoid in the garden.
A few years later, I learned that I was parenting in a way that seemed to be aligned with with the Montessori philosophy.
Montessori is a way of being that is respectful and collaborative. Dr. Montessori taught us that children are scientists collecting data with their five senses. Children need to collect experiences and feel feelings with a minimum of interference.
It is naturally important to guide a child to prevent any real harm. But we do not need to rescue children from all things.
We can support them through a hard or uncomfortable moment by listening, and with words of understanding, allow the child to feel his or her feelings without judgment. This way, adults can “help” a child who is struggling without actually doing anything!
That is what we do in the Montessori classroom. We do not help children with things they are capable of doing themselves.
Here is a glimpse into a Montessori work period. Watch as the boy in this video struggles to put away The Bead Chain. Notice the adult is nearby the whole time. Take note how the adult helps.
The video reminds me of a boy who joined my class at age 3 (I’ll call him Frankie). He had a very strong sense of order. Frankie had to have his clothes just so. He called all athletic shorts, no matter the color or style, “my favorite shorts.” It took me forever to realize it was a type of shorts Frankie preferred, rather than an individual pair of favorite shorts.
This guy struggled daily with his socks. You know the seam across the toe of the socks? He wanted that seam to sit perfectly across his toe in a certain way. He would sit and struggle, taking his sock off and on again, over and over until he was satisfied that it was right.
If it was wrong, he would throw up his hands, cry out and start again. So here’s how I used a minimum of interference with him:
- The first week he was in my class, I would go to him and say, “I see you are struggling with your sock.” And he would tell me he just couldn’t do it.
- I would offer to show him “how” on one foot and let him try with the other.
- After showing him how to put his sock on a few times, I would let him work at it on his own, let him struggle.
- If his cries of frustration seemed like they were escalating, I might’ve gone over and said a word of encouragement like, “I know you can do it. I saw you do it yesterday.”
- I would sit nearby.
- I might offer open-ended alternatives like, “I wonder if the blue socks in your cubby are easier,” or “I wonder what it feels like to put shoes on WITHOUT socks.”
and the bottom line:
- I would only help if he actually said the words, “Can you help me? I tried and I still can’t get it.”
Frankie struggled with putting on his socks for the better part of a year.
He pushed through the feelings of frustration, feelings of failure, and feelings of disappointment.
If I had rescued Frankie, I would have robbed him of his work. He needed to have those feelings. When he learned his new skills, he learned what success can feel like.
If we come upon a hurdle in life that is barely out of our reach, rather than having someone swoop in and rescue us, isn’t it better to struggle and get that sense of accomplishment when we succeed?
Using a minimum of interference means offering your child support when they need it. Listening. Acknowledging feelings without judgment. Staying positive.
In this way, struggles become more about perseverance, and how to deal with frustration or anxiety.
Just after I posted this, Marie Aragon, a sweet woman with whom I did Montessori training, shared a well-written article from the Huffington Post titled “The Most Valuable Thing You Can Do For Your Kids”, that supports what I have expressed here in this post. Click here to read it.
Also, I want you to check out a podcast called Unruffled by Janet Landsbury. She is Awesome! She often reassures parents that all of the feelings that children express are okay. Even the loud, expressive, unpleasant feelings. She gives specific tips about how understand children and their behaviors. The episodes are short and packed full of helpful information.