18 months, 18-21 months, 22-24 months, 24-28 months, Family life, Montessori philosophy

The toddler question

 

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Life with toddlers: it’s not for the faint of heart.

Toddlers are wonderful humans. They are curious and compassionate, full of energy and emotion. I live with one myself, a little sprite who brings joy to the whole family each day, and who embraces and insists upon independence, choice, and doing it herself!

One of the greatest gifts I received during my Montessori training a few years back was my teacher’s wonderful advice to, in the midst of those inevitable stormy moments with a toddler, step back from the intensity of the storm and ask: what is the child’s developmental need? 

I learned that, contrary to our culture’s comments on tantrums and the “terrible twos,” a toddler isn’t developmentally capable of being willful. Toddlers are naturally without motive — it’s not until around three years-old that a child’s own will actually even develops.

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What drives a toddler is this forward movement into their own development.

Occasionally, there are limits that interrupt that forward motion — whether it’s a parent, who absent-mindedly takes over zipping up a jacket, or needs a child to be buckled into a car seat — or even just the physical limits of the natural world, like when a child wants to fit a large block into a small hole. Encountering these edges can mean that joyful child is suddenly frustrated — more so than seems reasonable to the parent who has their own set of expectations front of mind.

It’s then, in the moment, that we can step back, take a deep breath, and ask: what is the child’s developmental need? It’s a crucial moment, one in which we take ourselves out of the heat of our own emotion about what’s happening, and try to see the world from our toddler’s perspective. Rather than, say, this one:

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Montessori identified that there are certain times in a child’s life when they are overwhelmingly interested in and able to take in certain developmental stages, called sensitive periods. Sometimes parents see their child acting “obsessed,” repeatedly doing the same thing: taking shoes on and off, climbing the stairs, turning lights off. Whenever that repeated activity is happening, you can bet that it’s because some big learning is happening.

As caregivers, understanding sensitive periods can shed light on what is happening for a frustrated toddler. Toddlers are sensitive to order, they have a need for movement, and for language.

A toddler who is sensitive to order — a natural desire that things should be “just so”— might be like the little guy I met at a party a few years ago. People were gathered around the door, some dressing, some going out, and a little toddler stood in the midst of it all, insisting that the open door should be closed. His mother was getting annoyed, it seemed inappropriate — some folks were about to go out. But from his perspective, he saw something that was out of order: an open door should be closed.

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I used to see this chart Maria Montessori created as a sort of report card, to see how my child measured up. Now I understand: it’s a list of needs. What if a child at 15 months NEEDS to walk without help? Game-changing. (Chart from The Absorbent Mind)

I know a sweet little girl who lives in a one-storey home. Get that girl into a house with stairs, and she’s got one focus, every time: up, then down. Up, then down. She’s gotta move! I remember reading somewhere that Maria Montessori suspected that the reason young kids love slides so much isn’t actually about the sliding: it’s all about the stairs.

I’ve faced all kinds of challenges with a child in need of movement: a long flight with a toddler on my lap, a music class for toddlers that expected my 13-month old to stay seated for 30 minutes, or simply a Tuesday afternoon preschool pick-up deadline, with a toddler who didn’t get enough playtime after her nap.

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So what’s to be done when developmental need bumps up against the edges of regular family life?

Sometimes just recognizing what the developmental need is takes the intensity out and gives me compassion for my child in the moment, and that in itself feels like enough.

Sometimes you spend most of a party over on the stairs, letting that eager girl climb.

Sometimes I have to say: “I know you’d like to keep walking, but we need to take the car to get there on time. Do you want to climb in or do you need my help?” And if she keeps on running, I take that as a choice that she needs my help getting into the car (and I make a note: this toddler needs some freedom to move).

This parenting thing is always imperfect, but looking for the developmental need can offer just the type of opportunity I’m always looking for as a mom: to bring a little more space into a stressful moment.

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0-2 months, 2-4 months, 4-6 months, 6-8 months, Motor development

She leads the way

baby led

Just about every source of parenting advice out there, from the doctor’s office to your friend’s yoga teacher to the public health unit, will recommend something called “tummy time.” If you’re a parent, you know what it is. If you’re not, go

But here’s a big ol’ secret: Sage has never been put into “tummy time.” She’s spent lots of time on her belly, but I didn’t put her into that position.

Instead, from just a few weeks old, she’s been put onto her back, with plenty of space to move freely, occasionally with a few toys to invite exploration. Her body and brain are developing, and all she needs is time and space. Natural human development will take care of the rest.

We avoided or minimized time in what I call “contraptions” — swings, car seats, Jolly Jumpers, bouncy chairs, etc. They are all used to contain and restrain a baby’s natural freedom of movement. By holding back a baby’s natural way of being, they are holding back development. Even if it is high contrast, or brightly coloured, or play sweet music. Of course, we used a car seat in a car, and I put her in a (non-automated) bouncy chair while I showered. But I worked to be mindful of the time spent using these devices.

At 11 weeks old, she rolled over onto her belly for the first time. A few weeks later, she rolled back from belly to back. Since then she’s been on the move, rolling, stretching, creeping, pulling herself along. A few weeks ago, she started to get up on all fours and rock.

On her six-month birthday, in the middle of Thanksgiving celebrations, she moved from the crawling position to sitting right up. She sat there for about thirty seconds, with family gathered around cheering her on and my jaw on the floor.

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At nearly seven months, this sweet girl is (nearly) all grown up and sitting up with confidence. She gets herself into that position, and she holds herself up as long as she’s interested in sitting. No pillows, no props, no Bumbos. When she’s done sitting, she leans back, she rolls onto her side, she flips onto her belly.

It’s her body, and it’s her choice.

Those words might seem a little intense, conjuring up ideas of consent and women’s rights. But I think it’s okay for my daughter to have the idea that she is in charge of her own body, even from an early age. She leads the way.

I was introduce to ideas about baby’s natural motor development through the idea of RIE and in particular Janet Lansbury’s blog, which is excellent. I’m currently listening to her audiobook No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and wow, you guys. If you have a toddler or preschooler, that book can really do wonders for the communication around your household. If you will soon have a child that age, get started now!

Here are a few of Janet Lansbury’s posts about sitting and tummy time.

Edited to add: A reader posted a comment noting that focusing on timelines might give the incorrect impression that this method leads to early development. That’s not the case. Letting your baby lead the way allows them to develop at their own pace. There is no rush, and there’s no need to slow down. If your baby seems “late,” don’t despair. I think what this is all about it is giving your baby the respect, the space and also the time he or she needs to use their body and naturally develop. Thanks for your note, Gina! 

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