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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Family life, Montessori philosophy

Watch and learn

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about observation. Observing the child was a large part of Maria Montessori’s work — it’s what lead to the development of her whole educational paradigm. It’s an important aspect of the Montessori classroom teacher’s role, so it must also be important for those of us who are using Montessori principles in the home.

But it’s not a big part of the online discussion and it even takes a back seat to action in otherwise brilliant books like Montessori From the Start . Unlike a sensory bin or a mathematical provocation, observing is tough to “pin”. It doesn’t require a lot of action, it doesn’t fill time, and it doesn’t keep our child entertained. But Montessori knew it was worth it.

And I think observation can be just as tough to understand, and even harder to implement.

I’m far from an expert, but here’s my simple, two-step program for better observing your child:

  • Quiet. Stop encouraging, stop instructing, stop directing. Everything you say can potentially distract a concentrating child and redirect their hard-won attention back to you.
  • Try to watch without judgement. Early childhood is all about experimentation, and it’s not about outcomes. It’s not about what you can “get” your child to do. It’s about letting them the freedom to try and to learn. My very, very favourite online example of what this looks like is little Elise pouring herself a drink in this video on Itty Bitty Love. (And kudos to Anne for posting such a perfectly-imperfect video!)

Something else that helps me to really understand observation is to observe myself. I try to be aware of when I feel like I need to direct what should be happening, or the need to “help”. I notice when I feel that familiar old fear creeping in that has to do with expectations and plans and shoulds and shouldn’ts. And then I just sit with those feelings and I observe where they come from and what happens if I don’t immediately act.

When I do manage to be still and observe, the rewards are huge. I feel amazed by my child, and grateful for his inner light. I feel relieved to see that he doesn’t need me to be some kind of super-mom-teacher, he just needs the space and the time to learn to do it himself.

What have you observed?

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