Finding patience the “Montessori way”

Lately, patience has been, well, everything. It’s the thing I most need as an outnumbered toddler mom frequently parenting solo. Ah, deep breaths. 

Before motherhood, I admittedly and kind of proudly described myself as impatient because I’m fast-paced. And in a busy workaholic society, that is generally seen as a good thing. How much can you do and how quickly can you do it? This is exacerbated when you work as a journalist and in PR as I did. Deadlines baby. Pair that with slight perfectionism and don’t overlook the how well can you do it? It’s about efficiency but also effectiveness.

As a stay-at-home mother, that drive didn’t go anywhere. I still want my days to feel productive (efficient), but filled with impactful, quality moments (effective). Yet, in toddlerhood, efficient and effective kind of compete. I cannot expect my children to move at my pace and still have those quality moments because they are literally new to this entire world. I have to slow down. Having an impactful day with my two toddlers is so not efficient.

My Montessori journey helped me see this in a big way. It is challenging for me to switch from hurrying my children along to slowing down with them. We can’t expect our toddlers to be more independent if we don’t first meet them where they are. Everything has steps – steps that we take for granted. Getting dressed, cleaning up, cooking, running errands – all of the things that we have long mastered are so hard for them.

I always knew this about toddlers, I just didn’t realize how dangerously easy it was for me to therefore do more than teach.  “It will take too long,” kind of thing, so I’ll just do it. And keep doing it. And keep doing it. Is that really efficient though? Maybe in the moment it is when I feel hurried, but in the long run it’s setting myself up to continue helping them in areas that they could be learning how to do for themselves.

I am certainly not talking from a place of mastering patience or having some sort of perfect balance where my kids are blissfully running around doing things on their own. Far from it. My kids are 2 and 1, and their independence and my patience is a total work in progress. There are plenty of nights where I make dinner by myself or mornings where I still dress my kids.  What I think is important to acknowledge, though, is the fact that the opportunity to grant my kids patience exists way more than I perhaps want it to. But when I can reach for that patience and take a step back, we all grow.

It’s a powerful lesson built in with the principle of “freedom within limits.” Many Montessori-inspired families will go on to transform their homes from a place of “no” to “yes.”  We give our toddlers dedicated cabinets in the kitchen with step stools to the counter so they can practice food prep for themselves. We counter mainstream nurseries and design their rooms from birth in a way that grants freedom of movement with floor beds and eye-level shelves. We find nooks in our bathrooms for “self-care stations,” and we find child-sized furniture so we can include them in our home instead of baby proof them out.

I did all of this. Accessibility is an exciting part of that child-led freedom. I learned pretty quickly that the …“within limits” part is just as important as the “Freedom…” part, though.  Most obviously I learned this in the kitchen. My 2-year-old is not capable of managing his own snacks because then he will not eat meals. Shocker!

Yet, there is so much more to it than the two extremes of freedom and limits. There is a crucial, overlooked step in the middle of this. Where freedom brings chaos, it’s  sometimes because I forgot to teach. Before assuming we should take freedoms back,  we should show them how to navigate that freedom. Like really, really show them. I can’t just make my kitchen accessible to my toddler and then expect he will make his own snacks. Similarly, I shouldn’t baby-gate him out of the kitchen just because he can’t yet make his own snacks. Instead I guide him in the kitchen.

I remember making a total mess at a friend’s house during a toddler play date. I was pregnant with my second and my son was close to 18 months. I noticed other toddlers helping to clean before they left. I stopped and thought, “Is my son capable of helping to clean up such a massive mess? And if so, how do I teach him this?” Fast forward to my second child, who has been effectively helping to clean up since 14 months. The difference is that I have greater awareness to the power of teaching the skills I want my kids to have. I never showed my first how to put things away from an early age because I did not know what he was capable of and when. A baby under two putting stuff away? Yeah right. No, yeah. 

Montessori has taught me that guidance is more than modeling and modeling is more than doing. I do. I speak. I observe. We must find patience to first do the things we expect them to do;  patience to say how to do what we did; followed by patience to actually then let them try.

Right now, my daughter is all about brushing her own teeth, and it’s a process that looks so much different than when I taught my son. There’s more freedom in that she can access what she needs without me. There’s more limits in that I don’t let her run around and play with this as a toy, or eat the tooth paste like candy. But there’s also more clear guidance as I talk her through the steps from start to finish, compared to simply approaching my son with a prepped toothbrush and doing it for him. You can guess which one creates a power struggle.

As her movements grow more confident, I realize that I can step back sooner than I thought. I realize she is capable of listening and trying, and I am capable of being more patient. And that’s a really cool exchange to have in this messy, exhausting gig.

Does she still need help? Yes! Do I ever still do it for her? You bet. The difference is that I’m working to carve out more moments like this – moments where we slow down and trust each other.

Freedom makes it easier to try; limits make it harder to fail; but patient guidance is what really brings new skills within clear reach.

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