The delicate balance between supervising and observing

I remember when I first started Montessori, I felt so torn on my role around the home. I had all these new expectations to better maintain the “prepared space,” but transforming the space proved to be easier than transforming my role as parent.

Child-led is an obvious change to Montessori parenting, but even learning what “follow the child” entails took time.  In practice, it was something made possible by first learning to observe my kids. Observation is a whole thing in and of itself, and it sounds super cold and formal to do “observation,”  but when done right, it is a huge boost to my connection with my kids, which has only made me a more nurturing mom at the end of the day.

Contrary to how formal it sounds, it doesn’t have to be this big formal gesture. In fact it shouldn’t be. Supervising is, on the contrary,  a big formal gesture. Supervision entails some level of making your presence known, and that’s what I was doing at first. I was sitting right next to my son, eager to help. Eager to praise. Eager to correct. So very eager. I was so enthralled with all the changes we were making, I wanted to be front and center of it.

It’s not that supervision is bad. Our children do need guidance with a lot of things, hence the term “guide” that is used to better depict the role of the adult to the child in Montessori learning. But guiding, which is essentially shadowing them so that we are ready to offer needed help, can change the way we see them. And if our presence changes the way we see them, then we’re not really observing them. Do you feel you can perform your best when your boss is looking over your shoulder? I sure can’t.

Observing is a discrete, graceful act. It is my chance to step back and see my children for where they are free of my influence. I observe intentionally separate from those times where I am guiding.

The best way to observe my kids is just not to plan it.  I’ve found that it happens best when they’re deep in unstructured play. When I hear an unusual amount of silence, that’s usually the most neutral time to get an authentic glimpse of their world. I will watch from a distance, quietly, to see what they choose to play with. I can see how they’re using it, and whether or not it’s too easy, too hard or just right. I can see their mood and their focus.  I can see how long they work on it, and what they choose next. It usually only takes a few minutes at a time, but this habit of observing as something separate from supervising has been a game changer.

Even if I see them struggling, I generally won’t jump in. They get plenty of interruption when I am actively guiding them. They don’t need further “correction.” My goal in observing is to see them for where they are. That’s it. I can, however, take note of the struggles I saw and use that to find engaging ways to help them later, when I step back into guide. Observing is hands-off.

There’s an unfortunate misconception that Montessori is about perfection. I believe this stems from the fact that Montessorians do strive for a perfect environment, but that is not meant to be a standard applied to children and their learning – or our parenting. Still, I felt this pressure of perfection and mastery when I was new to it, and I think that is why I initially focused too much of my energy on supervising and not enough on observing. Too much guidance can invite over-insertion, over-correcting, over-praising. At least it did for me. The more I learned to truly, simply and intentionally observe, the more all of it clicked.

Observing my kids helps me to understand them, and understanding them helps me to guide them. The point of these two things in conjunction is not to achieve perfection, but to nurture a deeper connection over a love of learning.

Below, I captured a picture of my youngest deep in concentration. I had been in the kitchen and noticed it had been a while since she was begging for my attention. I found her working diligently on these single-inset shape puzzles that I had placed out as a group rather than individually. I wasn’t sure if I should even keep these in her rotation because my understanding of these is that they are beginner baby puzzles. She never previously took too much interest in them, though, except for when she was under the age of 1 and working on her pincer grasp. She used to lift the shapes on repeat thanks to the knobs. Still, I decided to try them all side by side at 15 months to see if if she could intentionally match the right shapes when placed.

My assumption: this will be too easy. She will be bored. My observation: this is too challenging for her.

I was initially relieved that she still had interest in them, and that my choice in toy rotation was a hit. Then I was humbled by the fact that my assumption was inaccurate. This was actually really hard for her. I learned that I need to be more patient in the observations I take of her. It’s easy to see her do something well, with guidance, and assume she has got it. Yet here were these “baby” puzzles totally stumping my toddler.

I would never have noticed this if I didn’t first pause, refrain and watch. Her development is not something I want to rush, and her interests are not something I want to force. Knowing that she is so drawn to these puzzles and that they are still a challenge gives me so much inspiration for our weeks at home together ahead!

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What is something you recently observed about your child that proved you wrong?

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