Montessori · Parenting

Perfection and why it’s not good enough

One of the things I’ve been working on lately is perfection. And not in the sense of achieving it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I think a lot of the parenting talk fuels our perfectionism. All the blogs and articles and books and courses. Some days I feel like they are so needed if only we’re going to walk ourselves through this parenting thing without losing our minds and hearts, while also doing right by our children; other days it seems to me that what we need is not a guide on what to do, but on what to avoid. It would be a lot more simple, and a lot less type-A. Like the Hippocratic Oath of Parenting: JUST DON’T MESS THEM UP. 

I’m not really blaming the proliferation of parenting advice, nor the myriad of education philosophies and methods. I think it’s great that we’re all thinking a lot more about what sorts of humans we want to raise. Also, let’s face it, I’m one of the top consumers of said advice and philosophies. I love them! I find all the ideas and methods and studies fascinating. I love the way Maria Montessori was so ahead of her time in her ideas about children. I love how we focus more on evidence-based parenting, especially with babies and pre-schoolers. I adore the feeling of coming to a new realization about something my child is going through and how to approach it. Sometimes I feel like thinking about parenting and education was why I was put on this earth, if ever there was a reason. 

What I’m ambivalent about is the way parenting has become something to excel (or fail) in. We want to be perfect parents. Anything less than perfection, will really not do. The problem of course, is not parenting’s problem. It’s a human problem – we do this with anything worth doing. Any occupation or work or craft – we want to excel in it, we demand perfection of ourselves.   

I’m sure there are lots of parents out there who are gentle with themselves, and with their children, and who struggle – because we all do – but don’t beat themselves up about it. I trust there are many people who work hard on something they love, with the full realization that their best will be good enough. I salute you! For knowing how to do it, and for actually consistently doing it (which is really the main thing). 

It’s certainly not that way for me, or hasn’t been. And if you’re anything like me, you will know how it is to constantly feel like you’re just not good enough, and to aim so high that you’re always, inevitably, coming up short. If you even have the guts to start the work at all. 

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, and her thoughts on perfectionism really hit home. Perfectionism is not something to smugly admit to, like it’s a beautiful flaw, but rather “perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified.” This makes sense to me, and explains also why sometimes we expect so much of ourselves that we end up not even trying, for fear we won’t live up to our expectations.

Situation of Danger. Be warned 😉

We want to do parenting really really well, like, better than our parents did, and just like the books say you should. And so we try and we fail because no one parents like the books, and perfection is unattainable, and even though we know this we still, somehow, believe there are others out there who have reached its glittery heights and we want to get there too.

Except no one has. Not a single person you follow on Instagram or know in real life or read about in parenting books, is a perfect parent. Or, for that matter, a perfect anything. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we really recognize this enough. Because deep down we think that at least that ONE person we know or follow on social media is actually doing it perfectly. And so should we.

Another thing I realized is that perfection is actually, ultimately, not really about the results. Because we all know it’s unattainable, by definition. So the results are really not the point. Perfection is really a lot more about perception and pleasing others, two things we can never ever control. Brene Brown talks a lot about perfectionism and makes the point that it is in fact shame in another form, it is us telling ourselves we are never good enough. 

I should probably mention that Montessori doesn’t have the best track record with imperfection and good enough. Maria Montessori uses the word “perfect” A LOT. She mentions man’s inner drive to “perfect himself” and how humans work to attain perfection. She praises perfection in the environment and the educator’s lessons, perfecting of the senses through work, perfection in writing, I could go on; in her defense she also admits that her method is far from perfect, and is in fact a constant work in progress.

I can see why perfectionists might be attracted to Montessori like moths to a flame; I feel like the outer image of order and beauty and perfection is what initially lured me in. I still am not so sure that Maria Montessori would be ok with good enough, given how often she uses the word perfect in her writings. And I’m also not sure what she meant by perfect – in many cases it comes across as if there is a peak of development that every child will ideally reach. I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of this kind of language. But equally we need to take her writings within their historical context, and maybe look at the spirit behind some of her thoughts rather than the literal words.

I choose to focus on these words from The Absorbent Mind: “Nor is the purpose of life to perfect oneself, nor only to evolve. The purpose of life is to obey the hidden command which ensures harmony among all and creates an even better world.” I believe what she is saying is that we should aim to be our best selves, but that that is not an end in itself, but rather a part of the much bigger journey of connecting to what binds us as humans.

I choose to embrace good enough, imperfect, even lazy Montessori because I choose to see myself and my children and the children I educate as a constant, daily work in progress. I think this is what Montessori meant when she said, “Life is activity and it is only through activity that perfection of life can be sought and found.” I think she meant we can only improve if we act upon the premise we are all works in progress. I think that this is why independence was so important to her – because we can only grow if we are independent.

Here are two things I hug super close in parenting and in life: that we are all just doing our best with the knowledge we have, and that most of us are, probably, good enough. And by most of us, I don’t mean everyone else apart from me (as I would have meant in the past), but everyone INCLUDING ME. I am good enough.

Imperfect and good enough are my new parenting and life aims. I love the way Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, because she gives perfectionism the finger while also saying, Imperfect doesn’t mean giving up, or not working on yourself, or not trying your best. 

She says, “You must learn to be a deeply-disciplined half-ass.” I mean, what is more gloriously lazy and imperfect while also encompassing all the hope and sweat and tears and turning up every single day that we put into the things (or people) we love? 

Montessori · Parenting

Boundaries: why we need them and why they are Montessori

 I’ve never been much good at boundaries. I think this stems from a deep-down feeling of guilt about even having them, and of constantly questioning and second-guessing their real point – is this boundary unfair on the children/my friend/this person? Does this boundary just serve me? Could I be more self-sacrificing? Should I be more generous? My feelings basically stemmed from a deep misapprehension of the role of boundaries; in fact I believed that boundaries meant putting up walls, giving up on empathy, being incapable of generosity, and that if I was a truly good person I wouldn’t need them.

I recently read something that changed this completely, and made me realise that boundaries don’t have to be put up at the last minute in desperation, leading to feelings of guilt and shame; and that we don’t have to make excuses for or explain the boundaries we choose to have in our own life as well as in our parenting.

This came from something social worker and academic Brene Brown wrote in her book Rising Strong

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

This made sudden, total sense to me. It explained why I found it so hard to say no to people and things and commitments and then found myself over-stretched, annoyed and bitter about actually having to deal with all the people and things and commitments. 

Gradually, I’ve learned to figure out where my boundaries in the adult world lie, and to assert them gently but firmly. It has given me a much greater sense of control about my time and energy, but also a much greater capacity to feel empathy, compassion and generosity towards others. Because when I give, it’s truly freely given. Like Brene Brown says, I am more able to be “generous in my assumptions and intentions while standing solidly in my integrity and being clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable”

From a parenting perspective, it reinforces the Montessori idea that there can be no freedom without responsibility. This has always made sense to me and I have always (to varying degrees, and also varying degrees of success, I should add!) had set boundaries in my parenting. However, the idea that there can be no true compassion without boundaries has given me an even greater push to stand firm about “what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

The concept of freedom in Montessori classrooms is often misunderstood and likened to a run-wild, no limits, no rules kind of setting. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and is not what Montessori herself intended at all. Order and discipline are crucial within the Montessori classroom, and the children are only free in the context of an extremely ordered and thought-out “prepared environment”, and specific ground rules. Montessori’s version of freedom is not boundless chaos, but rather freedom within concrete and predictable boundaries.

I think this is a great way to embody freedom in general to children; the idea that they are free to choose their own work but also expected to take care of it, and tidy it up when finished; the rule that they must wait their turn to use materials if another member of the community is using them; the expectation that they dress themselves, clean up after themselves, and take responsibility for their actions. 

The child’s freedom ends when the freedom of another is impacted; Montessori wrote that “the liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest.” This is not only important within a school community, but is such a valuable life lesson for children. All their lives, they will be coming up against other people’s freedom as a limit to their own. All their lives, they will need to set boundaries so that other people’s freedom doesn’t impact their own.

 Here’s a recent personal experience that has helped me discuss and explain freedom to my children, who are 5 and 7 years old. This summer we’re spending a month on an island off the coast of Siciliy. We are with family, but other than that it is a very basic, rugged place, with really not much to do aside from go to the beach, play in the garden, ride bikes and have glorious meals. The first few days we were here I noticed there was a lot of whining and complaining, and so after a good think I told the kids we could each have a day that was our individual day to make all the decisions, to have complete freedom about where to go, what to do, where to have lunch, etc. Sounds great, in theory right? They were thrilled. I thought I’d figured everything out and this would be the end of all the complaining. In fact, we all learned an essential lesson: there is no such thing as complete freedom.

We need those lines in the sand 😉

My daughter quickly realized that her freedom was constrained by the weather, the heat (we can’t go cycling at 2pm under the hot son), money (we can’t afford to have meals out twice a day every day), transport (I have to take her places), other family member’s decisions, and so on. I developed a little mantra that my children enthusiastically repeat now: With freedom comes responsibility. I feel that we all learned a good lesson about freedom and boundaries and why you can’t really have one without the other.

My definition of boundaries in a parenting/education realm is not arbitrary rules that adults have come up with for no apparent reason other than the fact they can, but rather limitations to individual freedom that are almost natural consequences of living in a family and a community. 

Montessori makes a similar point about the classroom setting. She writes that “our aim is to discipline for activity, for work, for good; not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience(her italics).” I think what she means here is that the rules and boundaries that children will encounter are those that support their freedom, as well as that of others, to choose, move, learn and grow, rather than rules that simply require obedience but have no ulterior benefit to them.

So an example of an arbitrary rule or rule for obedience might be telling a child they need to sit still for a given amount of time simply to make things easier for the teacher or adult, or telling a child they cannot drink water or have a snack when they’re hungry because it’s just not snack or lunch time. These rules are fundamentally, solely about control and power. On the other hand, setting boundaries such as waiting your turn to play with a certain toy that’s being used by another child, or cleaning up after yourself if you spill water, makes logical sense because although the child’s freedom is being restricted in that moment, it’s clear this is happening in order to benefit communal living, and ultimately the freedom of all individuals within the community. 

There is so much to say about boundaries and freedom and independence! I’ve been forever fascinated with these concepts, and I think it’s important to question rules and pick apart the why behind boundaries and limitations to our freedom, but equally I think the idea of freedom needs to be discussed because I find it means different things to different people. And although most people will agree they want their children to be independent, I’m not sure they would as enthusiastically agree they want them to be truly, 100% free, while at the same time possibly feeling uncomfortable with the idea of firm boundaries. 

I haven’t even gotten into how powerful the idea of boundaries can be to teach children about respect for their bodies and other people’s bodies, and to discuss relationships. Although I have a ton of opinions on this (surprise!), I’m not an expert so if you’re interested in digging deeper, here is a really thoughtful post about encouraging consent and setting boundaries, and more specifically about supporting consent , and this is a good summary of how boundaries may work in parenting, what is developmentally-appropriate and respectful boundary-setting.

I’d like to finish by saying that this post was mainly about the reason-for-being of boundaries, which is something that is equally fascinating and problematic to me. I love that I now have a really meaningful way to think about boundaries in my life and in my parenting: as a necessary pre-requisite to compassion and empathy. Now I know that having boundaries with my children is as much about making sure I can stay calm and compassionate with them (instead of being pushed and pushed until I lose it), as it is about reflecting what living in the world is actually like.

I recognize that for many people it’s not about why or what the boundary is, but how it is held in place. Every family and group and community will have different rules, but how you enforce them is as important as why you have them and what they actually are. I’ll be talking about this more in a future post!

Thanks for reading, and happy boundary-setting! 

Montessori · Parenting

Montessori Parenting: the lazy version

I’m a Montessori-ish parent. I wasn’t for the longest time, and I went from attachment to gentle to peaceful to unschooling to a bizarre mix of all of these and finally landed on hard-core, purist, make-no-mistake Montessori. Except, that never really worked out for me. And I realized that being so rigid and uncompromising about my parenting wasn’t doing anyone any favours, least of all my children. So I let go of A LOT of the stuff that matters little, and continue to cling on hard to the stuff that, to me, matters a lot. 

In the process, I’ve discovered that you can still be Montessori and imperfect and yes, sometimes lazy. Basically, you can be a good enough Montessorian, most of the time, and everyone will be just fine.

In fact, lazy goes along quite well with Montessori, at times. As a Montessori(ish) parent, and part of a family that moves home and country every two years, I have accepted the fact that we will never have the perfect instagrammable playroom, with all the wooden toys and Montessori materials, and the pristine shelves and the child-level pictures on the walls. And while I salute (and am in part a little envious of) any parent who has the opportunity and talent to do this, I have come to a certain level of acceptance that we have to make Montessori from what we have in the moment. 

The thing that makes me so happy about the ideas below is that not only are they Montessori principles, but they also tend to make my life easier, rather than more demanding/time-consuming:

You don’t need all the materials

I think we need to remember this: Montessori education was designed by Maria Montessori as an open-ended method and philosophy. While the materials she designed are essential in a classroom, they are not the end-point of her method, and they certainly do not a Montessori parent make. 

Montessori is not set in stone, and neither is your child

Maria Montessori herself refused to define her philosophy and “copyright” it, because she recognized that it would need to constantly expand and evolve. We should probably remember it was never intended as a parenting philosophy, although it does lend itself to adoption in the parenting realm and as a philosophy to raise your family by. But by definition it is open to a degree of change and metamorphosis. I have become a lot more mindful of how as parents we do in fact need to follow the child (a key Montessori principle!), and that sometimes the child and the method will diverge or clash, and we need to have the acceptance and recognition that ultimately, your child’s needs and your family’s needs come first. 

Mummy is busy

From around age 3, your child can be expected to play alone for periods of time. Because, boundaries people. We all need them. To be better, more empathic, more compassionate, more SANE humans. Personally, I would start encouraging this a lot sooner than 3 years, with no/low expectations. The key to this is to set up your home in a way that you won’t have to actually get up and follow your child around making sure they don’t break the china/topple down the stairs. For older children, I will usually give them a sense of how long I’ll be busy, and when I will be available. I may set a timer or use an old-fashioned hourglass so they can physically see the time passing.

 Some children won’t take to this especially well (trust me, I have one of those), but as long as you keep calm and repeat, they will get it in the end. I supposed you also need to acknowledge times when it’s just not going to happen, and live with that. I’m not suggesting you be busy for long stretches of time necessarily. But I would say that encouraging your child to get creative on their own is one of the best things you can do for them (and you!). And I had/have a child who literally needed someone to play with them CONSTANTLY. So it’s been an uphill struggle for us. But worth it. 

A note on boredom: it’s essential! Everyone needs it. I first came across this in my 20s while reading Bertrand Russell’s book The Conquest of Happiness. According to him boredom, or “fruitful monotony”, is the birthplace of creativity, and he states, rather dramatically, “a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

More recently, much has been written (this is one interesting article, and this is another one, but there are many more) about the idea that children lose something from constantly being entertained. If you can’t stand the whining that comes with boredom, well, here’s what I tell them: Gosh, we have so much work to do in the house, would you like me to give you a task? Sometimes they do, and sometimes they will slink away and go find something interesting to do. Either way, it’s win-win!

You can help me, or you can play on your own

This sort of links up to the idea above. I’ve always encouraged my children to help me out with anything I might be doing around the house. From about 18 months children can help with simple tasks such as loading or unloading the dishwasher, sweeping or mopping the floor (with child-sized brush/mop), tidying toys, sorting socks or cutlery, folding. As they grow older they can begin to do more complex tasks like setting the table, chopping vegetables (we use this child-appropriate chopper), making their beds, watering the plants, the sky’s the limit! Children under 6 will love doing tasks like this, and this is the best time to introduce them to work around the house because they are naturally inclined to want to do adult work during between 3 and 6 years. The only catch with this one is you have to be okay with the way they accomplish the work you’ve given them. Resist the urge to fix/change/correct. I know it’s tough, I’ve been there, but just don’t. If a child’s best appears not to be good enough then they might stop trying.

I trust you guys can reach a compromise

This is definitely one for older children, but you can start trying to implement it when they are little with a little help and guidance from you. It’s the phrase I use when my two are arguing over something but still able think rationally, meaning that noone has lost their cool yet and things haven’t escalated to physical violence. I like this phrase because it means a few different things: that I expect them to resolve small disputes on their own, that I trust they are capable of doing it, that I know they can brainstorm and come up with ideas. I usually give it some time and if nothing has been resolved than act as a mediator, listening to everyone’s grievances and coming up with ideas together for how to resolve this. There’s a more detailed explanation of this in this book, which has some great, Montessori-compatible, ideas for parenting siblings.

Never disturb an engaged child

Last but most definitely not least, one of the central tenets of Montessori and any lazy parent’s dream – the elusive engaged child. I think what Montessori aimed to achieve, when we strip everything away, was a sustained period of deep concentration where the child is fully taken by their own work. This is where real learning, growth and development occurs; this is where the child begins to unveil what has always been within them, what Montessori calls the “divine directive”. But also, people, this is where we as parents and can step back and let them magic happen while we read our books/sip coffee on the sofa/daydream/do gardening/go on Instagram or whatever, and we can sit back in the firm knowledge that what we don’t do is sometimes more valuable than what we do. How great is that? I also like this idea because it’s really about respecting your child’s engagement the way you might expect them to respect you when you’re busy doing something. It’s showing them that you value what they’re interested in, the same way you value your own pursuits.

I recently came across this quote, in Anne Lamott’s brilliant Ted Talk: ” Help is the sunny side of control.” This works in so many ways, but in the context of Montessori, and of some of the ideas above, it’s a beautiful reminder that often when we seek to help it says more about us than the human we’re helping.