Guided by the Nature of Parents

AMI International Congress Breakout Presentation, August 1, 2013

By Peter Davidson

00570002We are gathered here in Portland because we have all been touched by the remarkable insight Dr. Montessori had into the true nature of childhood.  As remarkable as her discovery was, isn’t it equally remarkable that 100 years later the true nature of childhood is still hidden from the vast majority of people? The basic attitudes toward and expectations of children have not changed dramatically since Dr. Montessori’s time.  Children are perceived by most of the world as treasures, certainly, but also as incapable, unfocused, unmotivated, irresponsible, noisy, messy, and uncooperative.

We know from experience that, in fact, the truth is the direct opposite.  Given freedom of choice and action within an environment that takes into account their natural needs and tendencies and the psychological characteristics of their stage of development, children reveal themselves to be exceedingly capable, calm, orderly, cooperative, concentrated, self-motivated and responsible.  What most people see, Dr. Montessori recognized as only the surface deviations of a child who has yet to reveal himself through work. It’s as if the rest of the world is wearing blinders, only seeing what they have been conditioned to see.

This goes a long way toward explaining why there continues to be little significant reform in the rest of education.  Parents, educators and legislators are using the wrong map, are working from a faulty paradigm.  They can’t see children for who they truly are, because when they look at children they see only what they expect to see. It has been well established, as far back as psychologist Robert Rosenthal’s studies in the 1960’s, that expectations have a profound effect on behavior and outcomes.  So, this false paradigm becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You may be wondering why I am belaboring this point, when I am supposed to be discussing parents.  As I see it, the two topics are integrally related.  If we want to be more successful working with parents, we need to help them see beyond the faulty paradigm, and open their eyes to the secret of childhood.  But, we also need to see beyond our own low opinion of parents, lest our expectations work against their self-realization.  So, how do we accomplish this?

Although they are in a different plane of development, adults still display the same human tendencies that we observe among the children in our Montessori classrooms.  That shouldn’t be too surprising since they may be older but they are still human, after all.  Doesn’t it follow that our approach with parents should be similar to our approach with children? Let’s look at just a few of the hallmarks of that approach, and consider how we might apply the same principles with adults.

052Respect for choice is a critical element of Montessori, and I would suggest that we be careful from the first not to sell our Montessori programs to parents, but instead to inform them and then respect their choice.  Our job with prospective parents is to answer their questions in a way that describes what we do, fully and completely and unapologetically, but without selling.  Let’s respect the fact that although Montessori might be right for every child, it might not be right for every parent.  It’s the parents’ job to choose; it’s our job to make sure that their choice is a fully informed one.

We pay careful attention in the classroom to the sensitive periods in a child’s life.  In my experience, parents also have a ‘sensitive period’ when they are more open to learning about the nature of childhood than at other times.  That period starts before their child is born and continues through the first two years of life. Prenatal classes and parent/infant classes are a wonderful opportunity to reach parents when they are at their most open.

If you don’t have a nido or toddler class in your school though, don’t despair.  There is also a period of increased openness and sensitivity that begins with their first observation as a prospective parent and lasts through their child’s first few months in a Montessori classroom. We can take advantage of this by front-loading our parent outreach, discussing how to apply basic Montessori principles in the home even before a child’s start date.  In addition, before the child begins, we will want to give the parents an orientation to the school, its history, mission and governance.  Orientation is a human tendency, after all.

Famously, Dr. Montessori challenged us to “teach by teaching, not by correcting”. And yet how often do we forget this dictum when dealing with parents?  Too often we stand with arms crossed, glaring at a parent who is late, or doing too much for a child, or behaving in some other way that offends our Montessori sensibilities. Instead, we can let go of our inclination to correct and look for a later teachable moment. As an example, we could ask the tardy parent on another day how things are going at home in the mornings and offer our help. For the parent who does too much for a child, we could look for an opportunity to point out the aura of pride and accomplishment on a child’s face when she does something for herself. Disapproval makes people defensive rather than open and receptive.  The right emotional climate is a necessary condition for learning, for children and adults.

In general, we are much more patient with the children in our care than with their parents, aren’t we?  We allow children as much time as they need to accomplish a task and to progress at their own pace, and yet we become frustrated with parents when they don’t immediately grasp Montessori. Perhaps we should make a more generous allowance of time and patience for parents to gradually understand what took us a full year of training to fully grasp.

Another human tendency is exploration, and we fully acknowledge the importance of it for children.  And yet, how many of our events for parents are mostly lecture?  A hands-on experience with Montessori materials leaves parents in a lively and open state of mind, while lecture can have the opposite effect. Of course we want to warn parents about the problems with drilling children at home, the addictive nature of electronic gaming, or the passivity of television viewing, but how much more effective would we be after an enjoyable experience of discovery with the sensorial or mathematics materials?  After an experience like that, any parent is ready to recognize the importance of active engagement as opposed to passive entertainment, or the excitement and depth of understanding that a child misses when drilled on math after school.

079If a child asks us, “What is the largest city in Ecuador?” how do we respond?  “That’s an interesting question!  I wonder where we could find out?” And yet with parents, out of our excitement to share all of this beautiful knowledge and insight we have gained in our training, we often overwhelm them with answers even before they have a question. After their first observation then, before we launch into a description of Montessori, we could simply ask the prospective parent, “What did you see?”  I am often amazed at their insightful observations.  Similarly, after an activity or experience at a parent night, ask them what they learned from the experience, before presuming to tell them what they were “supposed” to have learned.

Another practice that helps parents open up is to simply let them speak first. I begin every new family orientation by asking the parents to share what they saw in their first observation in the school. Again, I am invariably amazed at their insight.  By the time they finish sharing, they feel confirmed in their choice, and their minds are open to receive information.  At the beginning of a parent evening on mathematics, I might ask each parent to talk briefly about their own experiences with math as a child. From the first then, it is participatory and parents are sharing with each other.  It seems a small thing, but it sets an important tone for the entire event as something in which each parent is a valued participant rather than a passive recipient.

This is especially important in helping our parents combat the pressure they feel from friends, relatives and neighbors to conform to the more accepted choice of the local public or church school.  The antidote to this pressure is to get Montessori parents talking to each other.  Parents will believe one another much more readily than they will believe us, and in this way they support one another’s decision.  Therefore, when I hold a parent event introducing Montessori elementary to the parents of five year-olds, I always invite some current elementary parents as well, and encourage them to speak up.  No discussion of the importance of the third year in the Montessori classroom would be complete without some current third-year parents who can speak from experience as to its benefits.

In the classroom we get to know each child as an individual and customize our approach to each unique personality and learning style.  Do we do the same with parents?  Or, do we tend to adopt a one-size-fits-all way of reaching out to them?  I never feel that just because I wrote a good article for the newsletter that my work is done.  For some parents written communication is very effective, but others will need to hear it at a parent night or in a face-to-face meeting, see it in a video, hear it from a guest speaker, or follow a link to a pertinent website or article.

038In my experience parents expect a higher level of individual consideration from a Montessori school than from any other institution with which they interact.  Yet many schools have a tendency to overreact to the misbehavior of a few parents by implementing an unnecessary number of rigid polices.  Rather than feeling understood as individuals, then, the other parents can’t help but feel a bit dehumanized.

We are careful to observe children, to pause and consider what or how much help or intervention they need before we offer it.  The corollary with parents is the practice of seeking to understand before seeking to be understood.  Understanding a parent’s situation and point of view first puts us in a better position to communicate effectively and with relevance.  Once a person feels understood, he or she is much more likely to let go of preconceptions and be open to new ideas.

Many parents today are anxious and defensive. To be effective, then, we need to create situations that are disarming, that allow parents to lay down their defenses and calm their anxieties.  Over the years I have found that one of the best things I can do is to call each parent at some point during the morning of their child’s first day, to reassure them and let them know how well their child is doing.  Going out of our way to make frequent contact with parents over the first days and weeks helps reduce their anxiety and start us down the road of building trust. Trust is not something most parents will simply give to us, but something we must go out of our way to earn.  And the most effective time to invest in building trust is from the beginning of the relationship.

Having one’s choice respected, being treated generously and as an individual, being taught rather than corrected, and experiencing the teacher as someone who genuinely wants to understand, all build trust and are conducive to open and effective communication.  But, in the final analysis, they are all just techniques, and their importance pales by comparison with our basic attitude, our paradigm of parents.  Just as education reform will never be effective until there is a change in the way children are viewed, so too we will not be effective in relating to parents until we change our view of them.

As Dr. Montessori said, in her chapter on the preparation of the teacher, “The first step an intending Montessori teacher must take is to prepare herself.  For one thing, she must keep her imagination alive; for whilst, in traditional schools, the teacher sees the immediate behavior of her pupils… the Montessori teacher is constantly looking for a child who is not yet there…. The teacher…must have a kind of faith that the child will reveal himself through work.  The many different types of children (meaning they are more or less deviated) must not worry her.  In her imagination she sees the single normalized type, which lives in a world of the spirit.”

What if, in our relationships with parents, we also prepared ourselves, used our imagination and had faith? Perhaps if we used the same basic approach with parents as we do for children, treated them with the same respect and expected the best of them, we would make their experience equally transformative.  In the words of Dr. Montessori, let us be like a “flame, which heartens all by its warmth, enlivens and invites.” Notice that she said “which heartens all”, not only the children, but also their parents.