How Montessori Education Helped Me Walk Away from the Comparison Game With Danielle Holmes
I can hear it now. I hear and see it with almost every playdate, dinner date, and family gathering I attend. I hear it when I talk to other parents at nursery pick up and drop off. I hear it from the mouths of parents of older kids and younger kids when I see them walking home from dropping their kids off at the bus. It’s the comparison moment. My kid isn’t walking, talking, tying their shoes, acing algebra, reading chapter books, reading for fun, and the list goes on. And it goes one step further: “Your kid isn’t walking? My kid was walking at nine months. Try clipping a clothespin on a string to their shirt. It’ll hold them up.” “Your kid isn’t doing coding after school? You should try it. That’ll be what they need to really engage with math.” “Your kid can’t recite their ABCs and they start preschool soon? Try this YouTube video. It’s a game changer. My kid used it and knew hers by three.”
We live in a consumer culture that leverages comparison and desire to sell products. And we’ve let that comparison culture affect how we interact with and perceive our children. And, I am not immune to this trap. But, a chance encounter with Montessori philosophy gave me permission I needed to shut down so many of the unnecessary voices asking me to compare my child with other children.
What is Montessori education?
First, you should know that the term Montessori was never copyrighted, so any school or program can claim to be Montessori. So, definitely do your research to find out if the school or program you’re looking at is following Montessori principles.
Montessori education was created by Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor, educator, and rights of children activist who lived from 1870-1952. Montessori saw developmentally delayed children in the Italian school system and created an educational technique that didn’t write them off. My favorite explanation of Montessori core values comes from Simone Davies, in her book, The Montessori Toddler: A Parent’s Guide to Raising a Curious and Responsible Human Being:
Natural desire to learn
Hands-on, concrete learning
Unconscious absorbent mind
Freedom and limits
Independence and responsibility
In practice, this looks like child-led learning; hands-on, tactile learning; no tech; classrooms set up to facilitate freedom of movement; and positive discipline.
Montessori and the Parent Achievement Culture
As a member of dual working parent household, getting our son into early preschool meant not juggling a nanny schedule, along with two work schedules, and the schedules of three humans. And in the area we live, getting into preschool is on par with getting into college. There are tours, interviews, and waitlists. So, when we got past the initial steps at Montessori school, and had the parent/teacher interview, I was unprepared for one question: What are your educational goals for your child?
The class age range was eighteen months to three years. I looked at the teacher and said what I really meant, “I don’t have any educational goals for his age. I want him to be happy, learn to be with other children and adults, and would like to know if there are any major developmental issues that might need an early intervention. I think this is early for educational goals.” The teachers were all smiles. Apparently, this is one of the hardest areas for parents to mesh with Montessori, and I passed some kind of test. But, this moment wasn’t the first time my exposure to Montessori gave me the perspective to say and mean, “My son isn’t doing that yet, but he will when he’s ready.”
Academic achievement is important (both my husband and I hold graduate degrees), but it’s secondary to the overall emotional, mental, and physical health of a child. And the Montessori philosophy is in direct conflict with a culture that uses comparison to define achievement. Maria Montessori created an education philosophy that asks for respect for self, others, and our environment—the environment includes the physical objects around your child, like toys, chairs, tables, and dishes, and the overall environment. If I respect my son, I don’t live my ambitions vicariously through him. I make room for who he is and will become.
Montessori Mixed Age Groups Lets Kids Learn at Their Pace
I have so many friends struggling with kids labeled as gifted or special needs. And while the developmental issues are separate, many of the social issues are the same: their kids feel different, in a negative way, from their peers. Montessori classes are typically mixed age groups, with a range of three ages or grades. This setup is great for nontypical students. Students can work ahead or take extra time, and the mix of ages and abilities help them feel like part of a community, regardless of academic ability.
This might feel cut and dry, but because of complications prior to my son’s birth, we were told to not be surprised if he shows some neurological differences from his peers. So, the idea of a classroom where he the activities and steering away from state testing would let him be with peers, even if he’s ahead or behind an age average was a draw for us. I’m excited that he will be able to challenge himself in areas he’s gifted in, but not feel embarrassed if some learning areas need extra work or support. Montessori’s hands on approach to learning can also be a game changer for neurodiverse kids.
As a parent, this means less opportunity for comparison. Your child stays in the same class for three years. Our Montessori school offers after school activities like foreign languages, fine arts, and yoga. Our school wants to foster a community that lets children develop at their own pace and become generous humans. Though, on a side note, Montessori schooled kids usually do well integrating back into public school environments and test on par, if not higher than their peers. There is enough room for comparison in the wider world, why not try for a safer space around learning and development?
Saying No to Comparison
My child is a toddler and I have a long road ahead as a parent. But, early childhood seems to be rife with comparison. There are so many obvious and external markers of development. And don’t get me wrong, I do believe that averages exist for a reason, and that if a child’s doctor and educator are concerned, my job as a parent is to listen, research, and as my child’s advocate, get them whatever help they need. But, all those major developmental milestones have wide ranges for what is considered typical. And when I decided to truly mean, “he’ll do it as it his own pace,” I was able to let go of extra anxiety I carried as a parent. And as an achiever, it was seeing the success of an education system that values respect and an individual development that bridged that gap for me.
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