Tips From the Toddler Whisperer
In the past few months, Zach's picked up a few bad habits due to a lack of awareness and consistency on my part. His amazing Montessori guide - a veritable toddler whisperer - gave me some suggestions to minimize our struggles and support Zachary's development. I thought I'd share them with you, in case you find yourself in the same boat...
1. Make it fun
As some of you already know, bedtime is the toughest part of the day for us. Zach is tired and I'm beyond exhausted. I want to get him ready for bed as efficiently as possible, and he wants to do everything BUT go to bed. I work all day with elementary-aged students, who for the most part do what you ask and don't run away with their underwear on their head (although you'd be surprised...). So, I forget that Zach is not even two yet, and for him life is one giant party.
His guide told me to make things fun - make the bedtime routine into a game. My first thought was, "I don't have the energy for that." But I also don't have the energy to chase him around and get angry, so I thought I'd give it a try. Of course, it worked! We sang, played body part peek-a-boo, and before he knew it he was ready for bed and we were both in a better mood.
This is not my style at all; I'm a very matter-of-fact, "git er done" kind of person, which is why I work with elementary children and not with toddlers. But it's also been a reminder that the adult has to meet the child where they are, in order to guide their development.
2. Encourage independence
A few months ago, Zach learned how to say "help" in English and Spanish, which quickly evolved into "help me". It is the cutest darn phrase coming from a tiny tot, and of course my husband and I melt every time we hear it and obligingly come to the rescue. We were reacting as any caring parents would; he was learning that the more he used the phrase, the less he had to do on his own.
During our parent-teacher conference, Zach's guide pointed out that our son was quick to say "help me", even for challenges he could easily overcome on his own. I had the sinking realization that, despite all my training and experience, I wasn't encouraging my child's independence! All the Montessori training in the world does you no good unless you take the time to observe yourself and the child, and analyze how your choices are impacting his behaviors.
I decided to approach Zach's desire for help the same way I do in the classroom: stay busy! When a Montessori guide has 25 or more students in one class, there's no possible way she can help them all. She's always busy giving lessons, and the children see this, so they quickly learn to work through challenges creatively and independently. Only truly insurmountable problems are brought to the guide, and even then, she only provides the minimum help necessary.
Zach had plenty of struggles yesterday, including peeling a mandarin, stacking a pile of Legos onto a wheeled Lego car, and putting together a puzzle. I heard his plea for help and each time replied with an encouraging smile: "Try by yourself a little longer while I finish folding clothes/making dinner/doing the dishes." If help was truly needed, I acknowledged his request with genuine pleasure but gave the least assistance possible, retiring the moment my participation became obsolete. Not surprisingly, he was perfectly capable of doing everything on his own or with minimal intervention. My hope is that soon the words "help me" will be replaced with the words "I did it by myself!"
3. Stop the "evil" and re-direct
When Dr. Montessori coined her famous phrase, "Follow the child", she meant we should follow the child's DEVELOPMENT, not let the child do whatever he pleased. Along with following the child, she also stressed that we should "stop the evil", or put an end to any behavior that is not conducive to positive development.
Zach has started throwing things, mostly when he's frustrated, tired, or can't find the words to express what he wants. The behavior began gradually, so it escaped my over-burdened radar until Zach's guide brought it up. She recommended asking Zach to look me in the eyes, telling him that his behavior is not acceptable, and re-directing him to a different activity.
I've put it into practice at home and it looks something like this: "I notice you're feeling angry because the puzzle pieces won't fit. I won't let you throw puzzle pieces. I'm going to put this puzzle away. Would you like to throw a ball outside or help me wash the dishes in the sink?"
With my words, I'm telling Zach that I understand his feelings and their source. I'm also establishing a limit and letting him know what happens if he oversteps it. And I'm giving him two manageable alternatives: one that will satisfy his need to throw and the other that will provide a calming experience that requires focus and self-control.
I find it useful to have pre-established phrases or prompts so I always know what to say in the heat of the moment. Here's my version:
"I notice you are feeling _________________ because ________________. I won't let you ____________________. I'm going to _______________. Would you like to __________________ or ________________?"
Here's what I've learned this week:
- The preparation of the adult is an on-going journey that requires you to stop, look, and listen - to yourself, your partner, and your child.
- It takes a village to support a parent and raise a child.
- Your child's Montessori guide can provide a clear and objective window into your child's development. Don't be too proud to listen and learn. (And please don't give her the old "Well, do YOU have children?" excuse. You know she's right. Suck it up and do it.)
- Mistakes only become failures if you don't learn from them.
- If you want your child's behavior to change, modify your own first.
And finally, remember this:
“Parenting without a sense of humor is like being an accountant who sucks at math."
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