100 BILLION NEURONS

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Today I spent time with some wonderful local parents, discussing appropriate activities for their young children's development. I love this topic - and not least because I get to share my favourite statistic: 100 BILLION! That is the number of brain cells we each start out with at birth! (https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/4356e/) 

The young brain is primed for learning, and it is impossible to stop that from happening. Dr. Montessori called it the Absorbent Mind, and as all Assistant to Infancy and Primary trained guides will tell you, it means that the young child constructs himself out of his experiences. 

The wonderful part is that as caregivers and educators, we have a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility, to decide which experiences the child is exposed to. My goal today was to explain and demonstrate (with a little help from my young friends aged 3 to 7 months) some ways of doing this.

In today's talk, we shared activities that support gross and fine motor development; understanding of object permanence, and language development. We connected and shared stories of our children, and of our paths as parents and supporters of children. Meanwhile, the children themselves sat, rolled and crawled; were breastfed, bottlefed, hugged and cared for; looked at and grabbed hold of various balls, rings and pegs; listened to men and women speaking in different languages and accents; and overall had a grand old time getting friendly with each other! 

I hope to be offering more of these events in the future, for families of children not yet born to around the age of 6 (the First Plane of Development). If you have questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to me here. Please also visit inceptive.org to discover more about the non-profit organisation that I am privileged to be supporting. Thank you - 100 billion times! 

HAPPY VS. MEANINGFUL - FINDING THE WAY

I spent much of my life aiming for happiness, and trying to emulate whomever seemed to have figured it out - my twin sister, my friends, my spiritual guides, you name it. If they looked happier than I felt, I made it my business to be like them. 

 

Looking back, events that were not about being happy specifically, shaped my life in ways that gave it richer meaning and deeper purpose. Those events allowed me to create my identity, and when put back to back, to give my life meaning. And finding meaning is precisely what gives me the sense that I am happy. 

 

I always wanted to be a parent, and just the thought of it made me happy. Yet there were many times when actually being a parent was admittedly the most difficult thing I had ever done. What's more, you can't just throw in the towel and give up. You HAVE to figure it out because you can't walk away. In my earliest days as a parent, and ever since, I have wanted to learn for myself, and share with others, how to live a meaningful life as a parent. It is the most important and most life-changing role I get to play. My Montessori training and practice have definitely allowed me to hone my tools, and the more I learn, the more I see opportunities to go further. 

 

"THE OBSTACLE IS THE WAY",  a book by Ryan Holiday, was very instrumental in identifying strategies for doing just that. Holiday adapts the timeless wisdom of the Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor. He states that while everyone meets obstacles in life, most are discouraged, some push through and a few actually thrive. Thriving - that sounded quite a bit nicer than just being happy, I mused. And intrigued, I set out to discover how. This is what I found:

 

There are three key steps to overcoming obstacles - perfect! A plan right there! I love plans, they simplify everything. No need to reinvent the wheel. 

First - OBSERVATION. It is a Montessori technique that is used in classrooms everywhere, to learn as much as possible about the situation itself. Observation teaches us what can be changed, and if we look carefully we will always find something within our power to change. It is INTELLIGENT. 

Second - ACTION. But not any action - action within discipline, so that we know what we are doing, and can learn and adjust. In fact, this kind of action is in my opinion an ADAPTATION to the situation. We take it into account and weave it into our tapestry of experiences. Humans are hardwired to adapt, so this makes perfect sense, as well as appears doable.

Third - WILL. Cultivate the will to always keep learning, so that no matter the outcome we have made progress. In this way there is always something to be gained. 

 

As it happens, our Montessori training for the first years of life gives us this exact recipe: every experience for the young child under 3 should be an opportunity to integrate the intelligence, movement and the will. This enables the child to develop a template of how to be successful, so that in everyday situations the outcome includes the sense that "I AM CAPABLE". For the adult, seeing a child develop in this way provides not only a sense of awe at the human condition, but also the joy of feeling that we are aiding life, one child at a time. And that is all the meaning I need. 

HELP ME TO DO IT ALONE!

Independence, why it matters, and what to do about it

My daughter Betty learning to surf in Pacific Beach, CA last summer


Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, a contemporary of Dr. Montessori, wrote "The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered."

 

Most if not all parents are confronted sooner or later with a rambunctious youngster who insists on doing things his or her way. The interaction can run the gamut between flat-out refusal to cooperate and the acquiescence of the more complacent child who will appear to accept help, only to undo what was done and redo it his way. 

 

Either way, most children reach a stage when they communicate clearly to us that unnecessary help is in reality a hindrance. While we may have any number of justifications (it is quicker, better, easier done by the adult etc...) it turns out that substituting our activity for the child's is more detrimental than just a missed opportunity.

 

Independence leads to increased academic progress

Dr. Montessori observed children of all social and economic backgrounds who, once they had learned how to care for their environment and their own bodies, spontaneously expressed a "burst into independence" that drove them to do everything they could themselves. These same children, soon afterwards, were seen writing, reading spontaneously, and showing an understanding of mathematics. She connected both phenomena, stating "These very children reveal to us the most vital need of their development, saying "Help me to do it alone!" (From Childhood to Adolescence, p67)

 

Opportunities for independence encourage a growth mindset

 More recently, psychologist Carole Dweck has explained the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and the implications in terms of resilience and achievement. Providing a young child with opportunities to do things herself can encourage her to put forth effort and creativity in order to problem solve, rather than to give and or ask for help. The growth mindset is a strong indicator of success: those who believe that they can impact their learning, by challenging themselves, systematically do better and are driven to continue learning (Mindset - the New Psychology of Success, 2007).

 

 

Independence and sense of self

The link between independence and achievement is taken one step further by Madeline Levine, who explains that when we do for our child what he can do for himself, we rob him not only of the experience, but more importantly of the opportunity to construct his sense of self as a capable individual. She writes "While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood; to develop a robust sense of self" (Raising Successful Children, New York Times, 2012).

 

What to do about it

I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about education (in the largest sense of living or working with children in ways that best support development) and how to encourage parents to make informed choices. It seems that in the case of independence, many informed parents know that it is better when their child takes the initiative. But what precisely can they do to effect change in their households? There are three main ingredients that we Montessorians implement in the classroom and the home - we talk of preparing the environment, giving a presentation and allowing for uninterrupted time to work. 

For more details, see http://aidtolife.org/independence/independence.htm

 

These three ingredients will give your child the tools to be successful and experience the joy of knowing he did it alone. And you will experience the joy of knowing that you participated in your child's achievement while supporting the healthy development of both his ability to problem solve and a stronger sense of self. It's a win-win! 

 

Below are some specific tips in the key areas of daily life.

Steps to supporting independence at home - 10 things you can do

Dressing: 

1. Offer clothing that allows independence - pull-on clothes, elastic waists, velcro and snaps.

2. Provide accessible storage of clean clothes and a dirty clothes hamper

3. Provide a low mirror and a brush and comb 

 

Eating:

4. Place tableware in a low cabinet

5. Use breakable objects and show how to clean up breakages that occur

6. Provide opportunities for the child to assist with food preparation and clean up

 

Toileting:

7. Provide a small toilet chair so that the child feels secure

8. Provide a step-stool to access the sink

 

Sleeping:

9. Use a floor bed or low bed that the child can access independently, and activities for use when awake.

10. Create a bedtime routine that supports slowly winding down


The joys and benefits of raising an independent child are infinite. When we realise that the personal feelings of taking the passenger seat are not only immensely beneficial to our child, but in the long run immensely beneficial to ourselves, stepping back becomes easier, and can gradually develop into our practice as parents.


"When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself".  Jean Piaget

Françoise Sansoni is a happy parent of Eliott and Betty, and a trained Montessori Guide. She hopes that her blog posts will connect parents and children everywhere, so that we may thrive, together. 

BEING, TOGETHER: THE EMPATHIC CONNECTION

My son Eliott and I have a shared saying, one that describes my connection to him in the dance of life. I'll look at him and say "You made me the mother I am" - and our eyes make contact, we both smile, and I exhale. (You know the feeling, right?) At each stage of development, life has given us opportunities to be, as individuals as well as together: mother and infant, mother and child, mother and adolescent, mother and adult. The music changes but the dance continues.

We all have ideas about who we will be as a parent: loving, gentle, always happy; strong, always right; disciplined, in control; our child's best friend... and these labels fall off like scales as we shed the skin of the imagined parent and realise that we are not that. This process can take years, and it can happen in an instant, it all depends on our journey. As in other areas of life, when the mask comes down we really get to experience what I call the nuggets of this precious human existence. They make up the moments when I feel truly alive, truly me and at the same time truly in relation. This feeling is what I understand to be empathy.

In reality, being a parent is by essence a fluid experience, always transforming. We discover with time that the Dance of Being is a perpetual motion, a swinging pendulum of connecting and letting go; which one of my very wise Montessori trainers explained as Separation and Attachment. 

When you think about human life from a physical / biological standpoint, it is set in motion when a sperm cell separates from the body of the male and attaches to the ovum which has separated from the ovary of the female. The newly-formed cell then goes on through a sequence of separations and attachments, eventually (if each stage is healthy) forming an embryo that develops during pregnancy into the newborn child, separating from the mother's body at birth.

From then, the dance of this unique relation continues. Weaning, crawling, walking, driving, leaving home, life. Each of these milestones occurs when the child must find different conditions in order to live, develop and thrive. Each time both parent and child let go in order to re-attach in a different way. In my imagination I see a circus act, when the flying trapeze artist releases the hands of the catcher, pirouettes fiercely in the air while the audience holds its breath, and then - drumroll please - reconnects with the catcher, to the relieved applause of all. The parent also releases the child's hands, giving her the signal that she is free to go, and yet remains attentive and ready to catch her again when she returns. We learn by doing, and trust by trusting. I recall a moment of truth when I realised that my ability to see my son leave for college without my getting upset, was directly related to our having negotiated the previous separations in healthy ways. 

The dance of the empathic connection provides everything the child needs, to become a complete human being. But it also provides everything the parent needs, to experience the joy that comes from knowing we are partners in the dance of life. The beat may change, some tunes we don't even recognise, but the dance goes on, and so do we.

Françoise Sansoni is a happy parent of Eliott and Betty and a trained Montessori Guide. She hopes that her blog posts will connect parents and children everywhere, so that we may thrive, together.