Sunday, January 22, 2012


In my recent post "Montessori was right" I have mentioned how important it is to allow children to take part in our life for real, not just with plastic toys in their room. And while I'm convinced of the amazing and wonderful work of Maria Montessori and agree with what Nicole from Montessori School of Mount Pleasant and Little Learners Lodge wrote in her recent post I do think that at the age 0-3 the Pikler or RIE principles are much more valuable.

When I first heard about Montessori and Pikler I thought "Now what's actually the difference between their approaches?" and found out that Montessori mainly focused on the age group 3-6 (The Children's House) and Pikler on the age group 0-3. Then I discovered some writings and information on Montessori's thoughts on the very young infant e.g. the book "Montessori from the start" and with Leander attending a Montessori creche I figured that - in the end - both women had very similar approaches. I still believe that to be true, but I have found a few Montessori ideas to lead in the "wrong" direction.

The material
Montessori is especially known for her own special materials she has thought through and developed with a lot of experiences in mind. With most of these materials she is aiming for some skills to be achieved, sometimes in various steps, sometimes straight away. A few materials are self explaining, a few need demonstrations to the child from a teacher or caregiver. I do believe that especially at the age 0-2 this is just not necessary and partly even obstructive.
According to RIE principles what we want to "teach" a child is to be free to choose whatever he wants to play (with). Until a child can speak it is - in my opinion - much better if all the toys or materials are open (as Pikler called it), so no didactic background, no skills needed or to be achieved. Simply playing and having fun. Montessori actually said "Children can not not learn." So why go and place materails in their reach that need demonstration?
Of course it took me a while to come to that thought and I have been there myself letting Leander pour water from one jug into another or shovel beans from one bowl into the next. Of course I had to show him, if I'd only placed two jugs on a tray on the shelf he would not have known what to do with it. And of course he enjoyed it. A lot. But it was not HIS decision to play with that. It was me who asked him to, who showed him how to do it and who watched him the whole time. At this very young age (he was 18 months old) this is just not necessary. Even now (he is almost 22 months old) he is happy playing with toys that don't need explanation. He loves cars, books and small toy animals he shows to us waiting for us to say what it is. He is developing his speech more than anything at the moment, what does he need to shovel beans for?
He does learn how to use a spoon simply by using one for his meals every single day.

Another problem is that at this age children still take a lot of things into their mouth, they throw things (oh dear, when will it stop?) and they drop things on purpose (discovering physics). If you are happy collecting beans, whiping the floor, changing clothes and fishing little things out of your child's little mouth you are welcome to offer those materials. I for myself have found it too stressful for all of us.

As mentioned before - at this age children want to take part in the household and they are very proud if they are allowed. Dusting, hoovering, helping with the laundry etc. It is all great and I can only recommend it. But the cooking - which is a great part in Montessori houses - I would postpone. It again has some aim - a proper meal. With the laundry or the dishes I don't mind if he replaces them, if he carries them around or places a cup on his head. When he hoovers he enjoys switching the hoover on and off more than actually hoovering. All fine. But when it comes to food I'm quite strict. I don't want it to be thrown, I don't want it to be wasted but I also don't want to cook a proper meal and a fake meal. So there will be so many "rules" that again I find it too much and too difficult for a child that age.Keep it simple and don't make a great effort of a simple daily task that in the end will actually have nothing to do with the task itself anymore.

Potty training
I know from the creche Leander attends that the Montessori approach is very much aiming for the independence of a child. But it goes that far that potty training is something they are quite keen on because obviously it helps with the self dependence. But this is not a skill you can practice day in day out. It is a physical development that takes time. For some children more than for others and I believe that no pressure here will lead to way more success than anything else.

Montessori suggests giving your child a floor bed rather than a cot as he can choose when to go to sleep and can easily climb in and out himself. Again the self dependence is the great goal behind this idea. And while I have to admit that a big bed can be very helpful and relaxing for the whole family I do believe that a child
a) needs a cozy and secure boundary around himself and
b) will not go to bed and stay there all by himself until he is sound asleep. Life is just too exciting at this age to simply lay down and sleep.
We have exchanged Leander's cot with a bunk bed where he has the mattress basically under the bed with curtains around and the actual bed is used as a big changing table. It is very very cozy, he loves it and it has proven very helpful at nights when Leander is ill or just can't get back to sleep. Because that way we simply lay down next to him and sometimes even sleep in his bed with him for a while. The down part is that he is NEVER falling asleep on his own in the evening. We have to stay with him until he is in dreamland otherwise he will just follow us back to the living room all the time. So although he might say "Brush" when he gets tired and wants to brush his teeth in order to go to bed he still wouldn't just doze off all by himself. And I have to say: That's okay! He is not even 2 years old, he needs us and we're there. So the floorbed is great if you enjoy cuddle times with your child in the evening but not with the expectation of a tired child just laying down for the night all by himself.

In general, what I do believe to be the "problem" with the Montessori pedagogy for the agegroup 0-3 is that the independence is this great expectation in the back. Every toy, every material seems to have an achievement in its description.
Especially at this age children and most parents have all the time in the world. Nobody should be rushing them, no milestone should be more important than the joy and happiness of an exploring child.

Why is my son in a Montessori creche then? By no means I am meaning to criticise the creche Leander is attending. Of all places I could leave him while I simply have to work this is the best I can think of. As I said - Montessori has a similar approach in mind - and after all the children in this creche have a lot of time for "free play" and are treated with a lot of respect. Compared to many other creches where the children are entertained all day I am very happy with the place I leave my boy in in the mornings.

I just believe that if you've got a choice or if you are at home with your child for the first few years focusing on the RIE principles rather than expensive Montessori material can be much more valuable.

Friday, January 20, 2012


This evening I had a meeting within our housing project. I had to take Leander to the office because his father came to pick him up there on his way home from work. While I was preparing the flipcharts and the To do list in the meeting room, Leander made himself busy in the kitchen. Usually I would run after him and carefully watch what he was doing. Today I just took all the knives out of the drawer and placed them out of reach. Then I did what I had to do and Leander did what he felt like doing.

Since I am recently doing the Montessori children's house teacher training I am aware of the joy and excitement children bring along for all sorts of housework. Basically everything they see us doing. They want to be part of our world and society. So they don't just copy us in their play, they want to take part in the REAL world. And it is our job to LET THEM (in a safe environment).
This does not mean placing plastic cups and cutlery and knitted fruits in their reach. It means to trust them and allow them to experience with the real stuff.

I have been really keen but also a bit scared with that myself. I bought Leander glass bottles from the beginning (until I learned that he would refuse any type of bottle or drinking item that is not the breast). He learned drinking in a plastic cup called the "Doidy Cup" because it was THE ONLY thing he would accept when he started eating and needed to take in a bit more fluids. After that he was allowed to drink from glasses, ceramic cups and eat from ceramic plates with stainless steel spoons and forks. So far he broke one plate in two halfs so we could glue it back together (because it is a plate from me when I was little and I love it) and the handle of one cup. I was almost hoping there would be more damage in the cup section as we have too many anyway.
It took me a while to empty the dish washer with Leander around because as soon as he sees the machine open he comes running over reaching me every single glass, cup, plate and spoon. He loves to help and he is so careful that so far nothing happened. It's in our heads and once it's there - it happens. But even if it did - don't we ever drop any plates by accident?
If we keep taking things out of their little but careful hands the minute they grab them we take chances and opportunities from them to learn, to experience and to practise. And at the age of 14 we might shout at them for not being independent and careful.

So here is what Leander felt like doing and although I didn't need him to because we had a meeting planned and not a dinner I couldn't help but watch (and film):

Unfortunately I stopped too early but here is a picture of him a little later with a pizza plate that is almost as big as himself in his hands:

Montessori once said something like "If we give them precious material to work (play) with the children will feel precious too." Without words, hugs or kisses. And I think I have seen the living proof of that today.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Recently I haven't been the most patient person in the world. The little man was ill, then I was ill and we all were sneezing into each other's directions too often, annoying the other one until the situation became highly explosive. And this is what happened. I did explode quite a few times until one evening I was lying in the arms of my husband crying about me being such a bad mother.

I'm not. I know. I care a lot about my son and I love him all the way to the moon and back (and even further). I want him to know that and to be sure of that. All the time. And this is the hard part. No matter how often we tell our children how much we love them, how often we kiss them and stroke their wonderful little heads. It is not all.

Think about it. When your partner tells you that he loves you every day, over and over again you might enjoy it, but at some point it becomes a phrase rather than a moment that makes your heart jump. It's the other things, that make you realise that (s)he loves you. And it can't be said what it is. Because every person is different, every relationship sailing on a different sea. And so it is with children. There is no "you have to carry your child all the time!" or "You have to breastfeed as long as possible." It all depends on the child too and what it really needs and wants and what YOU need and want.

So this is our path. Always trying to figure out where our child leads us and where we are willing to follow. What's possible and what's a NO!go (that might result in a mad tantrum). But even that is not the same every day. Today I might be willing to flip through "Goodnight Gorilla" about a 500 times after we've already been through the caterpillar and the crazy cat with that hat and the Curious George collection. Tomorrow I might be tired after a couple of books because I've had a rough day, the kitchen looks like a bulldozer has just lost track and the washing is waiting for a few rounds in the machine. Then this isn't the moment to be super mommy and loving by continuing to read and flip and... not enjoying it. Because the little person is not that stupid. It is not stupid at all!

Leander is really good in sensing these moments. While sitting on my lap with his back to me he turns his head around looking at me like "Mom, are you still there?". I'm real if I'm saying "No honey, you know I'm really busy and I will look at more books with you when I've done all this and my head is clear." This might not be followed by a happy "Hooray yeah that's ok mom!" but this is exactly the situation our children have to learn to deal with. And they are capable if we allow these situations to happen from the very beginning. AND: if we allow them to appear mind- and respectful. Which is an even harder problem especially when patience has been swiped with a cloth full of headache and flue bacteria. In these moments we tend to say things a little louder and in a much more accusing voice. "No Leander, I'm sick of flipping through those books over and over again. You can look at them all by yourself anyway! Give me just ONE minute please, will you?"
Why am I accusing him like that, he's done nothing but being there having fun with me and all of a sudden I'm turning into monster mommy. So how did this happen?

Well, most of the times it actually adds up bit by bit, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. And we might feel it or not. And then the moment comes when it's just too much. The trick is to step out of the situation just BEFORE that moment kicks in and the you-phrases begin to pop out of our head. I know it's not easy but raising children simply isn't. And while we have to be very aware and present to get to know them we have to be aware and present with ourselves too. Usually we aren't. There is too much going on and we're focusing on the wrong things. Stop that and listen. Listen to yourself, get to know yourself so you can make sure your child can get to know you too. Because this is what he wants - knowing who this person is he is loving unconditionally.

Having thought about this and written about it I am surely not super mommy myself all of a sudden. But I'm a little step closer. Because in the end super mommy does not exist. But a wonderful neverending way up aiming to become one does.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Leander wasn't the fastest in his gross motor development. He took his time crawling, sitting up, standing and walking. But whenever he achieved one of those steps he enjoyed it A LOT. So it was only clear to me that once he could walk I would let him do so as much as possible. Which - as it turned out - isn't that easy and natural when you live in a city with a child who LOVES cars and is not interested in playgrounds or parks.

We have the Prater in Vienna, partly an amusement park with the famous Ferris Wheel and behind that a huge green park with a big wide alley running through it. The alley is closed to traffic except police cars and garbage trucks. It is THE place to be for runners, walkers, parents with prams, cyclists and Segways (some weird electronic vehicles). So I thought this was the best compromise to my son. No boring green park with only trees and grass but no main road with too much traffic either. What I did not expect was that he would not be interested in walking ALONG the alley but preferred CROSSING the alley. With a stroller and a bag it was quite a hassle to stop him from being run over by cyclists or the occasional garbage truck. I got frustrated. All parents (so it seemd) would sit in parks or on playgrounds with their children playing happily in the sand pit or the grass. Which is always greener on the other side and I know I wasn't right there.

My last idea turned out to be the greatest solution of all: Our house is on quite a big road but the next left or right turn leads us into very small roads with loads of cars parked and just a few cars driving past every now and then. I told Leander to hold my hand until we would turn into the small side roads and then I let him lead. And this was it. We would walk around for hours but never get much further away from home than 200m. In that area he could watch cars, touch cars and - the most exciting bit of all - cross roads. Here I had made the one and only rule: Whenever we would cross a road he would HAVE TO hold my hand. He did not like that but I was clear and strict about it and without really knowing the reason behind he got that I meant it. It wasn't as easy as it sounds though.
The first few days and weeks we would have the occasional screaming child lying in the middle of a junction. He sometimes just let go off my hand while we were crossing and would not - under no cicrumstances - move. In these moments I picked him up and - while he was screaming and trying to get down - explained to him why I now had to sit him back into his stroller. After such moments I then pictured those relaxed parents on the playground again... I had doubts if I expected too much of him but what could I do - force him to be happy on the playground?

During that time I had my first block of my Pikler training course. I learned that in the orphanage in Budapest the children who could walk were allowed out with a nurse and had the exact same rule - to hold hands when crossing roads. And if they didn't they were told that they COULD go back to the house. It was a matter of words. They didn't HAVE TO go back to the house, they COULD. Because they saw that the child didn't do it on purpose to annoy the nurse, they were just too overwhelmed or too tired for this situation in this very moment. So they got the possibility to go back to a safe place and play.I started using that wording too and it worked so well that sometimes when I told Leander "I need you to hold my hand now, if you can't do it you may go back into your stroller." he would nod. I learned that he in fact was too tired most of the times. The first few junctions he would hold my hand but after a while concentration was gone, it was all too much and he needed a break.

Still this was the best that could happen to him. He now walks a lot. I gave him a little toy car on a string and a wooden duck on a string and he always pulls one of them behind. These are our afternoons. We walk around the area, along the shops week for week a little further. Before we reach a junction he already stretches his arm out to one of us. The other day Jan just crossed a very quiet road without noticing Leander's hand so Leander stopped and shouted after his dad. He knows the rule and he takes it serious.

We get a lot of smiles from the people who pass us. It is a rare picture to see such a small child walking on his own (and pulling a duck or a truck) behind him. I understand that it looks dangerous with all the traffic around. But if we trust our children and allow them to learn the rules as much as we allow them to rest we might be surprised of how capable they are. I know children are different but it is worth a try before we just go ahead and push our children in strollers from playground to playground.Because it's not just that this way Leander gets enough exercise in order to enjoy a good nights sleep and a brighter day to follow. It's also that HE gets to choose where we go most of the time and you can tell how much he enjoys that when he points at a road and I agree to follow his lead. Sometimes I even think of different routes to the same destination (supermarket, subway station, home etc.) so even if he can't choose freely which way we go - he still has a choice. This may sound like a bit of a hassle for me but it isn't. I enjoy just leaving the house not knowing where we'll end up. And I believe that this way we have fewer arguments of which way we go because even if I have to decide "I need you to sit in the stroller for now, we need to be quick." (e.g. In the mornings) I can still add "But in the afternoon (or tomorrow) you'll get to choose again." And believe it or not, even if he does not like it, most of the time he nods and is fine with it. It's all about wording, explaining while respecting his feelings.

When I pick Leander up from the creche he asks for his "Pieps" immediately. It is his duck and he takes it and walks off. At the gate I used to stop and put him into the stroller because from the garden we go straight across the road to the subway station, up the elevator to the platform. One day I decided to let him walk those few metres. He took my hand, we crossed the street and in the station he let go and turned left straight for the elevator. Standing in the elevator moving up he smiled and laughed so much - as if to be free and grown up. Those are priceless moments I don't want to miss.