This is the third interview in the Exploring the Essence of Montessori Parenting series. Today’s interview is with a dear friend and someone I consider my Montessori godmother. I first got in contact with Pilar when I discovered Montessori and was trying to figure out my training options. She guided me and has walked with me through each stage for the last 5 years! There is SO much wisdom (the kind that only comes from experience) in this post so do yourself a favor, grab a drink, get comfortable, take your time and enjoy!
Without further a do, Meet Pilar!
Tell me a little about yourself.
I’m currently a SAHM to a 4-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl, and I’m getting ready to go back to work as an Upper Elementary guide. I’m trained through AMI to work with children from ages 3 through 12, hold a M. Ed. in Montessori Education, and before choosing the Montessori career path I worked as a trainer and entrepreneur in the tourism industry for almost 10 years. I love learning new languages, traveling to new places, writing, and reading human development books.
How did you discover MONTESSORI?
I was a Montessori child through the third grade, so you might say that it was my mom who discovered Montessori, not me. She learned about it through a series of child psychology courses she took when I was a young child. Montessori didn’t make its way back into my life until I was 30 years old, though. I owned a successful wedding planning company but wanted to pursue a more spiritual career path. I meditated on my life journey and a voice told me, “You need to work with children.” My sister-in-law was a Montessori guide, and my then-boyfriend (now husband) suggested that maybe Montessori might be the key to what that voice was telling me to do. It turned out that the AMI training center was two blocks from my husband’s house, so I moved in with him and started my Primary training. It transformed my life and fulfilled my spirit like nothing had before.
How has growing up as a Montessori child impacted your life until now?
We moved a lot when I was little, and I went to three Montessori schools in two countries. These schools provided a level of consistency (same materials, same lessons, same expectations) that allowed me to adapt easily to my new surroundings. When I transferred to public school, I always enjoyed learning and had great work habits. As an adult, I think Montessori has given me a spirit of discovery. I’m always open to new experiences and challenges, and if I make mistakes I get back up and try again. And of course, having such wonderful experiences as a Montessori child led me to become a Montessori guide, as a way of “paying forward” the opportunities I was given.
OK let’s talk about Montessori parenting – how old are your children?
Zachary is 4.5 and Nadia is 14 months.
What does Montessori parenting mean to you, and what are some of the ways that you have implemented Montessori in your family?
Montessori parenting means letting my children discover their own path, abilities, and potential, and trying really hard not to impose my expectations or childhood experiences on them. It means being really REALLY patient, with things like spills, but also with behaviors, and reminding myself that home is a safe place for them to develop and practice social and emotional skills. It means constantly assessing my home to make it accessible and safe for them because they live in it, too. It means setting and upholding limits with firmness and lots of love, even if it makes more work for me. It means educating and involving my husband, who wasn’t raised with Montessori. It means reflecting on the impact of my words and actions, and trying to be a more peaceful and centered human being every day. And it means often going against mainstream society and being at peace with that. For me, Montessori is a way of life, really the only one that I know.
Functionally, some of the things we’ve done to implement Montessori at home have been choices like investing in a Tripp-Trapp chair for each child, turning our living room into their activity area (so their bedrooms can be peaceful and free of toys), trying to keep clutter down to a minimum in a very small home (so challenging!), building a weaning table & chair and a learning tower (all the credit goes to my husband and sister-in-law for that!), providing stools in the bathroom, placing the silverware in a low drawer for easy access, etc.
- I love this functional use of the bar!
We use floor beds instead of cribs, which actually requires a big commitment because you can’t just put your baby in a crib and leave him there – you have to respect his independence and adjust to his changing sleep patterns and motor skills. We also practiced early toileting awareness with Zachary, which required a lot of preparation, patience, and a sense of humor. We use real china, silverware and glasses for meals, which sometimes leads to spills and breaks.
Montessori is not just about the external environment, but also about freedom, limits, and interdependence. We allow our children to experience natural and logical positive and negative consequences (instead of using arbitrary punishments or rewards). We try to set clear limits with positive phrasing. We establish routines that help them become self-reliant and take fighting out of the equation, and we encourage them to help out around the house (i.e. wiping the table, putting toys/clothes away, clearing their dishes, etc.)
Montessori is also about developing a culture of peace. Peace starts from birth, which is why I chose to birth both of my babies at home (birth story 1 and 2), letting them set the pace for their arrivals. Peace means establishing a close, secure bond between mom and baby by respecting the symbiotic period of the first 10 weeks of life, doing lots of skin-to-skin, nursing on demand, co-sleeping, limiting visits from guests, etc. Peace means honoring feelings and keeping children company while they cry or feel angry, no matter what nasty feelings their behavior stirs inside you. Peace means trying to keep the violence of pop culture and media out of our home by strongly limiting screen exposure and making careful toy selections.
How has parenting changed from the infant stage to the toddler stage and then to the young child stage?
I’m not a big fan of the infant stage, to tell you the truth. To me, that’s the most challenging parenting stage because the child depends on the parent for everything, 24/7, and that can be overwhelming for me because I need my space (and sleep). The most important aspect of parenting an infant, in my view, is to prepare the environment so they can spend time working on their self-development (motor skills, senses, etc.) giving the parent time to observe. Observation leads to trust, which is the foundation for a positive relationship between the child and parent.
When babies become toddlers, I was suddenly faced with having to establish limits that I never had to think about before. And because toddlers only learn through experience, I not only had to establish the limits but I had to uphold them over and over and over again. I also realized that they are suddenly very capable individuals, and that they want to do all the things they see me doing, like brushing hair, drinking from a cup, and using silverware. I had to be ready to give them the freedom to try out their new abilities, and again, this is where that foundation of trust really becomes important. I also remember that “No” was Zachary’s favorite word for a long time. When I asked him if he wanted water, he would automatically say, “No… I want water.” He said “no” for everything! It took me a long time to understand that this meant he was starting to develop his own identity, to become a separate entity in his mind.
Around the age of 3, I discovered that our Zach was a little different than before: more aware of the world around him, more capable of communicating intelligent thoughts, and more interested in using the skills he’s spent the first three years perfecting. I needed a lot of patience during this stage, because young children want to do everything by themselves, and that can take a long, long time. I cringe at the thought of being late, so I had to remind myself to prompt Zachary to start getting ready 30 minutes before it was time to leave, so I wouldn’t put undue pressure on him. This has also been my favorite stage thus far, because his vocabulary has provided a window into his mind and soul that wasn’t available before.
Now that Nadia is transitioning from the infant to the toddler stage, it’s a hundred times easier to navigate because I know what to expect and I know that any particular challenge is only temporary and is age-related and will disappear with maturity if I take care to navigate the situation with awareness and respect.
How did Montessori parenting change for you from 1 child to 2?
I had to change my expectations of what everyone in the family could and should be doing, especially during the newborn stage. We slowed waaaaay down. I had to let my husband do more of the parenting, even if I didn’t agree with all his choices (and even if he didn’t feel comfortable taking on the responsibility). I educated myself on how to help my son adjust to life with a sibling, and I worked with him on how to take a toy from his sister, how to ask for help if she took a toy from him, how to play independently if I was putting the baby down for a nap, what to do if she pulled his hair, etc. The best part of going from one to two children was that it gave my son more room to grow because I was busy with the baby. He began to play more independently, became more helpful, and developed more patience. In the Montessori classroom, children develop interdependence and independence because the teacher is always busy giving lessons. And the same applies at home: the busier the mom is, the more capable the older child becomes.
I also had to find a balance between keeping Zachary involved in the cooking activities he was used to doing, while trying to expedite the process to get things done. So, instead of leisurely baking muffins together, I try to give one specific task to Zach during meal prep, so he knows he’s contributed but I also get dinner on the table efficiently. I know that when they’re a little older and more independent, we’ll have more time to go back to elaborate meal preparation. I keep telling myself: “It won’t always be this crazy.” I hope it’s true. J
How do you foster your children’s sibling relationship?
The most important thing I did when Nadia was born was acknowledge all of Zachary’s “negative” feelings towards his sister and his new situation. If he said, “I don’t want Nadia to be in our family,” I would reply: “I hear you, sometimes you wish you could have mom and dad all to yourself. It’s hard to share your parents with someone!”. I also gave him positive outlets for his frustrations (like going outside to throw pinecones) and tried to carve out special time to spend one-on-one.
I established clear limits and did role play with him on how to take a toy from her, caress her head, etc. He loved to do these role play sessions and pretend he’s the baby and I’m Zachary! Now that Nadia is a young toddler, she’s complaining more if there’s a perceived injustice (like if he takes a toy from her). Instead of jumping in to fix the problem, I’ll ask Zachary: “If Nadia could talk, what do you think she would be saying?” This has been AWESOME for developing empathy and mindsight.
I also say positive things to Nadia about Zachary when he’s done something helpful, like: “Nadia, you have a brother who knows how wait patiently!” It helps Nadia feel engaged in the conversation and develop language skills, while it highlights for Zachary what he’s doing that’s helpful.
Zach loves to be “the teacher”, so I often ask him to give Nadia a lesson on how to use a new toy, or point out how she learned to do something (like use a fork) by watching him.
How have you modified your spaces or methods to support each child where they are?
Something that’s worked really well is creating a gated “special area” (Zach’s term) just for Zachary within their play area, where he can keep his Legos and other small toys. This way, Nadia has freedom of movement throughout the house, I don’t have to freak out about her choking on a Lego, and Zachary can have some breathing space when he doesn’t want his little sister taking his toys or jumping on him. If he doesn’t want to share a toy, I just say: “If you don’t want your sister to touch it, you can go play with it in your special area.” It’s a tiny area, just barely enough room for his Lego boxes, table, and sitting space on the floor, but it’s worked beautifully!
The biggest change I’ve made to my methods or beliefs has been co-sleeping. I was adamantly against co-sleeping past the newborn stage for many reasons (many Montessorians are). And yet, during several stages of our children’s lives, co-sleeping has been the most respectful and supportive solution to whatever our children were struggling with. We don’t co-sleep indefinitely, only during periods where our children need more support (like when they are having separation anxiety or nightmares). Because they use floor beds, my husband and I take turns sleeping with them in their bed. This way, when the difficult stage is passing, we can wean them off our presence without making them feel like we’re kicking them out of our room
You homeschooled for a while, what, if any are the differences between Montessori homeschooling and parenting a child in a Montessori school?
We had a brief homeschooling stint, about 5 months in all. It’s very different from working with children in a classroom because so many factors are absent that allow Montessori to be successful! In a homeschool setting, it can be harder to get a child to put work away because they know nobody is waiting to use it. They don’t get the chance to learn from watching other children work, or from watching the older children’s behaviors. The social cohesion that Maria Montessori talks about is absent in a homeschool environment. Plus, it’s virtually impossible to provide at home all the materials that are available in the classroom.
In my view, Montessori homeschooling has to look more like “unschooling”, in which the entire day flows around the child’s interests and developmental needs. There’s more of a rhythm than a routine. On the plus side, homeschooling allows more time for practical life activities: we did lots of cooking, baking, gardening, and were able to support Zachary’s toilet independence at a point in his life where he had been struggling with it at school. Homeschooling also provides more opportunities for developing emotional literacy, because the parent has more time to help the child work through frustrations and provide the language of feelings. And of course, when you homeschool, you can visit museums, libraries, and exhibits when everyone else is in school!
What is the best part of being a Montessori parent?
The best part of being a Montessori parent is watching my children interact with each other, and with other people, with grace, dignity, and respect (for others and for themselves). It is when Zachary patiently waits while an ant (who has entered our home) crawls onto his finger, and then carries it outside to place it in the dirt. It is when Nadia beams every time she reaches a new level of independence. It is knowing that I am raising two agents of peace who know they are capable of effecting change.
What is the most challenging part of being a Montessori parent?
The most challenging part of being a Montessori parent is, well, everything about Montessori. Montessori parenting is parenting without shortcuts. It’s a challenge to keep the toys under control; to stay patient after the fifth spill of the day; to remain firm and kind in the face of yet another tantrum.
It’s also challenging to go against the grain of mainstream parenting: to protect my children from media violence; to explain to them why the adult at the playground lied to her child or hit him; and to find friendships (for my kids and for me) that support our parenting choices.
But the most challenging part of Montessori parenting, in my opinion, is the self-analysis, what Dr. Montessori called the preparation of the adult. We carry our own baggage into parenting, and in the heat of the moment we sometimes react from a place of fear, instead of responding from a place of love. To make a parenting mistake, and have the courage to analyze what went wrong, the knowledge to choose a different approach for the future, and the awareness to actually implement it… That is the challenge and beauty of Montessori parenting.
What tips would you give new Montessori parents?
Put down the hot glue gun, stop buying “educational toys”, and start observing your child. Montessori is, at its core, about understanding the different phases of a human being’s development and knowing how to support them. All the cutesy crafts and wooden toys in the world won’t do your child a lick of good if you don’t know what they need (and might even impede their development).
Tip #1: Learn about the sensitive periods and human tendencies (Nduoma provides an excellent course!). Then, take a paper and pencil and while you observe your child playing or eating, write down which characteristics you see from what you learned. Finally, think about how you can make little change around your home to let your child have more of these experiences. So, for example, if your one-year-old really wants to practice walking (sensitive period for movement), then instead of sticking her in the stroller and walking around your neighborhood, take her to the park and let her push a cart.
Tip #2: Dr. Montessori’s books can be confusing or overwhelming unless you’re familiar with Montessori jargon. If you really want to try your hand at a Montessori book, start with “The Child in the Family”, which Dr. Montessori wrote for parents. Take time to unpack each of Dr. Montessori’s ideas and really think about how you can apply them to your child’s experience at home. If you know someone who’s a Montessori teacher, don’t be afraid to ask questions. We Montessori nerds LOVE to talk about our craft!
Tip #3: Start “living” Montessori. Montessori is a way of supporting the development of life, and life is going on all the time. Montessori is when you give your child five minutes to put on their shoes by themselves because they asked to, instead of saying “It’s just easier if I help you.” It is encouraging your child to cook with you, even though it will take twice as long and be three times as messy. It is starting toilet learning when your child shows interest, even if you aren’t emotionally ready for the commitment.
Please share some of your Montessori spaces if you have any
Finally, why do you Montessori?
I Montessori because as a Montessori guide, I have seen amazing – almost unbelievable – changes in even the most traumatized little children when they are treated with dignity and supported in their development. I Montessori because it gives me the privilege of having a window into the minds and souls of the most pure and unblemished human beings, our children. I Montessori because it’s how I contribute to making the world a kinder, more peaceful, and more loving place.
Thank you so much Pilar!
Did you enjoy that as much as I did!? I loved the insights to parenting siblings as well as the tips for new Montessori parents. Please join the conversation! What resonated with you? What are your answers to any of the questions above? Leave a comment.