The beginning of the year is a good time to reflect on how you want to parent. I have chosen to parent my children the Montessori way and maybe you have too, but what does that even mean? There is so much interest and so much more information available and I think that in a way, it has become harder to figure what the true essence of Montessori parenting is. The essence of Montessori Parenting series tries to sift through and drill down on what exactly Montessori Parenting is.
Today’s interview features Zahra Kassam, founder of MontiKids. Zahra will be featured on Shark Tank on Sunday, January 27 at 9/8c. I am excited to watch and hope you’ll tune in too.
Alright, without further a do, grab your tea, juice, water or wine, get comfortable and enjoy!
Tell me a little about yourself.
I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was 10 years old. I studied child psychology at Harvard College, received my Master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and became an internationally certified (AMI) Montessori teacher for children from birth to age six. I thought I would spend my career in the classroom. Then, I became a mother. Between feeling overwhelmed with new motherhood and not being able to find high quality, safe 0-3 Montessori products, I struggled to follow Montessori at home with my own baby. I was inspired to start Monti Kids to help families implement Montessori at home, right from birth, during those most critical early years of a child’s development. Our oldest son, Musa, is now 6 years old and attends a Montessori school outside of San Francisco, California. Our baby boy, Zayd, recently turned one year old and is happily following the Monti Kids program at home.
How did you discover MONTESSORI
When I graduated from Harvard College, many of my friends were going into investment banking or consulting because that was what was expected. I was disillusioned because here we were, having reached the pinnacle of the education system, and yet so many of us had not discovered our purpose, our passion, our gifts. It made me question the goal of education and the way it’s delivered. I told my father about this and he suggested that I visit a Montessori school. My father was involved in bringing Montessori to Kenya (where my family lived for several generations) for the first time in the 1980’s under the leadership of the Aga Khan. When I visited a Montessori school for the first time, I saw three and four-year-olds in flow. As I observed, I could see that at such a young age, they were already developing a sense of purpose and self-direction in their work. They were given the freedom to discover and explore their passions and nurture their unique gifts. That school visit was completely eye opening and I knew then that I wanted to help spread Montessori.
What does Montessori parenting mean to you, and what are some of the ways that you have implemented Montessori at home?
It means giving my children just what I saw in that classroom: tremendous respect to find their own path with gentle guidance from me and a ton of love along the way. Maria Montessori says that work is the child’s love for the environment made visible. Chacha (my 0-3 AMI Montessori trainer and mentor) says that the environment is the adult’s love for the child made visible. Providing a rich environment that helps our children to fulfill their potential is a big part of my Montessori parenting.
I worked really hard to create a rich environment for my older son Musa when he was born. I found it very challenging to find the best materials and keep up with his development. I always felt like I was struggling to catch up with his developmental needs because they changed so quickly. I started Monti Kids to make it easier for families. Now, Monti Kids sends deliveries of Montessori materials every 3 months for Zayd along with videos to remind me when to introduce everything. It is so helpful and makes it much easier for me to make sure his environment is meeting his needs. But of course, a Montessori prepared environment involves not only the physical but also the non-physical. This means having trust and faith in my children’s abilities so I allow them the independence they need to develop. It requires open-minded observation to make sure I am seeing them for who they really are and what they really need as opposed to parenting based on my pre-conceived ideas. I am always trying to make sure our children have a supportive environment in all respects. Sometimes it gets messy, we fall behind, I have bad days, but children are resilient and adaptable so it’s ok not to be perfect!
How did parenting and Montessori parenting change from 1 child to 2?
I’m not going to beat around the bush… it was definitely easier with 1 child! I felt like with my older son, Musa, I was able to completely control his environment. He had only me to model for him how to use his materials, how to clean up and keep things orderly. He didn’t eat any sugar or see a screen until he was 3-years-old (not to say that’s necessary for Montessori parenting but it just shows how much oversight I had!) But now that Musa is six, he is very involved in his baby brother Zayd’s life. When I introduced the Object Permanence Box 1 to Zayd (the one with the ball that disappears into the box and the reappears), I came home to find Zayd chucking the ball across the room because Musa thought it would be fun for them to play catch! Since Musa goes to a Montessori school and is used to mixed age groups, I’ve been talking to him about concepts he’s familiar with like respecting Zayd’s materials and whether he’d like to give Zayd a presentation. I’ve found that everything works better if I involve Musa in preparing Zayd’s environment like helping me rotate materials on and off Zayd’s shelves. If I let Musa watch the Monti Kids demo videos with me so he can present a new activity to Zayd, then he really takes great care over how he models behavior for his baby brother. And even though I don’t have the control I had with just one child, it really is a more beautiful environment now, filled with love from an older sibling which is priceless.
I think your older son is now in the second plane. How has parenting changed from the first plane to the second plane?
Musa is 6 years old and very independent now. Having been in Montessori school since he was a toddler, he has deep interests in a lot of different areas and will spend hours on his own playing basketball, writing a story, drawing or researching animals. It became very obvious when Musa shifted from the first to the second plane of development. The biggest change is how socially aware and interested he has become. A lot of the guidance he needs now is around navigating social relationships and finding ways to meet his social needs. Transitioning from a Montessori Primary to a Montessori Elementary classroom was also a big change. It’s tough for a child to go from being the oldest in the class, the leader, to being the youngest in a new environment. However, I think this aspect of a Montessori education teaches children some important lessons: they learn how to mentor and how to be mentored and they learn to be flexible.
What benefits have you observed in your life/parenting that you would say is a result of Montessori?
I think that my children have a very strong sense of self because they have been raised in a Montessori environment. They are independent, capable and self-assured because their parents and their teachers have trusted their abilities and given them opportunities to exercise them. My children love to learn and while this is pretty commonplace with a one-year-old, it’s so nice to see that my six-year-old has held onto that and actually enjoys going to school, writing stories, and doing math – so much so that he does these in his spare time at home. This love of learning is really priceless because it will serve them for the rest of their lives. In my own life, becoming a Montessorian has helped me to reconnect with my own inner guide – just like we try to preserve that self-direction in our children. In my day-to-day, raising my kids with Montessori has gained me a lot of time because they are each very busy pursuing their own interests and concentrating on their big work – it’s actually very convenient!
What is the most challenging part of being a Montessori parent
John Long, the principal of Post Oak School school in Texas once told me that if you raise your child in a Montessori way, you should be open to the possibility that they could become a lawyer, a rock musician, or anything in between. I truly want my children to find their own path because that is how they will find their happiness and make their best contribution in this world. But if my boys grow up and decide to devote themselves full-time to careers as rock musicians, I’m sure I’ll be worried about them not having stable paychecks. I hope that I’ll still be supportive. Part of the challenge involves respecting our children for who they are as individuals and not viewing them (subconsciously) as an extension of ourselves. This starts young. For example, when a two-year-old dresses themselves and is so proud of their accomplishment but looks ridiculous, we can accept and honor their work or we can change their clothes because we don’t want others to think we dressed them that way. I think if we practice with the little stuff when they’re young, we can handle the bigger stuff as they get older and really allow them to pursue their own unique path of development.
Any tips for new Montessori parents?
As you learn about Montessori for the first time, it can be easy to dwell on the past and what may now seem like mistakes you made. As my trainer Chacha always says, we all did the best we could with the knowledge we had. Forgiving ourselves is very important. Also, I think as we learn about this amazing way of raising children, we tend to hold ourselves to very high standards when it comes to their environments, our relationships with them, and the qualities of their day-to-day experiences. Life is hard and Montessori parenting does not need to be done perfectly to be done well. Please remember to be kind to yourself and give yourself some of that same love that you so freely give your children.
Are you a screen free household? If yes, Is this in following Montessori principles or a personal choice? Has it been hard to stay screen free? What do you do in place of TV? If no, please share with us what screen time looks like in your home.
We kept Musa away from screens until he turned three. Now, he can use an iPad only on airplanes. We have a TV in our house but it’s only used for family movie nights or when Musa and his dad watch basketball games together. My plan is to do the same with Zayd. This is all a personal choice because I have read so much of the research showing the effects of screen time on children’s brains and learning habits. Some teachers say that children today are not as interested in the Montessori work as they were 10 years ago because they are used to being overstimulated with screen time. I also think the epidemic of teenagers addicted to screens and the ensuing depression is very scary – and it all starts from a young age. Musa always finds a way to entertain himself. When he’s a bit bored, he comes up with the best ideas and I think that’s a great learning opportunity for him.
Tell us about Montikids
Monti Kids is the only at-home Montessori subscription designed and safety tested for newborns through toddlers. Every 3 months, our families receive a delivery of authentic Montessori toys, proven by 100+ years of use in classrooms worldwide, but redesigned and manufactured by Monti Kids to meet the highest safety standards. Parents receive short videos in their inbox every two weeks, guiding them through when, how, and why to introduce the materials, how to set up their play area at each stage, and distilling the most valuable child development research at just the right time. Parents also get access to a private community moderated by internationally certified Montessori experts who offer personalized support. I started Monti Kids because 85% of the brain is formed by age three yet this time is ignored by our education system and parents are often left guessing how to support their baby’s development. Now, we have families all over the world using Monti Kids and it’s amazing to hear their stories.
Do you also make materials for older children?
We do not currently make materials for children older than three but when a family graduates from our program, they can still get support from our experts as we are all AMI certified Montessori teachers through age six.
Why do you Montessori?
One of my favorite quotes is “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman) If someone is doing what makes them come alive, they are the best version of themselves, making their best contribution to society. Children already have a strong sense of what makes them come alive. It is the role of education to help them stay connected to that, to help them pursue their interests and to nurture their gifts so they can grow up and fulfill their purpose. This is what Montessori education does. And in this way, it really is a means to building a better world.
Follow Zahra’s via the following links
Thank you so much Zahra!
Did you enjoy that as much as I did!? I loved Zahra’s reminder that Montessori parenting doesn’t have to be done perfectly to be done well. Please join the conversation! What resonated with you? What are your answers to any of the questions above? Leave a comment.