Montessori in the Wild: Parenting in Unpredictable Circumstances
For many children, this is a time of new spaces, the school year ending and a list of new summer camps or travel to take its place. And while nostalgia might suggest that these are relaxing days for families, with images of backyard lightning bug parties and fun days at the beach, in truth, the summer months are often far more challenging than we hope they'll be. Remember these hints to make the special events of summer a little more child-friendly:
Don't expect predictable behavior in unpredictable circumstances: Your child, navigating a new schedule, new friends and new environments, is likely to have a number of new stimuli to navigate. They may have a new route to camp in the morning, new teachers or counselors, and new peers to get to know. As adults, we think of these programs- swim class and days at the lake, sports camps and art programs- as benefits, "fun" activities for children who we presume to be as excited about them as we would be if someone told us we didn't have to go to work for three months. For children, though, remember that the Montessori classroom isn't a "have-to" environment for them. It's the place that has been designed specifically for them, and it lacks the "necessary evil" quality that is often associated with traditional school. Camp programs and summer adventures, then, may be exciting and fun, but they may also be scary and unsettling. Have patience, parents: you might look forward to a week at a special camp to learn to put on a play, but for your preschooler or elementary student, who thrive on predictability and routine, there may be more anxiety than anticipation. Talk it through and help your child to feel like they understand what will be expected of them, that they have had a chance to imagine and ask questions before the first day, and that you understand that, even when you're looking forward to something, those butterflies might dance a little bit in your tummy nonetheless.
Involve your child in preparing for these programs. Go through any preparation materials or checklists your summer programs have provided, and let your child make choices about what they'd like to bring. The younger the child, the fewer the options. But whether you're letting your preschooler choose between their blue swimsuit or their green, or your letting your Middle Schooler pack their bags completely independently, having a say in getting ready is critical. With so many things changing, you might expect your child to need more specific control over what is in their control. Let them exert it.
Prepare your child with simple grace-and-courtesy games at home. "You'll be meeting some new children. Meeting new children can sometimes feel awkward. When we meet a new person, it's appropriate to say, 'Hello! My name is Catherine. I'm happy to meet you.' Let's practice!" You can play dramatic games pretending to be your camp counselors, coaches, new children, or other adults your child may encounter. Let your child practice making eye contact, shaking hands and introducing herself or himself. We play these same games at school. Enjoying them together at home can decrease some of the intimidation children often feel when meeting new people.
Prepare your child as much as you can for what will be different when you arrive. For older children, talk about what to expect at least a week before the new program begins. For younger children, talk about it just a few days prior, when "tomorrow" or "the day after tomorrow" is more likely to be understood. Discuss what the field or cabin might look like, what adults will be there, what other children you expect to see. Ask your child if there's anything they're wondering about about the environment or the people there. Offer specifics if you can. "We will drive down a long driveway to the camp check-in table. There will probably be a number of other parents around helping their children to register as well. We'll look for Madison and Jack and, if we see them, you may play with them while I finish registering. Then, after you meet your counselor, we'll say 'See you later,' and I'll leave."
During the transition, be attentive to your child's cues, even when you're talking with other adults or counselors. If you know you'll have to take care of on-site administration issues, discuss beforehand what you expect of your child while they wait. Bring something familiar for your child and pay attention to any stressors you might need to model a reaction to. Remember: your child is taking their cues from you. If you model being open and curious, that goes farther than talking endlessly to your child about how there's nothing to fear. Talk, instead, about the interesting things you see, with confidence and ease. Your child is watching you to gauge whether they should be anxious. Model appropriately.
Notice other children's behavior and the ways in which it might entice misbehavior in your own child. When your child encounters children or families who operate by different rules than we're comfortable with in Montessori, their curiosity about the different behavior may entice her to try it out herself. When another child or family is openly engaging in behavior that would be out of the norms you've established, find your child and kneel beside him or her to describe what you see. "That child is having a hard time listening to the art teacher. Have you ever struggled to keep your fingers from something you weren't supposed to touch? It can be so hard! Let's go see if we can find some things you can touch and explore." Intervene before your child tries out the misbehavior.
If your child's behavior is challenging, stay calm and speak softly. While you may be embarrassed by your child's misbehavior in a public setting or afraid they might not transition easily to a new summer program, remember to lower your voice and shorten the distance. Avoid yelling at your child. Instead, approach them until you're close enough to kneel down and whisper in their ear. Remind them quietly but firmly of the behavior that's appropriate in this setting, then assure them that you understand why being in a new place can be unsettling. "In the museum camp, you must speak quietly. It's hard to keep your voice quiet in an exciting place, isn't it?"
Remember: there are few behaviors your child will explore that are universally inappropriate. Most often, misbehavior is only misbehavior because it's in the wrong environment. Rename your child's misbehavior by telling her where it is appropriate. "You may run outside. Inside, you may walk." "You may have swim again tomorrow, when we come back to camp!" "When we visit the zoo, we stay near to each other to make sure we feel safe in the crowd." That said, you're probably going to be more self-aware when your child misbehaves at in public than you would be in your own home. Don't let your embarrassment or fear of judgment change the way you parent your child. Your child needs to know that, even in the unusual settings, she can expect the same responses from you. Put aside your concern that counselors, new teachers or new parents will judge you for your child's behavior and, instead, focus on helping your child get back to the behavior you know she's capable of the rest of the time.
Most importantly, remember that these programs are supposed to be fun, even while they provide useful childcare for parents over the summer. While there are lots of things that will be new and, more often than not, just as many things that conflict with the Montessori experience, they're also opportunities for your child to develop resiliency and persistence and to learn about how different communities function. Your child may have the opportunity to do things over the summer that your school doesn't have the capacity to offer. Those adventures are worth the challenges that new programs, people and leadership bring with them. Stay calm and model content curiosity, and let your child take the time they need to learn the ropes in a new place.