The activity of the day is done (almost.) Dinner is ready (almost.) The table is almost set. The kids are almost settled down. You're not really in the busy part of the day, but you're not really in the slowing down bedtime part of the day either. It's the witching hour.
Montessorians know that children need meaningful engagement in real tasks and that, when that need is met, they are peaceful, calm and focused. It should be no surprise, then, that when meaningful engagement in real tasks is not available, like when you're in between other tasks, you might not see your children at their best. Add to that the hunger and exhaustion of the end of the day and, well, you might be in for it.
In the classroom, we start with basic needs: rest, hunger and comfort. Think about how you can satisfy these needs during your family's witching hour. Plan ahead. You may be able to hold your patience together while you're hungry, but that's a lot to ask of a young child. Instead of waiting for the children to sit down to a dinner that will be served after their hunger arises, cut crisp fresh carrots or slices of cheese, berries or thin slices of meat to offer to your children as you get ready to eat a larger meal together as a family. Simple antipasto like these, served with a cool glass of water, can take the edge of your children's hunger and buy you a little peace as you prepare for a larger meal.
Slow down your own pace so they have more time to finish their tasks: children's exhaustion can be seen both in movement that's slower and movement that's wilder than when they are well-rested. Be ready for either, and match it with mindful, slow responses. Even as you're busy getting things ready for dinner, you can be thoughtful in your busy-ness. Avoid adding to the chaos with your own stress and, instead, remind yourself that it's all going to get done, and even more peacefully if you can do it with a gentle smile instead of a yell.
Engage your children in the preparations. Children can (and should!) help to prepare meals, to set the table, and to clean up afterward. It's easy to think that dropping your children in front of a video while you cook dinner is the fastest way to get there, but you may be leaving your children unattended at the time when they are least likely to be able to navigate conflicts on their own. Suddenly, a quiet episode of a nature show has devolved into crying children who each feel irreparably harmed by the other. Instead, welcome one child to help you in the kitchen, another to help prepare the table, and another to sort out the hanging backpacks and shoes for the next day. Give your children simple tasks during the witching hour to keep them engaged and close by should their stamina wane.
Finally, hold your adult administrative tasks until later. While this may be the first time you and your partner have seen each other since breakfast and while there may be all sorts of things to catch each other up on, agree ahead of time with your partner to hold off on the adult chatter until you're on the other side of the witching hour. There are times during the day when Montessori teachers know to give lessons, and times when we know to sit on our hands. And there are times when we are at higher alert, because we know the children are tired, or hungry, or discombobulated or, worst of all, all three. Because the connection you make to other adults matters, give it the space and respect to do it right, when you can really give each other your undivided attention.
The witching hour catches us off guard because we haven't thought about it as a real time. It's not carpool. It's not dinnertime. It's not bedtime. It's not family time. It's a sort of nothing time. Children thrive best when they are in environments that have been prepared for them, and struggle most in the ones that aren't. Own your witching hour, so it doesn't own you.