Montessori reminds us of the critical work that children are doing in infancy. “Work,” as she describes it, are experiences on the environment that help the child to develop. It’s not forced activity or toil. Indeed, whether infant or adolescent, the child’s “work” is joyful for them, that which they can engage in without tiring, because it satisfies their natural drive to incarnate themselves. In infancy, their work is whatever develops for them the ability to live independently of their parents, the ability to move independently, feed themselves, communicate, affect their environment and exert what, for lack of a better term, Montessori begrudgingly calls their will.
For children in the earliest Plane of Development, building relationships is about testing the world around them. Children may show a curiosity and interest in other children, but they aren't creating "friendships" in the same way that they'll be able to at a later point in their development. They are focused on these skills because they are driven by their nature to establish them. The other people around them help children to understand whether they are safe, whether their needs will be met and whether they can influence the environment. You'll see children move toward and away from peers, sometimes preferring the company of a peer who is particularly engaging to them, because that other activity somehow satisfies their work of incarnation better than the playtime with peers.
For parents and teachers, though, this is a critical time of year for relationship-building, both with the child and with other adults. Let's acknowledge some things first: you're probably a little nervous. You probably want want others to know that you're capable and attentive, that you're kind and that you love your children. And so, often, we spend this time in our children’s lives putting on competent hats and demonstrating our expertise, reading the right books and trying to hold a secure leash around the little bit of your child’s development that you think you can control. But here's something else you have in common: you and the other adults who care for your infant are also probably scared. You might not know how to say that out loud.
Hooray! I just did it for you! Band-Aid is off!
Infant-Toddler teachers and parents partner for the care and nurture of children who have complicated, complex needs, driven by dynamic growth across multiple domains, and lacking the cognitive or linguistic ability to communicate them reliably themselves. That partnership is best propelled when both sides acknowledge how hard the work is to do, and how much of it is our very best guess about what the child needs. And when we are trying to build relationships with the other caregivers in the child's life, we are also juggling all the logistics of navigating home and work demands, the children's transitions, the stress of breakfast and dinner and all the bits in between. You don't have a lot of time for eye contact and meaningful conversation, at exactly the time when those connections between adults and among adults and children are most formative.
In the midst of the juggling, even if you can't quite find the time (yet) for the connection you want to make with other parents and teachers, find the grace for yourself and for them in the meantime. This is a time to offer each other patience and a smile- two things that don't take any time at all away from the children! If you've got the chance to say, "I'm happy to see you," instead of the standard, "Good morning," to personalize and connect in the few little chances we have to interact as adults right now, even better. If you are in such a luxurious position of time to have face time with other adults, be sure to use that time to get to create an oasis for each other, for eye contact and real conversation. When things go wrong, or your needs are miscommunicated or misunderstood, remember that this is a multi person juggling act... a little forgiveness and understanding will help to establish the warmth you will inevitably need between you as you love dearly that infant whose singular natural goal is to separate from you. Together, you are caring for children whose development is sure to bring new questions and new challenges. Things will unfold in unpredictable ways. And when they do, you are both better in your work if you already know the other person is capable, attentive, kind, competent and loving. You both already are.
But here’s the trick: so is the child. When we are juggling (sometimes literally juggling!) the demands of an infant in our arms, and work to manage, and another child or two around at our feet, it’s easy to overlook how hard the child is working themselves. When that child who you want to sit still will not stop wiggling, when they babble at bedtime or try to leap out of your arms because they’ve noticed something that attracts them, they are not doing so from some useless impulse. Avoid trying to “train” them to sit still. Their movement, their noise, their constant activity is natural to them. It reflects a natural tendency to build their bodies, hone their ability to communicate, and, ultimately, do to that thing that most parents are not yet ready for them to do: to need us not so much, to be independent, autonomous, and in control of themselves. Even in infancy. That drive is so persistent that, Montessori reminds us, we can neither squelch it nor speed it along. Instead, we can only pay closer attention, prepare spaces within which it can be satisfied, and honor the pace of the child. Hectic, yes. Short-term, certainly. You’ll miss the chaos soon enough. In the meantime, find joy in the wiggling child. While you are building a relationship with them, they are building themselves. Invisible work, perhaps, but essential, individual and irreplaceable.
* A response to Chapter 8, “The Conquest of Independence.” The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori