Monday, September 17, 2012

Montessori and Attachment Parenting

Oliver's first day of school
On one hand it would seem that Montessori education and attachment parenting fit together beautifully. Both respect the child as his own person above all else, both are inherently child-led, both value independence and self-direction/determination. For me, the leap from stay-at-home attachment parent to putting Oliver in a Montessori preschool program was a logical one.

While there are solid commonalities between Montessori and attachment parenting there are also differences. Yet to me some of these differences aren't quite so opposing as some may see on the surface but are, in fact, interconnected. For instance: independence and attachment.

For someone who's main focus is on independence it may be hard to see attachment behaviors as anything but dependence; in my reading I have come across the odd passage here and there to suggest Maria Montessori herself may have thought so too, this small quote in conclusion to thoughts on dependence of both adult and child made me squirm a bit in particular: “[...]An adult becomes a slave to such children. Even though child and adult have a deep understanding and affection for one another, they are ensnared in the same net.” (In fairness there are other passages in Maria Montessori's works to suggest a more attachment friendly world view, she's a hard woman to pin down on this issue.)

However as an attachment parent I firmly believe that true independence cannot exist without the solid base of secure attachment. When a child is free to experiment with independence at his own pace with the net of attachment to catch him when he falls or even just second guesses himself he has more freedom to take risks (an important part of learning), and more freedom from the great distractions of fear or anxiety. Respecting my child's independence (of which he has oodles) is a huge part of attachment parenting for me, the need for independence has to be met just  as the need for sleep or affection. In my opinion and experience forcing independence, or more accurately the allusion of independence, by discouraging attachment behaviors is counterproductive to that kind of respect.

So when it comes to separation anxiety; how does one balance the two methodologies? Many of the montessori materials I have read encourage what I call the 'clean break' method of making the transition to school. The child is nervous but mom or dad stay calm, say goodbye and leave while the teacher takes over reassuring the child. For parents, like myself, who have never turned our back to a crying child (unless it's to count to ten or stop a pot from boiling over, let's be reasonable here) the clean break feels absolutely wrong on every level. But I do believe that there is a valid argument for it even within attachment parenting theory.

As children grown their ability for attachment does as well. A newborn attaches to his primary caregiver, in Oliver's case he stayed in my arms a vast majority of the time, he nursed on demand from my breast, he woke and slept close to me so his cues could be recognized and responded to in a timely manner. As he grew he branched out, he started seeking out his father's face and presence like he sought mine and (eventually) came to trust that his father could be relied on to meet his needs just as I could and his attachment to his father strengthened. Now at almost three years of age he has secure attachments with several extended family members. Attachment parenting is not meant to happen in isolation and children should be encouraged to connect with their community. Leaving my child who is upset with a caregiver I am confident will provide him with consistent and loving care isn't 'anti-attachment', it is a difficult transition but one that most children adapt to fairly easily as they form connections with their teachers and learning environment.

However; sometimes children don't react well to the 'clean break'. Oliver was, to my surprise since he's always been so easy going and independent, one of those children and so it was time to put my ideas of how Montessori and attachment parenting can work together to the test. Despite the fact that Oliver was calming down and joining his class quite quickly after I left in the morning I started to notice that his anxiety was starting earlier and earlier before school started. What started as a bit of sadness when we said good-bye at the door turned into sadness as we rode the bus to school then into nervous questions about the coming day at the bus stop, then into frantic pleading that I not leave when the alarm clock went off in the morning. The clean break was not helping his anxiety, it seemed to be making things worse.

The most obvious answer to the problem presented here is that Oliver just isn't ready. To some extent I agree, he is excited to be at school he just isn't old enough to understand that school can still be fun even if Mommy isn't there to enjoy it with him. My first reaction was to pull him out and try again in six months or so but for me it wasn't so simple. Another key component to attachment parenting is balance and for me to juggle work I find fulfilling with being present, mindful, and compassionate as a parent regular time away from each other needs to happen, trying again in a few months is still an option but I would much rather find a way to help Oliver with the transition in a gentler way.

So as I write this I am sitting on a surprisingly comfortable waiting chair outside of Oliver's class room while he plays. Yesterday and this morning we have arrived early, sat and cuddled outside the room and allowed Oliver to make his own forays into the classroom. He hangs up his coat and runs back to make sure I am still here, he says hello to his classroom plant and runs back to make sure I am still here, he goes to see what his friends are working with and runs back to make sure I am still here. I hug him, reassure him, then explain that I have work to do, and so does he. At the bell there are still tears, his teacher still has to pull him in crying but the crying stops almost as soon as the door closes. He waves as he walks by to use the bathroom or go for outside time but stays in cue with the other children. Yesterday he asked at snack time if I was still out here and was happy with the answer that I was without feeling the need to check for himself. The initial separation is still hard, as it should be for his age and developmental stage, but the knowledge that I am here seems to be enough to quell the vast majority of his anxiety. After only a day under this arrangement he woke up excited to come and learn.

Some will ask how long I plan to keep this up, if I am not encouraging dependence by 'giving in' and remaining near by. The answer certainly isn't definite. My knowledge of my child tells me that sometime early next week I will be able to tell him I am stepping out for a little while and he will be ok with it, but prior to this my knowledge of my child would have told me he'd joyfully embrace the independence in the first place so really, who knows. I do know that attachment is about relationships and relationships, as I've mentioned, have to be balanced. As much as I want and need this time away I also need to recognize that my child still needs me. Not because he's 'dependent' but because he's three and this is an experience very different from anything he's done before. I am willing to go slowly, I am willing to work with him and his teacher (who, by the way, had been so fantastic about all this) to lessen his anxiety, I am willing to meet him half way. Is it what Maria Montessori would have done? Maybe not, but Maria Montessori isn't Oliver's mom and our end goals are the same: a free and self directed child who is eager to learn.


drew said... [Reply to comment]

My son will be on preschool next year and I'm really worried about the problems we'll both encounter. As an introduction, what I do now is spend time talking with him what to expect - the classroom, the teacher, the other kids and the activities that they will enjoy.
gold coast montessori

Anjali Kochhar Lipman said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you for writing this! My son is 18 months and doing a two day toddler program at the Montessori school where I am the Parent Learning Coordinator. I am a trained Montessori teacher, but as I have become a mother, I have deeply embraced both attachment parenting and Montessori. I truly believed they coexist well and wrote a blog post about it (I get very frustrated when Montessorians talk about weaning at 6 months as the start of "independence" when Dr. Montessori never said that and it actually goes against medical advice (and she was a doctor!)). But, when I came across this same quote trying to develop materials for a Parent Education Coffee Session on separation anxiety, I was quite thrown aback. I have the same child as you, he's very sensitive but also very independent in his own right. But he's have the same trouble with separation. I may use some of your techniques (since I am in the building already!) if his anxiety increases and the transition does not become easier. Thanks so much for your thoughts. I am on a mission now to find quotes of hers that contradict this one quote!

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

@Anjali Kochhar Lipman as an update we're on day three of absolutely no tears, on Tuesday he even forgot to say goodbye to me, just jumped right into his work. Follow your gut, mama, sometimes just a little reassurance goes a really long way.

I am always glad to hear from other AP Montessori parents (and teachers!). I do have a good Montessori quote on attachment, or had one but now I've lost it. If I find it again I'll let you know!

Lisa Nolan said... [Reply to comment]

Very well said, thoughtful, and honest. I like how you were able to weigh both AP and Montessori, while using your observations of your child to best suit his needs without giving up all of your needs! I can relate, in a different way, I (a Montessori 3-6 and 6-9 trained teacher) have a child with Down syndrome and it's all about taking little steps, making adjustments along the way, while not sacrificing too much of myself so that there are feelings of resentment... and I could go on and on! Great post!

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