Help as a Hindrance

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

-Maria Montessori

When we push, teach, show, fix or even help a little too much, we interfere with a child’s chance to achieve.  The second it takes us to solve a child’s problem or arrest his struggle can destroy another “I did it” possibility.  Our challenge is to find the patience to wait and see if the child can do it himself first.  If the child becomes too frustrated, we do the smallest thing possible to help.  Sometimes that means talking him through a solution, or moving a stuck object slightly so that a baby can then free it, or guiding an older child to brainstorm for essay ideas rather than giving him one.  Often children just need us to be open to their capabilities and give them a little more time. 

-Janet Lansbury, RIE educator and respectful parenting advocate

Already more times this week than I’d like to admit, I’ve caused a 2.5 year old major frustration while she was either getting dressed or undressed because I stepped in to help.  On one occasion, I unsnapped the snap above the zipper on her jammies, another time I attempted to “help” pull her shirt over her head, then there was the Velcro closure on her shoe that needed to be fastened, and me walking to the bathroom to fetch her clean diaper from the bathroom basket (that I purposefully placed for her access), the list goes on…  Each time I stepped in to help, she yelled “I do it!” and clearly was upset at me, and when I backed off, she completed the task on her own.

Then I realized that the two quotes I had been mulling over for this week’s blog inspiration were speaking loudly to me.  My actions became so obvious—I just needed a reminder—I wanted to help, but my “help” wasn’t really helpful.  One time I even heard myself say, “just let me do it for you” (looking back, that statement gives me clarity—I wasn’t mindful of what she really needed—that she needed to do it on her own, for herself, for her growth/success/achievement).  Sometimes the help that is needed isn’t doing for a child, it’s simply being present and available while giving her/him space.  And without judging me, I imagine Maria and Janet nodding in agreement, and encouraging me, “Yes! Let her do it.”

We parents and caregivers and allies of children mean well—we want to help the children in our care.  But sometimes our actions get in the way.  We need to slow down, observe, and be present.  I am also finding that I also need to be aware of my own feelings in this process—feeling uncomfortable when I watch this child struggle with her shirt, feeling impatient because her actions are so much slower than mine, and remembering to be ok with messy and imperfect.  When I feel uncomfortable, I can slow down even more and observe.  She’s not asking me for help with her words, but is she showing me she needs help—is she frustrated?  If she’s not frustrated by struggling to put on her shirt, then I don’t need to step in.  I can feel uncomfortable while also realizing that the struggle is part of her learning process. Moreover, when she works through the struggle and doesn’t give up, she’s building her resilience and determination.  And this realization actually lessens my own feelings of discomfort and helps me see this process in a different way.  When I feel impatient, I can check myself… have I allowed enough time for her to complete these tasks on her own?  Or are we actually in a hurry to leave the house and get somewhere on time?  And if this is the case, how I build in more time for her to do it herself the next time?  Or maybe there’s no external timeline and I just need to walk away and busy myself with my own tasks to keep myself from hovering (while still being available if and when she does ask for help).  And lastly, to remind myself to be ok with messy and imperfect, I have to check my own thoughts and feelings about perfection.  [Next week I’d like to share some more thoughts on being okay with messy and imperfect, and letting children do it their way even if we think our way is better.]

So I’m resolving to pause, breathe, and observe before I step in to help.  To trust that this child will show me or ask me if she does need my help.  And to get out of her way so she can have those “I did it” moments.

Montessori at Home: Children in the Kitchen

Today we will take a look at practical ways that young children can help in the kitchen.  Maybe you already spend a lot of time in the kitchen, maybe you’re more of a take-out person, but either way, with the winter holidays approaching, you may find yourself in the kitchen more than usual.  Making space for children in the kitchen is a way to help them make meaningful contributions to family life, and helping to prepare food allows children to be active participants in the family’s food traditions.

Here are some ways that children can be involved:

Pour dry and wet ingredients.

Stir batter.



Retrieve items from frig or pantry.

Shred lettuce.

Use the salad spinner.

Rinse fruit/scrub vegetables.

Juice citrus fruits.

Peel hard boiled eggs.

Grind spices with mortar and pestle.

Cut soft foods with plastic knife or other kid-friendly chopper.

Mash (avocados, bananas, boiled potatoes).

Sprinkle herbs or shredded cheese.

Knead dough.  Roll out dough.

Use biscuit cutter/cookie cutters.

Spread butter or oil with a pastry brush.

Fill bread basket.

Press buttons (while practicing good safety) to turn on stand mixer, timer on oven, blender.

Use toaster.

Set the table.

Fold napkins.

Arrange flowers for the table.

Decorate name cards for table settings.

Montessori at Home: Accessibility for Young Children

Today we are sharing some practical ways to make your home accessible to young children.  Dr. Maria Montessori observed that children thrive when they are free to do things for themselves; they gain independence and coordination, and they are free to concentrate and hone their sense of order (which later facilitates academic skills such as writing and reading).

The adult can prepare the home environment for the child so that the child has more access to what s/he needs for independence.  Follow your child when implementing these ideas:  where does your child seek independence?  Take what works for you and the children in your care and leave the rest.  Also, be aware that young children working towards independence will spill water, make messes, and leave clothes and jackets lying on the floor, etc… so it helps to have a friendly attitude towards spills and messes.  Show the child how to hang his/her coat, get a cup of water, where to store her shoes… and then expect that it will take time (and repetition) for your child perfect his/her abilities.

The inspiration for this list comes from multiple sources: Montessori teachers, parents, and friends; books; blogs; Instagram accounts…    Also, this list is by no means comprehensive (nor is it intended as advertising for specific brands or products).  Just some practical tools to help adults create a home that supports the young child who wants to “do it myself.”


  • Low hooks for child to hang coat, backpack, scarf, hats
  • Basket or other container for mittens/hats/gloves
  • Place for shoes (if shoes are removed upon entering home)



  • See blog entry #4 for ideas about storing children’s clothes


  • Store the child’s cups, bowls, plates, eating utensils, napkins in lower cabinets or drawers
  • A sturdy, slip resistant stool for the child to stand on, could also use a learning tower (sometimes called a “kitchen helper”)
  • Pitcher or spouted water dispenser so child can access water to drink (the adult can limit the amount of water available if spills are frequent and also have some clean-up towels stored where child can access)
  • Healthy snacks stored in lower compartments of frig and/or pantry, bowl of fruit on table


  • Sturdy, slip resistant stool to access sink and toilet
  • Hang a low bar or hook for the child’s towel to dry hands after washing, can also include bath towel and washcloth
  • Store loose diapers/pull ups/training underwear in basket or low cabinet
  • Kleenexes/face wipes where child can access
  • Hang a mirror above sink that is low enough for child to see her/himself for face washing, hair combing/brushing, tooth brushing, nose blowing

Other item items to consider:

  • Toys and books stored in containers and/or on shelving that child can access for play and clean-up
  • Art supplies (and clean up materials)
  • Cleaning materials:  towels, dust cloths, small broom and dustpan, mop or swiffer, window/mirror cleaning kit: small spray bottle of non-toxic window cleaner and towel for drying
  • Care of pets and plants: pet food stored in container that child can access, watering can that is small enough for a child to carry

This list is simply a starting point…  Follow your child and his/her needs.  Take what works, leave the rest.  Also, please let us know if you have questions or need more information/discussion around the process of making your home more accessible for the children in your care.

perfection vs. “good enough!”

A wise friend once stated, “Let go of being perfect.  Perfection is an illusion.” She said this as she was standing in front of a room of Montessori teachers, who had just spent the previous three days getting their classrooms ready—spending hours making sure everything was *just-so* for the arrival of the children.  Surely these teachers were allowed a pass, after all, they had worked hard to make their classrooms “perfect” for the start of the school year.  The Montessori Method emphasizes the role of the classroom as a prepared environment—isn’t it supposed to be perfect?  And aren’t teachers supposed to be perfect, as well?

Several years later, I find myself failing at what I think is the perfect way to keep my home (read: completely organized and everything clean at all times).  It’s a mess and I never thought I would have such a messy home.  Always piles of laundry—dirty laundry to wash, clean laundry to fold and put away.  Always stacks of dishes to wash.  Always something that could be scrubbed, swept, wiped, folded, picked up.  And so by noon every day, I’m looking around, asking myself, “What have I gotten done today?”  The stack of dishes is still there.  Laundry unfolded.  Floors that could be mopped but aren’t.  And what I’m really doing is judging myself and saying, “Nope. Not perfect. Not even close.”

Today I became mindful of that daily judgement, and when I usually pause and look around to assess my morning, I stopped myself from the usual negativity, and I said to myself, “I have been patient and present with three young children today.  I have used a lot of emotional energy to be steady for them while they feel their big feelings.  Also, I have prepared good food for them to eat” (hence the stacks of dishes taking over my kitchen). In that moment, I stopped holding myself to some ideal of perfection; and instead of feeling discouraged and frustrated, I actually felt satisfied with what I had been doing for the previous four hours.

I later related this moment to my friend, and she said something that echoed what she had told that room full of teachers all those years ago.  She said, “Say aloud ‘good enough!’”  Say this to yourself.  Say this to the children in your care.  Don’t get stuck trying to be perfect.  Or worrying about being perfect.

How much time and effort do we spend trying to be perfect?  To look perfect.  To have the perfect _______.  To be the perfect parent.  The perfect teacher.  The perfect partner/spouse.  The perfect friend. Getting the children in our care to be perfect.  And act perfect (read: not throw tantrums or be whiny at the grocery store.)  Are we hoping for a Pinterest perfect house?  Maybe a carefully-curated Instagram perfect lifestyle?  Or even just wishing to be like a friend who always looks so put together and has time to get everything done?  We all have different ideas and standards for perfection, so the specifics will be different for each of us, but the unrealistic goal of perfection is still the same.

In this season of life as a parent/caregiver/ally of young children, we have the power to let go.  Let go of perfection.  The precious time we have with these young children in our care is short.  And the goal of perfection is a hindrance to wholly loving and accepting ourselves and our children and enjoying our time together.  So instead of perfection, say “good enough!” and move on.

Autumn thoughts

Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning…

The Discovery of the Child  Maria Montessori

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.

The Sense of Wonder  Rachel Carson

Autumn is here.  The mornings are cool and foggy.  The late afternoon shadows are long.  Nights are clear and crisp.  The leaves are changing colors, shades of red are appearing.  Squirrels and chipmunks are gathering food for the winter.  The grasses are turning gold, then brown.  The days are getting shorter as we move towards the winter solstice.

Pause.  Look.  Listen.  Breathe.

Slow down when you walk to the mailbox.  Look at the sky.  Look at the driveway.  So many leaves and seeds are scattered on the ground.  Slow down on your walk to the car in the morning.  Give yourself and your child two extra minutes to walk slowly enough to see that spider’s web shimmering with dew.  If you have more time, sit outside while your child runs in the yard.  Look at the leaves fluttering and falling from the trees.

As an adult, when I slow down, it enables me to see nature with fresh eyes, to see what the children see, and embrace letting them be free.

Montessori at Home: choosing clothes and getting dressed

Promoting autonomous self-care and independence at home:
Letting children choose their clothes for the day and learn how to get dressed

What does getting dressed in the morning look like?  Frustration for the child?  Frustration for the adult?  Constant nagging/reminding the child to choose clothes and get dressed?  Fights over what to wear?

Meet your child where she/he is:

Is she interested in choosing clothes?  Does she need help to get dressed?  Does he need help to access his clothes?  Would she benefit from having fewer choices?

The goal in the morning is that the child independently chooses what clothes to wear and feels confident in her/his ability to get dressed.

So first, let’s look at how to store a child’s clothes so that they are easily available to the child.  Consider this:  Do you care if your child’s clothing matches?  Or can she pair a purple shirt with orange and red floral pants?  Depending upon how you feel about pairing tops and bottoms, you can present your child’s clothing options accordingly.  The adult must decide ahead of time how to store the child’s clothes so that the child has freedom to choose each morning.  You can make outfits for your child to choose from or give her unlimited access to tops and bottoms that are not paired.  Also check that the clothes that are available are seasonally appropriate, “everyday” clothes.  If you have special occasion clothing for your children that you do not want them to have access to in their usual morning routine, store those items elsewhere.  The goal is to give your child access to clothes that you will be able to say “yes” to any day of the week, notwithstanding a special occasion (religious service, wedding, party, etc).

Here are two methods for storing the child’s clothes so they can be accessed by the child:

The first method:  Hang a low bar in a closet or wardrobe.  Hang two or three complete outfits (minus socks and underwear) and let the child chose one complete outfit.  This method allows the adult to be more selective about matching tops and bottoms and also ensures that all choices are weather appropriate.  However, this method requires almost daily prep work from the adult (prior to the morning routine) to ensure several clothing options are presented on hangers.

The second method:  Use the KonMari Method (or a close approximation) to fold and store clothes in a dresser with low, accessible drawers so that the child can easily see all of the items in a drawer.  This method eliminates stacks of clothes, which are difficult for a child to manage and keep neat and tidy while removing clothing from a drawer.  If a large number of clothing items seems overwhelming (depending on the age and needs of your child), you can simply store fewer items in each drawer (ex: only four shirts and four pairs of pants and keep extra clothes somewhere else).  If you use this method, you are allowing the child to match up tops and bottoms (unless your child is asking for your help in this area).

So now that you’ve considered how to store your child’s clothes and how much access to give her to her seasonal wardrobe, let’s take a look at the act of getting dressed.  It’s important to keep in mind what really matters—your child’s growing sense of independence and self-confidence.  Firstly, be patient with yourself and your child.  Learning autonomous self-care is a process.  Look for opportunities to help, and notice when your child needs to do it herself.  Look for ways to demonstrate and help break the action into smaller steps.  Example: sit on the floor to put on pants.  One leg at a time, pull the pants leg all the way up over the foot, maybe say something like, “find your foot” to direct attention to this part of the process so that when the child stands up to pull up their pants, she won’t be standing on part of the pants’ leg.  Maybe your child can independently put on pants but not a shirt or socks.  Let him do as much as he can on his own.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings.  “Putting a shirt on is hard. Would you like some help?” or “Be patient with yourself.  You are capable.”

Something to consider:  Does it matter if a shirt is worn backwards?  (A gentle suggestion to turn the shirt around may accepted.  Or not. Your child may also resist your attempts to “fix” or “undo” the work that she/he has just done to get dressed.  We don’t want to micro-manage our children.  A backwards shirt is a sign of learning and budding independence.)

Lastly, but not least in importance, consider time:  it will undoubtedly take longer to actively involve your child in choosing her outfit and teaching her how and giving her space to get dressed than if you simply chose clothing and dressed your child.  So if you are just starting this new routine, allow extra time for this process so you don’t have to rush.  Every morning.  Observe your child.  And be available.  Children can sense your patience with the process.

It’s worth restating:  keep in mind what really matters—your child’s growing sense of independence and self-confidence.  Be patient with yourself and your child.  Make adjustments.  We are all learning!

Conflict between parents. Is it OK?

Conflict between parents.  Is it OK?

Today we will take a brief look at an online review of University of Arizona researcher Olena Kopystynska’s work regarding conflict between parents and how it affects their children’s emotional security.  Kopystynska is a graduate student who studies conflict and conflict resolution, and she focused on constructive versus destructive styles of conflict management.

So is conflict OK?  The bottom line, according to Kopystynska, is “conflict is okay as long as parents handle disagreements in a constructive way.”

Let’s look at how Kopystynska defines “constructive” and “destructive” conflict management.

Constructive conflict management:

  • “Calmness and respect, despite a difference in opinion”
  • “Conflict stays focused on one topic”
  • “Progression is made toward a resolution”

Destructive conflict management:

  • “Anger and resentment”
  • “The argument often strays off topic to things that may have happened in the past”

Kopystynska and her colleagues found that when even one parent handles conflict in a destructive way, the children can feel more emotionally insecure about their home life.  So rather than avoiding the inevitable disagreement, it’s important that parents focus on constructive ways to disagree.

The take-away message:

‘“Not all conflict is bad—it’s about how you manage it,” Kopystynska said.  “Given that children are going to encounter conflict out there in the real world, exposure to some conflict can be beneficial.  However, it’s really how parents handle that conflict that sets the tone for how safe children feel, and may further promote similar conflict management behaviors for when children are confronted with conflict of their own.”’

what to say instead of “be careful!”

Welcome to Ithaca Montessori’s blog!  We are educators, parents, and allies of children, who are here to share and learn helpful, practical information to guide our everyday interactions with the young children in our lives.

I came across this thought-provoking article a few weeks ago about saying “be careful!” to children, specifically as it relates to playing outdoors.  It’s a short piece and worth the time to read it, but I’ll go ahead and summarize here:  saying “be careful!” is an understandable knee-jerk reaction that many adults have to children’s choices during play; however, adults can use more specific details to help the children understand the risks and consider their actions.  Here’s an example: a child picks up a big stick in close proximity to other children.  The adult can shout, “Be careful!”  Or the adult can say, “Sticks need space.  ___________, look around you.  Do you have enough space to swing that big stick?”  Or “What’s your plan with that big stick?”  The difference in the language is striking.

So while this article gives specific language around outdoor play, I wondered about all of the times I might say “be careful!” to a child engaged in other activities.  I only had to spend a day in a home environment with four children, ages 4 and younger, to become conscious of a myriad of other times that “be careful!” is my go-to phrase.  So here are some other specific examples that may be helpful to you, the reader.

Other language for children helping in the kitchen with meal prep or table setting or clean up:

“Don’t touch _____!  It’s hot!”

“Carry the plate/bowl/dish with two hands.”

“Set the glass down gently so it doesn’t break.”

“Carry one plate/bowl/dish at a time.”

“That cup of water is full. Hold it with two hands. Walk slowly.”

Children going up or down stairs:

“Hold onto the railing.” Or “put your hand on the railing.”

“Take the stairs slowly.”

“Look in the direction you are going.”

Children standing on step-stool to reach sink faucet:

“Keep both feet on the stool.”

“One person on the stool at a time.”

[Of course, we want to refrain from micro-managing the children in our care.  Hopefully we are also modeling the ways that we want them to interact with each other and their environment—i.e., holding the railing while taking the stairs and carrying plates with two hands.  We can also take the time to observe the children in our care to discern if their environment needs to be modified for them; for example: does the step-stool in the kitchen need to be replaced with one that is more sturdy or slip resistant?  Modeling and observing are hallmarks of a Montessori classroom—it’s what the Montessori guide (teacher) spends most of her/his time doing; and it may be helpful to delve into this topic in another blog post.]

We are all learning.  Here are some questions I can ask myself:

Instead of saying “be careful!” right now, what is a specific statement that I can say to this child?

What is the exact risk that I want the child to be aware of?  How can I say this in a concise way to the child?

some thoughts about sharing

Welcome to Ithaca Montessori’s blog!  We created this space to provide helpful, practical information for parents, caregivers, and other allies of children.  The topics we hope to cover will include language and situations experienced by children from about 2 years to 6 years old (because this age group corresponds to the age grouping of the children attending Ithaca Montessori).  We hope that each entry will provide some “food for thought.”  Moreover, we are all learning, and it is our hope that this blog will provoke introspection and discussion—we are happy to answer questions and take suggestions for topics for future entries.

This week we will discuss sharing.  Maybe we’ve heard it, maybe we’ve said it—the command to “share!”—that is often repeated by adults to toddlers and preschoolers.  What does it mean to “share”?  Should “sharing” even be emphasized?

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario in a home environment.  Two children are playing near one another and Child A comes to Child B and shows a strong interest in what Child B is playing with.  Maybe Child A even tries to take the toy away from Child B.  An adult intervenes and commands Child B to “share!” the toy with Child A.  Child B resists and expresses frustration and anger over being told to share the toy with which she was happily playing.  At this point, Child A is set up to feel entitled to take the toy from Child B.  And the adult, who values follow-through, then must somehow find a way to coax/demand/bribe/encourage Child B to hand over the toy.  The situation becomes infused with a question of “who’s in control?” felt by adults and children alike, and the children are dependent upon the intervening adults to enforce “sharing.”  What if there was a different way for the adults to interact with the children?  Could different language be used?

As parents, caregivers, and allies of children, we want the children in our care to practice kindness, and “sharing” seems like an obvious demonstration of kindness.  However, what if we pause and think about the above situation from Child B’s perspective?  Imagine if, as an adult, you are doing something you love, like playing guitar or knitting or painting, and in the midst of your creative engagement with those materials, someone came up and tried to take your guitar/knitting needles/paintbrush away from you.  Not only that, but then another person actually demanded that you give that item to the person who was trying to take it from you.  How do you feel in that situation?  Frustrated?  Angry?  Powerless?

Now let’s go back to the scenario with the children.  As an adult observer, pause and watch the two children for a moment.  Do they need help to negotiate their interaction?  Toddlers often play side-by-side and may “bump” into each other, and it’s at this moment that they then see what the other one is playing with and a feeling of possessiveness emerges. (A toddler’s frequent use of the word “mine!” aptly conveys her developmental stage.  That is to say, a toddler is working hard to form her sense of Self—thinking mainly about her needs and wants.) Preschoolers are at a different developmental stage and are typically more social, and therefore, they may attempt to negotiate who gets to play with the toy.  While we observe the situation, we can ask ourselves, how well do we know the two children?  Do we trust them to navigate the interaction without being a danger to each other or destructive to the toy?  Of course, as adults, we always want to intervene if we see children hurting one another or otherwise being destructive.  But outside of that imperative, we can give them space to negotiate; and, if needed, we can offer language to empower the children to respectfully negotiate and set boundaries.  For example, instead of “sharing”, what if we suggest “taking turns” with a toy?  When Child B is finished playing with the toy, then Child A can have a turn.  The adult uses language that supports Child B’s right to freely play with the toy while also acknowledging Child A’s desire to take the toy.  “_______ is playing with that right now.  You can have a turn when she is finished.  I know it’s hard to wait.  Would you like help finding something else to play with?”

Let’s look at sharing in another way.  If you come to my house, I will share my chicken’s fresh eggs with you.  Or a clipping from one of my plants.  I will lend you a book or a sweater.  I will share my favorite coffee cup with you (hot, fresh coffee included!).  I will share with you because you are my guest and my friend.  When we think about sharing this way, we regain perspective on the kindness and hospitality that we imply when we say that word—“share!”—to children.  So as adults, we can also begin to help a child understand that when they have a friend over to play, they are, in fact, (unless the visiting child brings her own toys) sharing all of their toys with that friend.  The difference is that the sharing is happening by default but not on demand.  We can work behind the scenes, so to speak, before the visiting child arrives to explain how the hosting child is, in fact, sharing and how kind it is to share (by being hospitable).

We can also empathize with the young child who has big emotions around seeing her toys played with by another child.  In the case of a toddler or a young preschooler, maybe we help put that child’s favorite toy away for the duration of another child’s visit.  We might say something like, “I know this _____ is special to you and sometimes it’s hard to see someone else play with it.  Would you like to put it away while so-and-so visits?” In this way, we are demonstrating empathy and kindness to a child who is not developmentally ready to share a special possession.

We are all learning.  As an adult who cares for children, I can ask myself:

How am I helping this child maintain his/her right to freely play with an item?

What language do the children need to respectfully negotiate with each other?

Am I imposing “sharing” or teaching authentic sharing by demonstrating hospitality and kindness?