“Dead Parents?”

I just came across something fun. Recently, in an online group, someone was asking about television for children. In my Montessori training, we learned that children under six should not have screens, so my husband and I decided to abide by that in our house. Once our younger child turned six, we began watching family movies on DVD every Friday night, but we never had any broadcast TV until they were teenagers. (I don’t remember discussing television or screens in my RIE course in 2012, so I can’t say what the opinion is there.)

So when they were five and six-years-old, someone mentioned to me that they didn’t fight much. She asked if they fought over toys. I thought about it and said they didn’t play with toys much.

She looked incredulous.

“Well, they have toys, they just tend to do more imaginative games,” I said.

Later, while we were driving, I asked my kids what games they played. I’d noticed that they always invited each other to play games with very specific titles.

The list they gave me was so long that I stopped the car to write it down. And recently it came across my desk so I’ve shared it with you here:

  • Spies
  • Friends with Spies
  • Plain Friends
  • Brother & Sister
  • Little Brother
  • Little Sister
  • Meets (“We meet each other…”)
  • Little Brother Stuck in Airport (this happened to us.)
  • School (but only with another family that visits)
  • Friends in College

In addition to these standards, for a period of about two years, they added a question to these titles.

“With dead parents?” As in, shall we play these characters with dead parents or not? They had a friend who had lost his mother to cancer, so this became part of their play. Their friend always had lots to say about his mother’s death and they were riveted. “My Mom’s in heaven now but she can see me and watch me.”

This was fascinating to me! They were working out this very traumatic yet puzzling situation through their imaginative play. They were finding answers, trying on life’s difficulties, and becoming comfortable with different scenarios. This is what imaginative play is all about. It’s so important! But does this happen when screens are introduced early?

I just don’t see the same kind of imaginative play present unless children are allowed to develop a creative life that isn’t dictated by commercial influences. I see children who embrace the fantasy character and act out the rules based on what they’ve learned but this limits their own experience of creating and imagining.

I  insisted my children read books before seeing the movies based on them which is a standard I hold for myself as well. My daughter was so inspired to read the Harry Potter books, so that she could watch the movies, she willed herself to read at age 7 and read EVERY SINGLE HARRY POTTER book, all 7 of them, in 30 days. She read day and night. She brought a flashlight to bed and read at night. When I awoke early in the morning, she was already back at it.

I just don’t think a lifetime of screens would have promoted as much imagining as I saw in my own kids. What do you think? Do you have TV in your house with little ones?

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The English Have IT!!

I have written about the English Style Pram and include it in my Newborn Layette. The reason I love it can be found in my post about Containers & Vantage Point. It allows a baby to be prone while sleeping, supine while playing, and makes the backdrop of his life a blue sky. Why is a simple background important? It makes his hand, which occasionally passes into view, something easy to discern and also something interesting because his “bar” for stimulation is very low.

A baby is able to put himself into a sitting position in this style of buggy and, because he is not propped, he is able to use his own efforts and musculature which will help him develop his core. This all happens before the buggy even moves!

Look what happens to these babies (both Princess Di and Edward, the youngest Windsor) sitting un-propped and unsupported in the buggy. Each has to use his core to stabilize himself as the buggy moves forward! What great conditioning this is – and babies aren’t typically getting this kind of deep muscle workout and contraction!

baby unsupported in pram princess di in buggy royal family in buggy

Let us not forget that it is through movement – the brain making the body and hand work – that intelligence is built at this age!

My only caveat about this style buggy is that it not be used for errands. It is best used for walking with your baby so that you both get some fresh air and exercise. It is a growing problem that strollers are getting larger and more people are bringing them into businesses and on public transportation and crowding others. I personally think strollers and buggies should be left outside (can be locked) or, if you’re doing errands, maybe baby can be left at home with a friend, family member or other parent.

parked strollers

If you do have to bring baby, have a lightweight umbrella stroller where you can easily take your baby out and carry him, fold up the stroller, and throw it on your shoulder, literally, like an umbrella.

umbrella stroller target twenty dollarsumbrella stroller light


For errands, I would use this $20 stroller without the top. If you have to hop on a bus or go into a business, you can carry your baby and fold up the stroller and put it on your shoulder. I had to take two buses and a train to work when my child was small and this worked really well for me without imposing on others.

I know many people won’t share my philosophy. But something my husband and I like to ask ourselves, “What if EVERYONE were doing what I’m doing?” For instance we asked ourselves “What if EVERYONE had a tall fence around their back yard?” Because we love walking and seeing the beautiful gardens throughout Chicago, we decided NOT to put a tall fence around ours though it minimizes privacy and security. We think Chicago is such a livable city because of the fabulous landscaped areas and we wanted to participate in that effort.

Likewise, if EVERYONE in the coffee house or hardware store were pushing a baby buggy, it would become very uncomfortable for the patrons, so maybe we should all do our part to avoid overcrowding. What do you think? Are you in agreement, or not?


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Do You See What I See?

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not leaving children alone to develop naturally.  We prop them, carry them, support them and try to hurry them along to the next stage of development when, ideally, all movement should begin inside of them and at their own pace. There are two big enemies to Free Movement – Putting children in containers and giving them an upright vantage point.

“If one does not interfere, an infant will learn to turn, roll, creep on the belly, go on all fours, stand, sit, and walk with no trouble. This will not happen under pressure, but out of her own initiative – independently, with joy, and pride in her achievement – even though she may sometimes get angry, and cry impatiently.

What is most important, however, is not the result, but the way to it. This learning process will play a major role in the whole later life of the human being. Through this kind of development, the infant learns his ability to do something independently, through patient and persistent effort.”

This is a quote from Emi Pikler, Magda Gerber’s mentor who initiated the RIE philosophy but free movement is something both Maria Montessori and Emi Pikler completely agree upon!  

Enemy Number One – Containers

Pregnant women in America purchase many containers which all keep babies from developing as nature intended. Just look at all the common containers which prop a baby upright, before his spine is ready to support him!

bouncy seatglidebaby swingstroller boppy chair

Babies need to sleep on their tummies and play on their backs. They don’t need items that don’t allow them to be supine (on back) or prone (on stomach).

If a baby sleeps on his stomach he will quickly learn to scoot. His legs will naturally splay into a frog position with his feet flat on the ground, activating his “stepping” reflex so that he is able to move himself forward by scooting.

tummy sleeping 2 tummy sleeping 4 babytummy1 - Copy

By 6-8 weeks old your baby will be able to push himself from his stomach to his back. If you put him on his stomach, he can make a decision about whether he’d like to stay there or move to his back. This empowers your baby by giving him choice!

Enemy Number Two – The Dangers of Vantage Point & Stimulation

If a baby is carried frequently or put in containers, there are two undesirable outcomes.

First, his vantage point is always from an upright position. A baby comes into the world already sensitive to learning how it works. “What is this place I’ve entered all about? Where do I fit in?” If a baby has learned to view the world from an upright position in a carrier, a swing, or bouncy seat, he will see books, art, furniture, and people. If his car seat is upright, he will see the scenery moving by. If he’s propped up in a stroller, he will see buildings, people, dogs, and cars driving by. This is a great deal of stimulation! So he learns that he lives in a stimulating world where things are always changing and people move him around and expect things from him. They want him to smile and eat and lay quietly while they change him. He learns he is a passive participant, watching the world go by while things are done “to him.”

I once worked with a 6-month-old baby who had two nannies and had been constantly carried. When I tried to put him on a blanket on the floor, he became wide-eyed and looked shocked! His arms started flailing and he arched his back and started to scream. He was having no part of this different view of the world.

In my RIE Foundation Course I learned: “What We Give Them, They Come to Expect, and Then They Need.” He had come to depend on his upright view.

The second disadvantage for a baby frequently carried or put in containers is that he is being deprived of necessary tactile stimulation. The skin is the largest organ and one of the only ways the baby takes in information, so he should be naked on the floor as much as possible, using touch to develop his intelligence.

Maria Montessori said, “Nothing comes into the brain but through the hand,” but babies don’t have much control over their hands yet. It’s their skin that is highly sensitive, easily mottled, and responsive to the environment. So a baby should be unclothed and on his mother’s chest at birth. He follows the smell of the breast and scoots across her skin to find his way to latch onto the breast.

We put him on the floor, naked if possible, so the maximum amount of skin contact against the floor impresses upon his brain what is feels like to move his body. Every part of his body is engaging with the floor as he learns to roll onto his back and rotate his head, pelvis, and shoulders. A diaper can be worn, but without it you will better learn his signs for elimination and he will better learn about gravity, proprioception*, balance, strength, effort, etc. And this isn’t a matter of giving your baby “floor time” – every minute he is NOT on the floor is a minute of intelligence building lost so he should be there for much of his non-caring time (eating, changing, bathing).

What’s surprising to me is that, thought I work with parents throughout their pregnancy in Bradley childbirth classes and will often mention the importance of free movement, so many people just aren’t able to implement once the baby comes. What I see is that they begin a relationship at birth holding the baby and feeding every few hours and baby falling asleep at the breast and they don’t know when to begin to “change” this relationship and routine. Suddenly you have a 10-week old who hasn’t been put down. And he makes it known that he doesn’t like any changes being introduced!

I encourage parents to, from the beginning, become cognizant of the STEPS: Sleep, Toilet, Eat, Play, Sleep routine and see how much of that they can implement from the first days. I also encourage a space for baby to call his own and that he can become familiar with its sights, sounds and smells from the beginning. Ideally, this would be a floor bed with room for you in the beginning! He’s in SUCH a sensitive period for learning how things are done – let him learn correctly from the beginning as he may resist you “changing it up” later!

heather ellis floor bed

If a child is given plenty of time alone on his back, the backdrop of his life is either a white ceiling or blue sky. Rather than immense amounts of constant stimulation as a backdrop to his life, we allow him to “open the door slowly.” He comes from a dark womb into a quiet, light palate.

This backdrop will then allow him to “discover” his hand when it occasionally passes into view. This is the beginning of the most important relationship he will ever have – that with his hand! (Sorry Mom!) It captures his interest as it randomly appears before him. He begins to see that he can make it do his bidding.

Watch this 6-week-old baby discover her hand for the first time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWppGcxxfks

My recommendations:  Avoid unnecessary containers! In addition to clothes & food, your baby only needs these things:

  • Blanket for the floor
  • Floor bed
  • Cloth diapers
  • English style carriage
  • Toilet seat, if you’re going to do Early Communication for toilet learning.
  • Lying-down car seat. Yes, even car seats should allow them to sleep on their stomachs and play on their backs where they can discover their hands as they occasionally pass into their field of vision.


toilet seat Snappi-Clip english pram lying down car seat heather ellis floor bedquilt on floor

That’s all, folks! Later, when they’re sitting, you’ll want a weaning table and a chair for family dining, but only after they’ve developed without you propping or supporting them in this position.

weaning tablewooden high chair


Remember, on his stomach, he moves.

On his back, he develops a relationship with his hand.

And through movement and hand control, he will build his intelligence.

*Proprioception (/ˌproʊprioʊˈsɛpʃən, -priə-/ PRO-pree-o-SEP-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual”, and capio, capere, to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.


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3 Things I Got Right as a Parent (#3)

A Series on the 3 Things I Got Right as a Parent. 

Part 3: A Line in the Sand

lincoln and kids

Giving my kids a taste of nature (read Part 1, “A Wood” here.) is one thing I feel good about as a parent, as is raising them in a great church (read Part 2, “A Community” here.) Another thing I’m glad I did was set limits for my children. 

My role model for setting limits with my kids was a surprising one. My younger brother married a pregnant girl when he was still in high school. They raised her son and had a daughter together. When the kids were as young as 9 months old, he would admonish them, “Listen, there’s no need to whine! What do you want? That? Okay, I’ll get it.”

And guess what? They stopped whining and found another way to communicate with him. And they turned out to be really great kids! They weren’t damaged by these limits (that’s not to say they didn’t suffer in other ways from a life with poor teen parents, but that’s another story!). It never seemed like he was denying them expression of their feelings or making them stifle their emotions. Rather, it seemed like he was guiding them to appropriate forms of communication.

And I think that’s the one thing children want to know: “Here I am! How does this place work? What are the rules? Where do I fit in? How do we do things here?”

This is what they learned from my brother, a young teenager: “I don’t want you to whine. I want you to make your needs known without whining. I will respect you; I will honor you; but let’s leave that out of our communication.” They learned boundaries and respect and I could see that they felt safe and clear within that. Of course we came from parents who raised us the same way—limits were firm—and so it came naturally. Plus I had been a Montessori-trained teacher for 10 years by the time I had children, and I had learned the importance of clarity, routine, and freedom within limits.

So I did things like sleep-train my kids at a few months and I could immediately see how important to them it was to have a good sleep schedule. People often commented that my kids rarely whined, whimpered or cried. I believe it was because their sleep and food and health were so protected by me. Children cry chiefly when their physical resources are diminished. And I continue to see myself as their health and safety czar. I’ve tried to leave their emotional life, their academic life, and their social life to them. I may ask my kids if they have homework if I’m planning something for us, but I have never looked over their assignments, checked in on the internet, or edited their papers. I see those as out of my domain.

hugh crawling

I began to set limits with my kids as soon as they were crawling. I set aside some cabinets for them, but others were off limits. I gave them access to our alphabetized music CDs when I saw the pure joy and sense of order that my daughter got out of grabbing a CD, toddling 30 steps to the dining room to place it against the wall, and going back 50 times to get another to do the same. But I didn’t let them touch my guitar.

Once they were mobile and I told my kids that they couldn’t touch my guitar sitting on its stand, I would see a little 9-month-old crawl over to the guitar, turn and look at me, make a decision, and crawl on. Isn’t that self control? Don’t we want our children to know what self control looks and feels like? I do!

But these limits were also balanced by much freedom wherever possible. I gave my children complete freedom of movement to the extent possible. They had easy access to a back yard where they could climb and dig and get dirty to their heart’s content. I never limited them from climbing to the very tops of trees and they had a trampoline with no screens around it. My question to myself was always “Could I possibly say yes here?” and I did to the extent possible. They rode their bikes around the block of a busy urban street at a young age and they walked to the gas station a hundred yards away.

We were early practitioners of “free range parenting” and it served us and them well. Sometimes if I was feeling anxious about saying yes I would ask myself “might they die?” I really tried to hold that as the standard, rather than “might they break an arm?” so that I could really allow their executive thinking and decision making to expand. It’s funny because, just as Montessori has both the reputation of being “too rigid” and “too relaxed” – both things have been said about my own parenting methods. I wanted my children to come as close as they could, in an urban setting, to my free range rural childhood. Complete freedom within very clear boundaries is my (and Maria Montessori’s) philosophy!

I also believe that limits and discipline can always be accomplished with COMPLETE love. No anger necessary! You’re containing that child and providing limits with lots of compassion and empathy. As a teacher with many new criers coming to my class I sit with them, “I know it’s hard when Mom leaves. Let me sit here with you.” I don’t try to distract them. I let them be with their big emotions and help them know it’s okay.

Children do what works.

lynn and kids

But sometimes tantrums can be a source of power. This isn’t to say they’re manipulative but children are hard wired to determine how things are and what works. When a two-year-old discovers he can bring the family to its knees, he may come to love the power of that. Especially if he isn’t feeling powerful in the rest of his life. This is a nuanced thing. Only a parent knows what’s really going on – whether it’s big feelings or the feeling of big power – but sometimes removing a child can take the wind out of his sails. “I’m sorry, we’re dining here. We’re not crying. Would you like for me to show you where you can go to have a nice cry?” If you take that child into another room, say a formal living room, and sit with him and say “you have a nice cry and let me know when you’d like to return to the dining table,” you may find he looks around, sees he is having no effect, and quiets down to return to the family hub.

We live in Illinois, have friends with farms and houses in Wisconsin and Michigan, and travel often to my home state of Missouri and to Kentucky where my husband was raised.  That’s a lot of driving. When our children were small and we stopped for dinner, we had expectations for how they would behave in a restaurant. I always told them,”We don’t know if there is a family here for whom dinner in a restaurant is a rare, special-occasion, once-a-year treat. They do not want it spoiled by listening to a baby cry, scream, or whine. So if you whine or cry, we will go to the car.”

Once inside, we would repeat this, if necessary. For each of my kids we had to follow through once by taking them to the car. That child got no dinner and, when it was my turn to sit in the car, I too cried for my loss of wine (no “h”), leg stretch, rest, atmosphere, and food. But that left enough of an impression that we only had to threaten “Do you need to go to the car?” and that child would be able to stop his behavior fast! 

hugh two

This idea of leaving an impression is important. We have to impress upon a child the terms of his limits. Some children are impressed upon easily, and others not so easily. We have to look at each child and know what it is that will make an impression. For one sensitive child it may be a raised eyebrow. My daughter and I were upset recently when we opened a candy box to find one piece left. I went to my son’s room to tell him we didn’t appreciate him eating all the candy. My daughter called after me, “Just do that thing where you make your eyes big; he’ll know!”

I have met children whose parents have never been able to, or do not believe in, setting limits. I had a family in my class from China who told me they didn’t believe in saying no to their children because they had come from such an authoritarian household. It saddens me to see children who believe that life should always go their way, and who don’t know what it feels like to struggle against a whim. They’ve had no practice and they suffer for it. The people around them suffer too. They become people no one wants to be with and that’s a big disservice to them.

I once heard a speaker, Dr. JoAnne Deak, talk about brain development and the importance of “stretching rubber bands” that were little used. She said that what makes a whole, well-rounded human is one who has all types and kinds of stretchy rubber bands in his brain. So a child for whom things come easily actually needs practice at the things that don’t come so easily and needs to be encouraged to go out of his comfort zone in order to use his whole brain.

I believe that becoming accustomed to limits and working around them can be really good practice for life. It helps stretch those rubberbands – the ones where life doesn’t go exactly as you wished. Limits are good for the brain, good for the soul!

I know this is a controversial subject! In my many years of teaching , this may be where the most “range” in parenting practices exists. But I actually think a child feels safe and contained and secure when he is clear on limits. What’s your opinion of boundaries and and freedom-within-limits? Do you try to reduce limit setting in your house?

Additional Reading 

Does setting limits help children have resilience and find solutions quicker than if they hadn’t had the experience of being told no? This study has an interesting take: http://psychpedia.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-science-of-happiness-why.html

(To read more about Dr. Deak, click here http://www.deakgroup.com/our-educators/joann-deak-phd/)

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, Little Pickle Press, 2011. It’s a great book about the teenage brain that my children enjoyed.



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3 Things I Got Right as a Parent (#2)

A Series on the 3 Things I Got Right as a Parent

Part 2: A Community

cos exterior

Providing my children with precious time in nature is one thing I got right as a parent. (Read Part 1: A Wood) I’m also proud of raising them in an incredible church. I say this even though I’m married to an atheist, and even though I resist being called a “Christian” because of the negative connotations that go with it.

I’m not conservative, judgmental, nor righteous and I don’t like the way the mantel of “Christian” creates “Other.” I have a personal God that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember and my faith could move mountains—I have even experienced miracles—but my beliefs are personal and I don’t wear them on my sleeve.

Still, I always knew I wanted to raise my children in a church.


I hear many people say, “We’re going to let them choose when they grow up.” I never understood this argument. How does one choose in a vacuum? I chose instead to give my kids something to rebel against: Here is something you can embrace, walk away from, hate, or love. It was a very conscious decision for me, because I believe that we can only truly choose things we have experienced. It’s ok to push back, but if we know nothing, then we have nothing upon which to form an opinion.

Intelligence is making connections, and how can one make connections out of thin air?

So I started with the equivalent of my mother tongue, the Catholic Church. I tried to convince my neighborhood church to adopt an incredible Montessori-based Sunday School program, Catechises of the Good Shepherd (CGS); I even got myself on the textbook committee. But it never took and I ended up taking my kids to another church. Unfortunately, it was a poorly-run program. The classroom was dirty and it even smelled bad.

I knew of an Episcopal church up the street with a well-known CGS program. Catholics and Episcopalians offer a nearly identical curriculum, so I started taking my kids there while still going to early mass at our regular  Catholic church. That’s when I discovered something—all Christian churches read the same Bible verses EVERY WEEK! I would be waiting for my kids and hear the exact reading I had just heard in my church. I thought, “Who’s scheduling this meeting, where they all decide what the weekly reading is?!”


I loved the program and the incredible teachers at the Episcopalian church, but I still considered myself a Catholic. Then, when my kids were 5 and 7, we were visiting family in St. Louis and went to mass at the New Cathedral, where my parents were married. The Bishop was visiting that day and there was an unruly crowd of priest-abuse victims protesting with signs and banners outside.

church abuse use

“What’s going on, Mom?” my kids asked.

I believe in answering children truthfully but, if the topic is sensitive, divulging just enough to satisfy their curiosity. “Oh, these people are mad about something that happened to them,” I said.

“What, Mom? What happened?”

“Someone harmed them when they were little. Someone they trusted hurt them.”

“Who was it? Who hurt them? What did they do?”

It was awkward, even painful.They wouldn’t let up and I knew I was going to have to shatter their illusions of a good world. I thought, “How do I explain to my kids that the place they go every week, has for decades, if not centuries, been an institution involved with harming children?”

I decided I didn’t want to be part of that institution anymore.

At the same time, my experience at the Episcopalian church felt fresh and modern and relevant. Our gay rector often spoke casually from the pulpit about his long-term partner, and I was seeing women on the altar in important roles.

martha cos

I was becoming an Episcopalian. The deal was sealed when my Mom came from Florida for my daughter’s first communion. As we drove up to the church, she asked, “Where are we?” and didn’t bat an eye when I said her granddaughter was an Episcopalian.

By middle school my daughter declared herself an atheist. I don’t force her to go to church with me anymore but, funnily enough, both my kids remain very active in the youth group and participate in the annual mission trip to Appalachia. Hallelujah! They love their amazing teacher and her young hip assistant, the social hour, the good food, and the entire vibe. They have something to push back against or something to embrace if they want it. They have had a background in Bible study (cultural literacy!), morality, and, most importantly, they have a community of people who have known them since they were young and to whom they belong.


Every child needs to belong to something bigger than themselves. Do you agree? I’d love to hear where you’ve found community for your family and in what way your children benefit.

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3 Things I Got Right as a Parent (#1)

A Series on the 3 Things I Got Right as a Parent

Part 1: A Wood

urban uptown

When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a rough urban neighborhood in Chicago. We didn’t have a TV, and ate dinner watching the prostitutes pass by on the sidewalk, or the undercover police conducting a drug raid on the building across the street. I cried to my husband one day, “Where are our children going to learn to ride a bike? How are they going to understand what ‘sun dappled light on the forest floor’ means?”

sun dappled light

I was pregnant with our second child, so maybe it was hormones. Or maybe it was something more. I grew up in a rural setting with tons of freedom. It was one of the best things about my childhood and I was determined to find some of that for our kids. So we reconnected with old friends (from 1982!!) who lived in the north woods of Wisconsin and began vacationing there with our kids. We rented a cabin at a YMCA family camp, and eventually our friends and family sort of took over the annual ten days until we knew most everyone there.

Soon our kids were making birch bark houses, digging for worms, and catching turtles. At any given meal, I might have 12 children stream into my cabin and I would be expected to make sandwiches for all. But then I might not see any of them for the next 6 meals!




The children roamed, like wolves, in packs and played in the woods or sped around in kayaks, going to “blueberry hill,” “rock reef” or “zombie island.”

The men tied their canoes together at 4 pm and tried to outdo one another with “good” beer discoveries. There was, and probably still is, a legendary Muskie, stared in the face twice, but never caught.

This precious time in nature is one thing I got right as a parent. Of course, my kids are only in high school, so maybe the jury is still out. Sometimes I recall my fears as a young mom quick to blame myself for everything.  “Do you think this is because I ate so much ice cream when I was pregnant?” I’d ask my family doctor.

“Well,” he’d joke, “It’s always the mother’s fault.” So maybe my kids will end up in jail and it will be clear that I did everything wrong. For now, at least, I bask in the glory of a few good decisions.

What about you? I’d love to hear what you “got right” as a parent!

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Six Ways Montessori & RIE Agree; Two Ways They Differ

My experience with children dates back to the 1960s and, growing up in my neighborhood, most people did things the same way. There was a general wisdom that seemed to permeate where all children slept from 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. under one year of age. After that, they started to push the morning nap later until it became the afternoon nap.  Children went to bed between 7 and 8 p.m. and, as my Aunt says, “We were happy to see them go.” Children were potty trained about the time they could walk and because many of these families had 6 to 10 children, mothers were thankful. My own mother remembers very little about potty training and says that we started taking off our own diapers to go potty and she really only knew we were potty trained because the diaper load decreased!

Now there is more info and knowledge about the brain and emotional intelligence and children are honored and respected as unique individuals from birth. Parents are making very personal decisions on how to raise their children and the good news is, great children coming out of homes representing a variety of parenting philosophies.  Usually parents hear about a parenting “school of thought” such as RIE or Montessori or attachment parenting and it just resonates. It makes sense to them, but then later, actual implementation, sometimes combined with fatigue and stress, is difficult. It is often then that people come to me with questions about Montessori and RIE parenting and often they have questions about the difference between the two.


Joyful Egg Gathering!

Montessori and RIE have so much in common. That is why they are often associated. Mostly, we share a respectful attitude toward children.

  1. We both honor, acknowledge and celebrate the beautiful unfolding of the inner spirit of children.
  2. We both believe that children were born with everything they need within them to grow into full actualized adults and we know they will be guided toward that which they need if we stay out of their way.
  3. We both see children as self-learners.
  4. We both believe in free gross motor development out of containers and children unhindered in movement.
  5. We both require an honoring and respectful attitude from the adults caring for children.
  6. We both believe in the power of observation to learn about a child’s capabilities, needs, and style of communication.

But I see more confusion around how RIE and Montessori differ. When I took the RIE course in 2012 it was immediately clear Montessori was not looked upon favorably by my trainer because she felt it was academically focused. Recently online, someone asked specifically about the differences and here was my reply.

Regarding free movement, self initiation, and exploring they are identical. We love free movement so much we don’t even like cribs! But we believe the child comes in asking one question “what is my place here?” and when we help him to see he is a valued and contributing member of the community, it helps his self esteem, his relationship with his own inner agency, and his confidence in his own abilities which lead to good things. We have a saying “open the door slowly” where the child begins knowing his family, his extended family, his neighborhood and his world is ever building in that way. And we feel the same way about freedom. The more a child is capable of moving, the more freedom he has obviously. When you crawl, you can move around but rather than an entire safe room, we might have a mostly safe space but also be okay saying “but you can’t touch daddy’s guitar” knowing that saying no occasionally is not a bad thing but is, in fact, a teachable moment and an opportunity for that baby to practice self control. That baby will crawl to that guitar, turn around and look at you, then crawl away. And this is the beginning of self discipline which we see as a good and important part of lifelong development. There’s so much more but that’s the big one as I see it.

To expand on this, though Montessori and RIE have more in common than not, especially valuing the importance of free movement and inner agency, we tend to see the means to the end quite differently. As a Montessori teacher I feel I am tasked to help a child answer the questions he naturally comes to me with. It’s like he’s hard wired to answer these questions:

  • How does this world work?
  • Where do I fit in?
  • How much power do I have? How do I get that power?
  • What do I do with this inclination to work, perfect, fit into my culture, learn my language, socialize and acculturate?”
  • I’m so ready! What can I DO?
  • How can you help me do it myself?

Montessorians answer nearly all of those questions with one response. Work! Maria Montessori discovered the mind/body connection 100 years before anyone else. She knew that sensorial experiences and the brain making the body work in purposeful ways was the way to build a child’s brain, his inner agency, and his relationship with himself. Within days, weeks, months of coming into my toddler class a child (15 to 36 months) may come skipping into the room ready to do, literally, hundreds of “works” such as:

  • Putting away groceries, folding laundry, prepping snack, ironing, sitting on potty, changing clothes, scrubbing tables, watering plants, painting with watercolor, working with clay, sewing, cutting, doing puzzles, matching language materials and cards, working on dressing frames (zip, button, buckle)

Children are so busy building their mind body connection and feeling so self-satisfied and satiated there is no time for acting out or testing behavior.  They leave so happy and fulfilled and that feeling usually stays with them all day. I know deep in my heart this is a wonderful environment to give a child and that they are not being academically pushed or forced to do anything they don’t want to. They are a valued part of the community participating in the activities that are making the classroom function. We say YES to their natural inclination to work and contribute. They don’t feel academically pushed in any, way, shape or form. They feel liberated to act on the environment in a powerful and purposeful way. They feel honored and respected. It’s a fabulous place to be!

RIE also promotes a “Yes” space (also called a no-free zone) where a child is encouraged to use his own agency to direct himself toward what is in his environment – open ended toys he can use in his own way. This is a “wants nothing” time where adults don’t have expectations of the child. They don’t expect to be entertained. They don’t need to stimulate. They don’t ask questions to test what the child knows. They don’t teach. They don’t give the message that all information comes from adults. They observe and take him where he is. Adults try not to get involved with interactions between children except to sportscast what is happening and turn it back to them. This is a beautiful thing and creates a wonderful environment for a child!

But here’s the difference from my perspective. Once a child is able to move, he naturally has more freedom to explore, gather, retrieve, and satisfy his curiosity. RIE proponents would give the baby a YES space where he could safely explore without restrictions and and limits.

But Montessorians would say that with this expanded freedom comes responsibility (which requires self discipline). We would give ever expanding freedom…but within appropriate limits. “You can explore these two cabinets with Tupperware and pots but not the others.” “You can use your toys on this shelf but you can’t take the books off this shelf.” We believe he is hard wired to WANT to know the rules and to begin to abide by them. He wants to do the things we’re modeling for him. He realizes we all have a role in the family and he wants to take his place. So we give him responsibilities. We give him a small shot glass with a few drops of water that he holds himself and brings to his mouth. We change him standing up so he can lift his leg and participate. These actions send the message we honor and respect his capabilities and know he can rise to the expanded expectations we have of him. And he is proud to do so. We provide a “toilet learning” environment at the time of his biggest interest (or sensitive period) – when his brain has established a connection to his pelvis. Toilet Learning & Cloth Diapers

For my own children’s birthdays I gave them a card, each year bestowing both a freedom and a responsibility. “This year your responsibility is: you are in charge of your hair and you may decide whether and when to brush it and may choose the style. This year your freedom is: you may chew gum.” This strengthened the concept that with freedom comes responsibility.

We also scaffold. We step back and provide only the support absolutely necessary. Our expectations expand as his abilities develop. But we have to stand back far enough to know what his abilities are. And they change every week! I can tell you from my experience – the further away you stand, the more they will surprise you. I always ask myself in my class “What am I doing and how can the children do it instead?” I used to dump out the daily laundry on the table and sit down and fold it as my own morning work. Children began to sit next to me and help. Occasionally a 15-month-old will sit down and fold a napkin perfectly! No one would have guessed she had this skill unless she was given the freedom to try. I used to put away dishes and groceries but now the children do it happily , effortlessly, proudly and unasked. I can go the entire morning without saying many words.

Montessorians link a child to materials which allow him to successfully participate in his family, classroom, community, and world knowing this is a natural drive of his. We are steeped in child development and observation and then we connect children to the work that is developmentally appropriate. Here is the tagline on my web site:

A child is born with an inner director urging him toward exactly what he needs to learn. He is an auto-didactic drawn toward necessary movements, information, skills and wisdom. Adults offering respect, connection, and freedom together with clear expectations, provide the best environment for a child.

Maria Montessori was a medical doctor, scientist and math genius . She never taught children but like any great scientist she observed them for years, noticing their natural inclinations in different periods of growth, and then created materials to meet those needs as well as educate them in the basic foundational academic skills they would need. Her curriculum started as a prepared environment for 3 to 6 year-olds at the time of the Industrial Revolution when parents were going to work in factories and children were being left unsupervised. Eventually she created elementary materials. She never did develop 0-3 materials but some of her followers did and captured the spirit of her intent.

Emi Pikler came out of the same roots as Montessori. World War II. Nazism. Genocide. Fascism. They shared the same collective unconscious and came to many of the same conclusions as they worked with and observed children. They both had the heartbreak of a world gone wrong and the children caught in the middle. They both saw the need for freedom at the core of the search for peace. And they both saw children as the hope for the future.

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Why I’m a Lurker

mom and baby

Montessori theory and curriculum make perfect sense to me and always have. RIE’s deep and abiding respect for children leading to a hands-off approach from adults is revolutionary. Waldorf’s gentle approach and spiritual and artistic components speak profoundly to me. Maybe there are others like me? Are you a little country bit country and a little rock n roll? A little RIE and a little Montessori? A little Waldorf thrown in too?

I go online to different groups I am part of – some Montessori, some RIE, some traditional teaching, and it is difficult. It can tie me in knots. I see people whose “philosophy” is not meeting their needs. They’re at a loss. Or I see them hold the philosophy so rigidly in their heads that they are not engaging their hearts, their intuition. I too have been guilty of that as a parent and it’s my biggest regret.

Though I took the RIE Foundations course and it was transformative in my work with parents and children as a parent-infant teacher, I see the limitations and I see what parents struggle with in implementing it. I see their struggles online and yet know I cannot answer or give advice as it would not be in strict keeping with RIE tenets.

Then I go to my Montessori pages and I see videos of parents grabbing their child’s hands to help them get a wooden coin into a slot and I cringe. Where would they have learned that they should override his agency and make his hand to their bidding? How sad to rob that child of the joy of discovering that that coin fits into that slot? But that’s what we’ve learned in Montessori training – to “teach” the child how to do things.

I am a 27-year birth to three Montessori teacher and I have always struggled with what didn’t feel right to me. There are many contradictions inside of me so I understand what parents go through. I wish that Montessori were more hands-off in the early years. I wish that it addressed the importance of free play and fantasy beyond saying that it begins inside the child and outside of the classroom.

Another struggle for me as a teacher is the conflict between honoring the parent-child relationship and being heartbroken when a child’s needs aren’t being met. I believe the relationship between a parent and child is a sacrosanct preordained contract and I know that each family has a unique culture. When we were homeschooling in a large diverse urban environment we interacted with families embracing a  range of practices from breastfeeding until age 8 to corporal punishment at age one. Truly wonderful children came out of all of these homes!

But this doesn’t mean that every child comes into my daily toddler class ready to fit in and understand how we do things. I once had a boy who knocked every item off the shelves in sweeping gestures every day. Sometimes it takes months of grueling work and much repetition. I don’t always agree with what a parent is doing at home. I once had a girl who was potty trained in my class, where we wear cloth underpants, for 12 months before her parents were willing to switch out of disposables.  How do I honor their relationship and live with the feeling that a child is not finding his highest self? I think it is a universal struggle amongst teachers.

At many points during my extensive education and training, it was necessary that I “keep quiet’ about another philosophy or pedagogy which was antithetical to the one I was studying. For instance both RIE and Erikson Institute have strong play-based foundations and are opposed to Montessori philosophy which they see as too academic. My Montessori trainers were not comfortable when I asked about “attachment theory” which is distinctly missing in Montessori philosophy yet critical to Eriksonian theory. I enjoy learning, thinking taking, and leaving behind what doesn’t work for me.

At this point, there is nothing about a child, ages birth to three, about which I don’t have an opinion but I can’t say my opinions have any purity or abide in any one philosophy. This preface is an introduction by way of disclaimer to my next post which I have been working on for some time. It will be a comparison of Montessori, RIE and Waldorf principals, all of which I embrace. Why am I qualified for this?

  1. I have all three international Montessori trainings plus Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
  2. One of my own children attended a Waldorf school where I simultaneously attended a Steiner Study Group.
  3. Though we had discussed Magda Gerber in my 0-3 Montessori training in 1990-91, I took the RIE Foundations course in 2012 and it dramatically informed and changed my parent-infant classes.

I teach parent-infant classes and both RIE and Montessori devotees attend. I find I have to couch things like “Well, from a strictly RIE perspective….” Or “Maria Montessori would say….” when really what I believe falls somewhere in between. And a dear and close friend is the head 0-3 Waldorf teacher just a few blocks away and I so enjoy hearing about her peaceful, joyful classes from both her and her parents.

But online I lurk because I know my “grey” opinions would be unwelcome. It’s painful because, really, who cares about “beliefs.” Don’t we all just want answers? And help? I am a deeply spiritual and religious woman married to an atheist. I don’t care what people believe because it’s so darn personal. But I do like to solve problems. Everything about my personality is drawn to solving problems. I would hope that people could look, learn and listen and then go deep in their hearts for what resonates and if they do, they are probably doing right by their children. And then we could all sit back and listen to some country music. Or some rock n roll.

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Do With Me, Not To Me


I profile children. I don’t mean to. I wish I didn’t. But I don’t know how to stop myself.. I see children exhibiting behaviors or symptoms or characteristics and, chances are, after 30 years of working with children, that I’ve seen those same traits and they usually accompany other traits that always seem to cluster together.

For instance, the child with eczema can’t focus. The child with puffy dark circles under his eyes is a delayed talker. The child who talks nonstop has educated working parents who have believed in “stimulating” him all along. He is a child who knows he can get attentions from his parents by saying intelligent things and asking questions.

Some children come into my class having lost all sense of agency. I put food down in front of them and they keep their hands at their sides but open their mouths ready for someone to shovel it in. They may sit on the bench when I’m helping them change into the cloth underwear we wear in our toddler class and instead of trying to put the pants on, they just look at me and lift their foot. I tell them “you’re going to need hands” and they stare at me blankly and lift their foot higher.

When I see a child who’s lost agency , I always wonder if she had so much done for him and has been given so little opportunity to do for herself that she has developed her self image as someone who doesn’t “do” so much as someone who is “done to.” She doesn’t even try anymore. She just waits for someone to pick her up and plop her down where she’s supposed to be next. She waits for the food that is put on a tray in front of her or spooned into her mouth. She is changed, bathed and fed like a baby doll and that is how she views herself. Often she is an extremely delayed taker. And often that is just what the parents wanted in their lives – a living baby doll.

Yet, sometimes, if I work long and hard for months and years sometimes I can get parents to change how they think and to build a new relationship with this child. Certainly it helps that it is clear from the get-go that we expect her to use her own agency to function in our toddler community. And so, occasionally, the will that wasn’t allowed to have voice is discovered and, sometimes overnight, we see agency. We see will. We see a walking talking human with a voice and opinions and skills and preferences. It’s a beautiful thing! And yet, the will displays confusion. The will displays anger. The will tests, for the first time, to see what the limits are. But this may be two years after other children are learning about limits, boundaries and self control. So, again, this child is behind.

So consider this. If you love to have a living baby doll. If you hate to see your child struggle. If you’d rather not see your child frustrated so you do it yourself, please be aware of what could result and the self image your child may create.

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Why Parents are Health and Safety Czars

sleeping Rainey & Asta

I asked the parents in my baby class last week how they saw their role in their children’s lives. Some of the words I heard were: supporter; advocate; care giver; model; adviser. I liked that these words are compatible with the role that Montessori and Magda Gerber saw for parents. But as a more than 30 year preschool teacher, I have a role for parents that I really wish they took more seriously. We know that babies are self learners and self initiators. If we give them free movement, they learn most everything on their own. But they can’t ensure good sleep or nutrition. Only parents can. We are the health and safety czars!

I see many, many children who come to my class very sick for weeks and even months at a time. These are children whose autoimmune systems are clearly in distress. They have multiple or one continuous infection and are not given the time to rest and recuperate. And bedrest and fluid are still the best remedies for fighting infection.

Children can be born with weak livers or early vaccines or childbirth drugs can impact their systems. Some of them can’t tolerate grains and/or sugar under one year and may need an elimination diet to determine what is disagreeing with them as well as strengthening probiotics and other nutrition.

Symptoms are just that – they are symptoms of an underlying problem. When your body sends mucus it is also sending a signal “I want this infection OUT of this body” and so the mucus pours out and hopefully the infection with it. We sneeze and we cough in order to GET THINGS OUT OF OUR BODY. We have a fever to BURN THE INFECTION. These are all wonderful things to celebrate. But we also have to know they are signs of infection and infection needs all of our resources to fight it.We need to be in bed and drinking fluids, helping your body flush, flush, flush and rest, rest, rest to do this big job.

Yet children come to my class with runny noses day after day after day. For weeks at a time. I am so very grateful to the parents who keep their children home for a runny nose. For most parents, a runny nose is not worthy of a day home in bed. They have to be vomiting or feverish to justify a day home. Or parents will say they can’t find or afford both school and a babysitter. To me that is like saying you can afford the restaurant but not the tip.

Something else I’ve noticed in more than 30 years of teaching; children whose sleep is not protected are usually the sickest. One child who had trouble with sleep and was constantly sick came back after a holiday and I asked how his sleep, which had been going badly, was now. I was told that much family was in town over the holiday and that he hadn’t slept much at all because of it. Guess what? He still had a really seriously congested nose full of green mucus.

And then there is nutrition. If you have a nose that runs clear for months or years at a time (yes this happens. “Does he have a cold?” “Oh no, his nose just always runs.” “For how long?” “Oh, since he turned one, almost two years now.” ) there is something wrong. There is probably a food that is not agreeing with him. I always wonder if your body is this sick, how can your brain be working?

Then there are the children with bruising, puffiness, wrinkles and bags under the eyes. This is a sign that the sinuses are filled and/or that an inflammation reaction is taking place. This is a also probably a sign that there is a food that is not agreeing with him. And I can tell you, in my experience, the children with these issues are also the ones who have behavioral and/or learning problems.

But when I try to talk to parents about these things, they stare at me blankly. Honestly, not once has anyone said “Really, do you think so? Any ideas about what I could do?” Because I do have ideas, yes, but no one has every asked me for them, imagine that, and it stymies me every time because what more important role could we possibly play? This child cannot be responsible for the nutrition going into his body. If he is ingesting something that doesn’t agree with him there is NOTHING HE CAN DO ABOUT IT! It is our job and the most important one, really, because the child is a self-creator. We are not creating him. We are not developing, stimulating or teaching him to become his highest self. We are only providing the environment for him to do that himself and the most important environment is one where he is functioning at full capacity! So, so, so important!

There is no more important job than making sure that our children are eating well and getting enough sleep.  Personally I advocate for 16 hours of sleep under one year of age, moving by three months toward nighttime sleep from 7 -7 and naps from 9-11 and 1-3. And then after a year, children tend to lose the afternoon nap as the morning nap moves later and later until by 12-16 months they are sleeping at night from 7-7 and napping from 1-3.

A few other sleep books I recommend:

12 Hours by 12 Weeks


Secrets of a Baby Whisperer


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