Being Versus Doing

Montessori’s whole-child approach offers parents a unique opportunity to be a real partner in early education, but if you ask Montessori teachers they’ll tell you the best way to support your child at home is to focus on “being” rather than “doing.”

Unfortunately, affecting how you are is easier said than done.  Changing what we do, on the other hand, comes more naturally. The day-to-day moments of parenting life give us plenty of chances to choose between being and doing. It just turns out that the challenges we face in choosing the former are usually reason enough to go with the latter. But we are the parents, after all. That means doing things for our children…all the time.  Naturally, parents ask teachers “what can I do to reinforce this at home?”  Instead, they should really be asking “How should I be?”

Consider Dr. Montessori’s concept of “following the child.”  The phrase itself starts with a verb, which implies action.  However, a deeper look into the method reveals that what you DONT do is even more important than what you do.  Continuing the idea, if your first instinct is not to do, you are better able to focus on your way of being.

There’s an old teacher phrase; “When you’re talking, you’re not listening.”  At least, I think it’s a teacher phrase because I personally heard it (while I was talking) so many times when I was in school.  Anyway, this phrase succinctly explains the relationship between being and doing. Maybe some of us can fool ourselves into believeing we can listen and talk at the same time, but we can all agree that talking definitely makes listening more difficult.  Likewise, when you’re already in the act of doing, it’s harder to affect your way of being. So by acting too quickly, we often lose the opportunity to make the choice on how to be. On the other hand, if we listen first and then talk, what we say and how we say it is usually going to be more thoughtful and appropriate.

So really, the question isn’t “Which is best, being or doing?” Both are important, but the order is key. Be first. Then Do.

So “How should you be in order to support your child?”

I’ve put together a short list including some essential ways of being that go a long way at home, school and everywhere else.

Be Patient:  Do nothing.  Wait.  Before, during or after.  Whatever your next step is, wait.  When we act quickly, we often miss the best opportunities.   Because she is still learning, chances are, your child will benefit from every second you can give.  Then when you finally do act, do it slowly.  This also provides you time for the next way of being.

Proactive: Model patience in situations where your child is not involved but is aware of your behavior. Driving in the car, waiting in line, talking on the phone, interacting with others.

Reactive: When responding to your child’s concern or conflict.  If the child is misbehaving, ignoring, delaying or arguing -especially when time is short, (unless safety is an issue) it cannot possibly hurt you to wait 10-15 seconds before saying or doing anything.  In many cases during that brief respite, the child will do or say something additional that will help you be more certain about your response.

Be Observant:  Really, consciously, try to process what you are seeing.  Look deeper to find your child’s motivation, what is going on inside and how you and the environment impact him or her.  Use that to inform your words, decisions and actions.

Proactive: Observing before there is an obvious reason requires heightened awareness. This is much easier in a classroom setting, but for most parents, this is a big ask because we already have so many things on our minds. It is better to aim at moments of premeditated observation rather than striving for a constant state.

Reactive: Your child is upset and recounting a disagreement with a friend at school.  As she speaks, take in as much as you can about her body language, tone of voice, word choice.  Analyze the details of the story and consider how she feels about it (both now and when the event occured).  Think about how you feel, your role here and what influence you have had and want to have.  Mentally identify outcomes to be avoided (to the extent you have a choice).  Then, after waiting a bit in silence, choose an open ended statement, such as “It looks like that was upsetting.”  Then rely on your patience.  Chances are, the exchange is going to de-escalate from there and if you continue in this way, your child will come away with ownership and new perspective.

Be Peaceful:  Not just as simple as avoiding angry displays. We all know not to yell (even if we can’t always stop our selves from doing so).  Sometimes we go to the other extreme and exaggerate our own behavior to augment a child’s enjoyment or make things more exciting and rewarding than they already are.  Children take their cues from your demeanor and will often mirror your energy.

Proactive: To make peace a habit, it might help to consider the areas of your world in which you spend the most time. Home, office, or for those of you with long commutes, the hours you spend in your car. Familiar places make it easier to focus on your way of being because they are more predictable. You may anticipate the opportunities to be peaceful before they arrive, and then use them as practice to develop a baseline state of peace for the moments that catch you off guard.

Reactive: The reactive opportunities are obvious, but also may be the most difficult task for a parent. Remaining peaceful in the face of frustration or stress. Patience can help, because it buys time for you to pre-meditate your reaction. Before you respond to the situation, ask yourself “Is it necessary, is it kind?”

Be Neutral:  Not all the time. A parent’s opinions are valuable, but recognize that when you respond in either extreme, you become the child’s primary impetus and risk creating an imbalance of parent/child control and responsibility.

Proactive: You may lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. In the same way, the adult’s role is to share the world with the child, but stop short of telling her what to think about it. The simplest way to model this is by pointing out what you see and asking questions rather than offering your judgements.

Reactive:  Your child completes a puzzle by herself but she’s not visibly excited.  She immediately begins putting the puzzle away.  Rather than offer your praise or assessment of her work, try to follow her lead. You’ll realize that it was her work and therefore best to let her feel how she wants to about it.

Some of these ideas might seem simple and straight forward. Maybe even easy. Others may seem impossible or uncomfortable. For the more challenging moments, be patient with yourself and keep your expectations realistic. Getting it right in the actual moment may not be possible. That’s ok. Sometimes just knowing about these techniques is enough to help you learn from the situation, and may make it easier to be different the next time.