“Can you help me hang up your pants today?” I asked my son as I was sorting his clean laundry. He knew how to fold placemats and small towels, so I just assumed he knew how to fold pants onto a hanger.
He has been expressing interest in not just choosing what to wear, but in caring for his wardrobe. I have granted full accessibility by keeping all items low to his level, and I officially switched to a capsule wardrobe for the fall where we now have limits on the amount of pants, shorts, shirts, socks, and shoes, in order to keep it from being overwhelming. With this accessibility has come an interest in understanding my process for cleaning, drying, folding, and putting them away.
As I slowed down my own motions, I noticed he was still stuck on the first pair of pants I gave him. He knew how to fold the pants in half, but, that was just one step. How does one even hold up the hanger? He started by holding it upside down. How exactly do the pants need to be placed on it? Too uneven, off they went! It wasn’t enough to watch me do it because his fingers were not familiar with these motions. He needed me to teach, not just model.
“Hold the hanger upright by the top hook, which looks like a little half-circle. Drape the folded pants over the bottom bar, and stop when you get about halfway where the knee markings are. Now walk it to the closet and lift it up over the bar.”
It was a whole thing. I was admittedly exhausted yet amazed. This moment made me realize that the more strides he takes, the more my guidance is needed. I may be able to do less on his behalf, but I need to prepare him more first.
Understanding whole processes
This teaching moment felt representative of a shift in our home. Practical life as a young toddler is all about isolating concepts. My 1.5-year old likes to pour a cup of water and peel her own banana. It still requires me to slow down and be more patient, but it’s easier for me as a parent to delegate and guide one skill at a time. On the contrary, at age three, my son is suddenly interested in whole processes. When he joins me in the kitchen, he doesn’t want to stop with prepping one veggie. He wants to understand my recipe and contribute from start to finish. Unbiased to the way every day processes are done, he also wants to know the why. Why do it like that? Why do it all? Why use that tool and not this one?
It’s an amazing shift to see our children go from, “Here is one chopped pepper,” to, “Tell me more about this meal and how you’re making it.” As a parent, though, it’s a hard adjustment because it asks us to surrender more control; it asks us to refrain our own judgments of the child; it asks us to be better communicators; it asks us to rally more patience. It asks us to teach more – and teaching in any context is a tough job.
Had I not taken the time to observe how my son was doing with the pile of pants and hangers, I would have simply found the pants and hangers strewn all over the floor. I might have assumed he wasn’t yet to be trusted with caring for more of his wardrobe, and then prematurely removed this accessibility in favor of a limit. This would’ve likely garnered frustration between us.
He wanted to put his clothes away, and he had the skills to do so – but interest and readiness did not replace the need for this crucial middle step of guidance. Our patient guidance is the real magic behind Montessori’s pillar of freedom within limits. While we learn to do less for our children, they are learning to do more. This is not a simple transfer, it is a big transition.
About the Author
Jenna Wawrzyniec is a writer and Montessori-inspired mother of two children under the age of four. Her two dogs also count as children. Read more of her work at itslittlebird.com.
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