When I come home at night from a workday, my kids have different reactions. At times, they’re tied up with projects and they give me a nod. At others, they jump at me and ask me to get started with play. And at others, they go from “hi” to tyranny in no time flat. As a parent, recognition and adaptation are the name of the game.
Where are my kids at that particular moment emotionally and activity-wise? What can I do to run with them or help them get to a better place? How can I stay out of the way so they can “just keep going” with what they’re doing or resolve any problems they’re having on their own?
I think being a mindful parent is probably our hardest job as parents. When I talk to teachers fully steeped in the Montessori learning tradition they, too, express that the hardest part of being in the classroom is spending time observing, thinking, and then determining the best course for engaging a child.
If we take Maria Montessori’s advice to “follow the child” seriously, mindful watching and measured engagement is core to helping a child learn and grow and to do so in a way that is “guiding” rather than “doing for.”
At the core of following the child for me – and for the Montessori teachers that I’ve talked with – are three simple questions that I am trying to ask myself more every day. Or at least they’re my translation of what Montessori teachers have told me. I’m not great at these things yet, but I’m learning and maybe these three simple questions can help you, too, follow your child a little better and guide a little more effectively.
I’ve found being mindful about quickly asking these questions has made it more natural to do them at the same time and better know how to engage my child:
- What is my child doing? Take moment to recognize what your child is doing. Are they engrossed in something or aloof and searching for something to do? Do they have someone (a sibling or friend) involved or do they need a partner?
- What is their emotional state? Are they peaceful or volatile? Focused or adrift? Agitated or pensive? Can you identify any proximal causes for that emotional state without even having to ask?
- What are they telling you? Without you even asking, what are they saying? Are the expressing anger or frustration, joy or nothing at all? Are they asking for something by saying it or implying it? You can be non-confrontational by simply asking them “Tell me how you’re feeling” or “How are you?”
Rapidly assessing and reassessing the answers to these questions or taking time to observe your child and have a good idea of what the answers to these questions are puts you in a position as a parent not to react to your child, but to guide your child. What does guiding mean?
- Doing nothing. Sometimes the best course is to let your child just be. They will continue doing what they’re doing and be at peace knowing you’re present. Or they will self-calm with the knowledge – stated or not – that you’re there to help.
- Directly engaging. Your child may ask for help. Lead with questions in return: “How can I best help you?” or “What are you working on?” You also can be proactive: “Can I play with you?” or “What are you up to? Can I watch?”
- Nudging. The most nuanced part of following the child and guiding, for me, is finding a healthy midpoint between “doing nothing” and “directly engaging.” I’m finding more and more that being mindful about what each of my children is doing, saying, and the emotional state they’re in gives me a great opportunity to engage at the right time to help, comfort, and nudge them along the path or to a different path if needed.
Most of what’s here isn’t rocket science, but as I get older and understand myself as a parent, I’m getting better at being aware of my own physical, mental, and emotional state. With that, and seeing how effective it is for me, I can see how helpful it is to ask some of the same questions I ask of myself about my children. And in doing that, I find that I’m able to be less reactive and imposing as a parent and more guiding and empathetic.
See if these questions and a pause to ask them help you. Let us know your thoughts right here in Guidepost Parent Chat.
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