In Praise of Cousins (and teaching for resilience)

I think cousins are underrated. We devote entire days to mothers and fathers. Hallmark would have us also do the same for grandmothers and grandfathers, though honestly, did that ever really catch on? Has anyone or anyone you know ever received or sent a Happy Grandparents Day card? I didn’t think so. Our children are told that “every day is children’s day” but they know a crock when they hear it, but we do celebrate them on their birthdays in any number of lovely and/or over-the-top ways. Where’s the love for cousins?

Last week I got to spend a few days with my cousin Lori and her wonderful husband Lou in downtown Philly. As trips like these are wont to evolve there were “mini-events”, a dinner here, a photo album sesh there, a group photo at the beer garden, a chance to catch up, but also reminisce. To tell stories of our growing kids’ childhoods and relate stories of our own. It’s special with cousins because you have a shared personal history – “I remember once when you came to the Cape…”, “Your mom always made the best…”. More than a few “I’ll never forgets…” and “Did I ever tell you….”. But you also have a shared family history. We can look at a sepia and coffee-stained photo of my grandfather standing in front of a farmhouse in 1900’s Europe and that’s your grandfather too! A shared history that dates back decades, centuries, millenia.

Anyway, as much as the time spent with Uncle Freddie and poring over a family tree with Aunt Doris is treasured, and how dear it was to have dinner with cousins Mariann and share a pint with Al and Joe, it was such a treat to have time to just hang out over coffee with Lori during the in-betweens. Lori’s a bit ahead of me when it comes to grandchildren with three, so she has experiences I’ve yet to had, namely playing this new role. It seems to be glorious, a time to re-kindle that visceral love we can really only feel for our children. But at the same time, there was an acknowledgement that what parenting looked like 50 years ago for our moms and dads, 25 years ago when it was our responsibility, and today has changed. Grandparents tread carefully with advice, and I would guess that’s no different than ever. Same as it always was. I told Lori one of my favorite articles over the last few years was entitled, “I’ll Tell Grandma You Don’t Like Chicken” (though ten Google Search pages is yielding no results) which highlighted the misguided efforts some parents undertake to make sure their children are never put in a position that’s outside their comfort zone. I think at this point the term “helicopter parenting” is cliche and being replaced by newer terms such as “lawn mower parenting” (the removal of obstacles in front of your child) which will be passe next month. Lori relayed a story of a day-care center she had heard of that sent live updates to parents of what the child had consumed for food and drink during their day. “Four ounces milk, half-slice cheese, three maybe four, no definitely three Cheezits, etc…” Note: I am not making this up. I was curious to know if there was a concomitant diaper-change livestream but was afraid to ask. But even as these shenanigans may point to the nadir of bad parenting, supported by indulgent day-care centers, there are encouraging signs of growth. I hear the term “resilient children” trending more and more. Raising a strong and capable person who reacts to a setback with grit and determination, not a nervous glance for an adult is emerging as a priority. When the conversation turned to the best environment to support those more positive attributes, Montessori was of course our final destination. For well over a century now, our environments have had as their prime directive the development of children to adulthood. A classroom that holds the dignity of the child in highest regard and consequently puts strength and grace as a centerpiece, not a special “unit” taught over a few days, but inherent and daily; it’s baked into what we provide. It’s a form of trust in the end, isn’t it? Our own confidence in our students, in our children, that given the opportunity, these qualities will emerge naturally.

Certainly the conversations I have during the Admissions process at the Cornerstone School increasingly include more and more questions about independence and self-reliance and how those qualities can be nurtured at home and at school. The hype of how bad parents are “these days” is just that. We’ll move on. The kids are all right.

The essence of Montessori geometry

I spent time the last few weeks presenting geometry in Bluffton, South Carolina, using the same materials I’ve presented to teachers in different parts of the world over the last few decades.  From public charter schools in the Low Country, to a village in Ghana where pencils are shared, in Indonesia, Korea, Shanghai.

To say that this all impressed upon me the universality of Montessori would be an understatement.  And so I’ve spent some time thinking about what it is about this method of education that is so adaptable across time, over a hundred years, and space.  I think part of the answer is that at its core, Montessori is a reflection of humanity’s most essential components.

It is rooted in movement.  We see this clearly in the materials and the nature of the environments.  Ours is a dynamic space.  Movement is engaged, both gross motor, as works are chosen and replaced, and fine motor, exchanging one stamp for ten, one bead for ten, forming quadrilaterals from triangles.  “Children”, Montessori reminds us, “learn through their hands”.   Movement is also rooted in our humanity.  When we need to express our deepest emotions, are words ever adequate?  What conveys comfort better than an embrace?  What communicates affection more clearly than the stroke of a cheek?  We are born to movement.  Our first breath is movement.  Movement makes us human.

It is rooted in imagination.  Our children place a thousand stamp and see, in their mind’s eye, a thousand cube.  A piece of string becomes a line that never ends, moving to infinity in either direction. Globes become worlds. Look around you, for worse but mostly for the better, everything we have created as humans was created through imagination.  Montessori likened us to Robinson Crusoe, wresting material from the Earth to meet our needs, using our greatest tool, our imagination.  It is what moves us forward with hope, envisioning a future better than the present, better than our past.  “If there is to be change in the world”, Montessori reminds us, “it will begin with children.”

It is rooted in love.  There is no greater lesson in a Montessori classroom than the value of compassion.  The care of our environment comes from a love of order.  The care of each other comes from our love of community.  We could even say that the child’s inner drive to refine, to learn, to grow, is derived from love, because isn’t self-respect and esteem a loving and caring process of our future self?  

And we have all chosen to make this our life’s work.  Now think of the circumstances that have led to this moment.  My parents, one from Germany, the other from America, had to meet for me to be born, and their parents and their parents parents and so on, from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Austria, Germany.   We are all, then at the apex of a great triangle.  The circumstances and events that led to this moment, repeated for all of us, then gives us the idea, not of a triangle, of a great cone, stretching out behind this moment, and focused right here, right now.  If we look ahead, doesn’t the same shape appear to us?  The events in our lives, planned and unplanned, woven with others, expand out away from us as will our descendants.  A cone behind, cone ahead. That’s what makes these weeks, our work, in each passing moment, so important.