Right around day 150 was a breaking point for my wife and me.
Roughly five months into limiting our activities outside of our home due to COVID-19, our two-year-old son had a particularly rough day. A day filled with hit-the-floor meltdowns and nonstop boundary testing. When he did listen, it was only after he received the pretzels or graham crackers, often referred to as a bribe.
Those graham cracker victories always felt a little hollow. So on day one-fifty-something, we decided to revisit the toddler books. One book that quickly caught my eye was a book called The Montessori Toddler. For those unfamiliar with Montessori—like myself before stumbling upon the book—the method is all about empowering children to learn about the world and solve problems on their own. This book and article focus on toddlers, but there are also Montessori schools across North America and around the world and Montessori techniques can be introduced to infants too.
We didn’t need anything more than the introduction chapters to know this method was something we would like to try. Although the book doesn’t mention faith, we quickly saw just how biblical the Montessori method was. In fact, many of the principles are laid out in the book of Proverbs.
Whether you think Montessori parenting is for you or not (we are by no means fully committed yet either,) I invite you to read on to consider different ways that this style reflects God’s vision for parenting.
Proverbs 16:32 “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control.”
Montessori stresses the importance of moderation. We want our children to be curious and make choices, but allowing every option at once can be overwhelming. At my house, the first step to our bedtime routine was picking up toys. By the end of the day, toys were everywhere in our living room and even when put away, they seemed to be taking up a larger and larger amount of space as our collection grew. Montessori helped us change that.
Now, instead of putting out all of our toys at once, we have a shelf with about eight different activities. We put the rest of the toys away where our son couldn’t get them.
The first day we switched to this method, I thought our son would be upset to see that the majority of his toys had seemingly vanished overnight. Instead, he was excited to see toys that he may have forgotten existed. We now switch out the toys on that shelf every day with the toys we put out of sight every few days to keep that feeling of excitement. Even more surprisingly, our son often remembers to put each toy away before starting a new activity (we’re still working on this).
In the same way, the Bible is packed full of examples of what happens when we overindulge. When Jacob dressed his son, Joseph, in a lavish piece of clothing, it fostered jealousy among his siblings (Genesis 37). By limiting options on toys, snacks, and activities, we are helping our children to gain a deeper appreciation for each and every thing that God has created.
Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”
Nearly every day, my son reminds me of the importance of being in the moment. Although there’s always another dish to clean or item to put away, he regularly grabs my hand and asks, “play with me?”
Our children can help us re-learn many of the lessons that are innate to them. Their natural curiosity and tendency to forgive quickly are qualities that Montessori embraces. Much of the technique is about letting your child teach you—observing their actions and recognizing their gifts.
I particularly liked the sections of the book that focused on mutual learning because they reminded me that at the core, your children are made in the image of God and they can teach you a lot. As parents, we just have to be willing to see through their eyes and listen to what they have to say.
Proverbs 18:16: “A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great.”
As Christians, we know that God made each of us and our children unique, with different gifts and talents. Montessori helps you foster each of those skills and teaches you to recognize optimal times to help their especially-absorbent minds to take in as much as possible.
For example, Montessori encourages you to build safe structures or obstacle courses when you see your child particularly excited about being active or climbing. The key is to be there for the child and recognize their desires and abilities. From there, it’s just a matter of giving them the tools they need to practice new skills.
One quick change that we made in our own house after reading tips related to our son’s gift for music. Although we’ve long recognized that he seems to especially enjoy songs and dancing, we didn’t have a lot of musical instruments for him. With the advice of The Montessori Toddler, we now added a few drums and a xylophone to our rotation of toys.
Proverbs 10:19: “One who spares words is knowledgeable; one who is cool in spirit has understanding.”
Montessori is fond of the acronym SHOW: slow hands, omit words. “Our child learns a lot from observing us and other people around them,” the book says. “We can think how a young child could be successful and model that—for example, push in our chair with two hands, avoid sitting on a table or shelf.”
I like this advice because it challenges me to be more mindful of my own actions, too. I remember that I also need to be polite in my interactions. We model for our children what it looks like to follow Jesus. The Apostle Paul invites us to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We set the example for our children to emulate. With the eyes of our children watching, we make our actions match what we believe.
Jesus teaches us this lesson many times. He doesn’t just say to love your neighbor, he does it. Even when his neighbors aren’t the high society members. If we can teach our kids to act and not just say, we can help them learn how to solve problems and become action-oriented.
This lesson also applies to quizzing your child. Montessori advises you not to ask your child repeatedly to tell you what color you are pointing to or how high they can count. I already knew our son didn’t like these ‘pop quizzes,’ so I am happy to have a reason to stop, and instead focus on observing where he might be struggling.
Perhaps an even more appropriate proverb, though not from the Bible, would be “actions speak louder than words.”
Proverbs 24:16a: “For though they fall seven times, they will rise again.. .”
As Christians, we serve a God who lets us make mistakes in order to learn from them. God models this for us, giving his people room to fail while still loving them unconditionally.
Montessori too often involves falling—both literally and figuratively. It encourages you to let your kids explore the outdoors freely, spill their paint in the process of creating art, and help around the house with chores. Why? Because we learn from these mistakes.
When we fold laundry, we ask our son to bring his own clothes to his room and he’s usually happy to help. For now this means we have to follow behind him and put the socks in the correct drawer, but he’s excited that he’s trusted to help with his own clothes and we trust that he will continue to grow in this sense of responsibility.
Over time, children will learn valuable lessons, we just need to be okay with the falls along the way. In the words of The Montessori Toddler, "The banana slices may be a bit mashed and the beans may have some ends that were missed. However, our child will become more and more independent.”
Much of Montessori is about setting your child up for success. We should offer them tools made for smaller hands and suggest ideas when we sense they are struggling.
Likewise, God doesn’t control our every action. Instead, he helps us with a set of tools and puts loved ones in our lives whom we can trust with advice.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra