Cultivating Your Child’s Character

Interesting Powerpoint on developing character in young children. One important point, “decision fatigue”: that is, the truth that the more choices we have to make, the worse job we do. So, much of character development is fostering positive habits. Mary


It was a pleasure spending the evening with an engaged group of parents to think about what we each want our Character Legacy to be and how to practically go about passing that on to our children.  If your parenting partner was unable to attend or if you would like to participate at home, please feel free to email me and I’d be happy to send along the Cultivating Character Worksheet Packet to you.  Please keep me posted on your discoveries!

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Try being curious, George


Positive Discipline parenting classes give new ways to see children, new ways to see misbehavior (as mistaken goals; your children trying to connect in some terrible, or at least, ineffective ways), and at least 52 “tools”.

This is one of the “tools”: “curiosity questions”. Asking a question gives you an opportunity for the child to consider the consequences of an idea or action: “I wonder what will happen if you do that?”; “How do you think your brother will feel if you do that?”; “How would you feel if I said that to you?”; “What could you try next time?”; “Do you have a solution we could try?”

Said with real curiosity, this invites a child to think and not react. Our first job as parents is to be teachers.

More on Flow, or, What Montessori Described as “Normalization”

In order that attention may be fixed, the child himself must act, otherwise it is the teacher who is moving and the child’s attention remains motionless.” For Montessori the “fixing of attention” is dependent on the child finding “some spontaneous work of his own intelligence”. This is the role of the materials in the Montessori environment…(Maria Montessori, “Fixing attention and the child’s psychic development”, California Lectures, 235; Sharon Caldwell, The uninterrupted work cycle as a critical component of a Montessori prepared environment, 4.)

I have been thinking a lot about how to describe Montessori’s odd term: “normalization”.  I have compared it to “flow”, as adults can identify with this feeling.  In the classroom, we are taught to wait for that “one thing” that attracts the child. ( By “wait”, I don’t mean we ignore the child; we continue to offer lessons, and, of course, observing other children is the best inspiration!) That “thing” is usually something which requires focus and concentration.  It is not necessarily anything that looks “academic”, although it is a key factor in being successful in “academic” work.  It can be when a child watches a raindrop flow down a window pane, and meet up with other drops.  It usually involves repetition, but all motivation is coming from the child, as when they climb, over and over, on the “red swing” outside, and attempt to stay on and to swing.  It may appear to have no purpose, as when I taught myself to throw a spiral with a football as a kid, although I have never played football for a minute in my life.  However, I practiced for days and weeks, and got great satisfaction from feeling and seeing a good throw.

As parents, your job is to allow “do nothing” time, when a child may be bored!  This is fertile ground for finding “that thing” which attracts them into effort.  It will not, generally, come from your suggestion or help.  In fact, your help may be a huge impediment!  This is when “benign neglect” may be the best gift to kids.  If you are too busy to help, they may be attracted to notice a caterpillar, follow the cat, watch the leaves fall, notice light reflected from water, and that will be the beginning of normalization, and your job is not to interrupt it, not even with vocabulary or appreciation!DSCF1933

Flow and Montessori

Csikszentmihalyi flow

A lot has been written about University of Chicago psychologist Csikszentmihalyi and the idea of flow.  He described flow as “the quality of experience as a function of the relationship between challenges and skills.,,When challenges and skills are matched at a high level, the resulting state is flow.”  Many have written about flow in sports; when things “come together and feel right”; in art, in writing, in playing music.

We can understand the above chart as: when skills are high and challenges are low we can be relaxed or even bored.  When challenges are high and skills are low, anxiety or worry can result.  When both skills and challenges are low, we are apathetic.  When challenges and skills are matched at a high level, the resulting state is flow.  We cannot live in flow!  Sometimes we have to struggle, and sometimes we need to rest, but flow is the reason that we achieve great things, and when we feel deeply satisfied.  It is what helps us get to new levels in our work and in our play.

We recognize flow when we master skills, from riding a bike to how to use a new piece of software, how to play a game (golf swing!), how to repair the vacuum, when we solve a math problem or make the perfect cake.  Some rules of flow are: the goals are clear, the feedback is immediate, skills match challenges, concentration is deep, problems are forgotten, control is possible, self-consciousness disappears, the sense of time is altered, and the experience becomes autotelic (fun for its own sake):)

I think that this is one way to describe what Montessori saw in children who were deeply concentrating on the materials.  I believe that this is what she wanted to provide for all children. One way we see this in the classroom we call normalization.  Montessori teachers argue whether a child is normalized or a classroom is normalized.  We know, however, when we see a child deeply engaged.  They often repeat the work over and over, and cannot be distracted from it.


Here is Jonah.:)  After counting Montessori math materials, and working with them for three years, when he started to count one of the chains, he ralized that it felt so easy, he should count all the chains.  From 1 set of 1, to 10 sets of 10.  And that he knew all the “5s” and all the “10s”.  And that he could recognize all the numbers.  And it felt really good.


Here is Melly,concentrating on leaping, and Lila, concentrating on very careful pouring.  We can see concentration and deep joy in many activities. Our jobs as teachers and parents are to set up the environment and teach skills so that each child can experience this and build on this feeling of flow when they encounter new challenges.



“Concentration” is something that, in the Montessori classroom, we talk and think about a lot.  The teachers (guides, Montessori called them) are looking and listening around for this.  Not for “quiet” or ‘loud” or “good” or “bad” but for concentration.  You can see it, even in the middle of chaos, a child sitting and attending closely to something.  This can be a raindrop sliding down a window, whether a block can be carefully balanced on another, watching to see if the pet eats the food you just gave it, walking carefully so as not to spill water in a cup or basin, measuring with your eyes whether you can jump from this to that, trying again to get on that wobbly swing that looks so intriguing, counting carefully so as to get the right sum, working on writing the letters in your name, figuring out what sounds you hear in a word in order to write a note to your mom.  What will allow your child to succeed in any new endeavor?  The ability to concentrate, and knowing how and when to use this ability.

Montessori said : “Never interrupt a concentrating child, always interrupt a disruptive one.”  One thing we teach is “how (and when) to interrupt”.  This, as you can imagine, is difficult!  Children are egocentric by design.  However, we all deserve some freedom from interruption, and concentrating children and adults always deserve it.

In the classroom, children are taught to touch someone and say their name and wait!  The other person may need to say “Wait.” and hold up a hand or finger to remind you (with a smile). Sometimes we say: “I need you to pause that and come back to it.”  That means that we respect what you are doing, but we need you for a bit.  We are so sorry to interrupt.  Is this taught once and not again?  No!  We mention it every day.  Every, every day. 🙂  In general, we do not respond to “yelling across the room.”  Sometimes another child may need to remind someone : “Get up and go touch him, and say his name.”  Of course, this means we adults also cannot yell across the room unless there is an emergency.

Why bother?  For concentration, and for respect.

The Parent’s Role

9183150190c676f10ea6f00511997b77I recently had to discard the old blog and start anew (new webhosting…) I was not too sad to see the old stuff go. The first post is from a great Montessorian, about the transition, as a parent, to being a Montessori parent, and some help with being clear. If it seems like we teachers have no trouble getting our point across; this is part of the reason why (the other reasons are that each child comes into a complete culture, and the influence of the”herd effect”. :))

“At Home
Since leaving the classroom recently, after thirty-some years in the delightful company of children, I have spent a considerable portion of my time leading the development of the parent education programs for our school. It has given me a new and different joy, and a great appreciation for parents. It is an honor to work so closely with parents who are the primary educators of our children, who are the children’s models, their supporters, and their greatest source of love and admiration.

I hold the parents in awe and respect them for many reasons and on many levels. They pick up their children at noon, three o’clock, or the end of the day when everyone is tired and hungry and needy; and do their best to practice the skills that will help this major transition go well while neither catering to nor imposing on their children. Parents deserve support and sympathy, respect and solidarity for their efforts. They get up in the night with children who are frightened or sick, doing their best to give just the right comfort. They get children up in the morning who are sleepy or out of sorts. They connect with temperaments that are either too different from or too much like their own. Parents face an onslaught of issues that confound and concern them and do their best make the best moment by moment responses they can.

Parents have the truly world-shaking responsibility of providing an ethical framework, a moral ambiance, and a practical environment that provides for exploration, self-education, and self-development for their children. All this they must provide in an emotionally safe environment and in a firm and cheerful manner.

Unlike the guides at school, the parent lives with a child who changes over a twenty-four year period of time, and changes almost too fast to keep up with. A guide at school gets to practice and perfect supporting children in the same three-year developmental period endlessly. That’s why their advice can be so helpful. It’s almost as if a parent spends today trying to figure out yesterday while the child has gone on to tomorrow. It’s a challenge. And it just speeds up; it simply won’t slow down. That’s why parents need the school’s and the guide’s help and advice.

At School
It’s easy for the guides to say “NO” at school. There’s a large community of children living and learning in an established, clearly defined and cohesively developed culture where everyone belongs and participates. The “NO” is expected and accepted by the community of children. At home, the child is a bigger presence and a much stronger force within a changing and developing family culture. And the emotional connection between parent and child can be both mobilizing and paralyzing. Is it any wonder that the parents need a supportive community to help them decide when and why and how to say “NO” and how and why to stick to it? Is it any wonder that they turn to the school and the guides for help to clarify and sort out issues before they make their decisions?

At school, the guide has been confronted with a vast variety of situations, issues, and personalities over many years. The guide knows how to postpone answering questions to buy time to think through the implications, how to consider each aspect of the issue and weigh the implications and how to slowly consider situations and their consequences. The guide has learned through a goodly number of errors! Additionally, the guide knows how to approach a great variety child personalities and temperaments as well as how to bear up graciously and effectively under their responses—or reactions. For the parent at home, however, it’s always an unending series of “learn as you go” and “learn through your mistakes.”

The Family and the School
And then there’s the family’s entry into the school community. Often, a parent’s life is temporarily made further complicated before it is made easier by the school’s philosophy of child development and parent education programs. At first it may seem that the school is taking away from the parents all their familiar methods and means of traditional parenting and leaving them bereft. Then it seems the school is offering an entirely new set of skills, a suspect set of skills that have to be practiced with a mindfulness and constant awareness in order to become effective. Confusion can often reign in the family as parents work to break old habits and make new ones. In the midst of this confusion, anarchy could set in. The parents, temporarily weakened by the changes they are making, can become paralyzed into inaction or rushed into poorly understood practices. In the meantime, the children could take over, resulting in anxiety, insecurity, and bravado.
During this period of confusion, parents might offer their children choices that are not appropriate or even counterproductive. They might give them independence for which they have not adequately prepared their child. Parents could operate out of doubt and fear. Trusting the Montessori community of families too far, parents might allow their children to do things they should not be doing simply because they say other children are doing them or because some other children really are doing them. Parents are sometimes afraid their children will stop loving them if they say “No.” They may be afraid their children won’t be popular or well liked. Parents may be intimidated by their children’s anger or frightened by their outbursts.
Without a strong community, enough contact, and without dependable support from the guides, parents can easily get in over their heads while their children are very young and by the time they reach early adolescence the family’s daily lives may have become problematic. By the time the child is sixteen and in possession of car keys, their lives can become out of control and dangerous.

Support For Knowing How and When to Say “No,” How and Why to Mean It

When we parents learn to say “No” to a five year-old, we will be more likely to be able to say “No” effectively and appropriately to a nine or a thirteen year-old. When we parents develop and sustain a meaningful family culture within which to live and according to which to weigh and measure details of daily living when the child is four, we will be more likely to do sustain it through later years. A part of saying “No” is learning positive ways of saying it. Another part of saying “No” is establishing and maintaining a relationship with distinct and appropriate roles for parent and child.
Distinct and Appropriate Roles for the Parent and the Child

I am the Parent, You are the Child
It is not always easy for Montessori parents to distinguish and clarify their own roles as parents from those of their empowered, independent, and capable Montessori children. One child stunned his mother by telling her to step away into the next room until she was ready to calm down and cooperate with what he was asking of her. The mother was being calm—and she was being reasonable, and what she was asking was appropriate within her role and appropriate within the child’s role, reasonable for his cooperation.

Of course, our empowered, independent, and capable Montessori children are going to try stepping out of their roles as children and into our role as parent, of course! And we parents have to be well prepared to be clear about defining those distinct roles. We have to clarify to the child what exactly our role is and where exactly the limits of his own role of child lie.
As for the confused mother in our story, the rest of the day didn’t go so well. The next day, after much thought and a good nights sleep, however, she was ready to distinguish the two roles, that of parent and that of child. The mother chose a pleasant moment for a conversation, the first of many she would have with her child over the years.

Defining and Clarifying Roles
She said, “We have something important to talk about. I’m going to tell you about roles, your role as the child and my role as the parent. It’s my role as the parent to decide when there will be a choice and to lay out the choices. It’s your role as the child to choose among them. I will always consult you about the choices because there could be some good choices that I haven’t thought of.”

“Sometimes there will be no choice, and your role will be to accept that.”
“I will lay out the choices for the daily schedule, for what to wear to which places. I will always listen to your ideas. That’s a parent’s role. You tell me any ideas I haven’t thought of. That’s a child’s role. And I will be the one to make the decision to include those ideas or not.”
“When I listen to your ideas, I will hear them when you can speak in a respectful tone of voice using respectful words. I will listen to anything you have to say and hear all your feelings. But I will make the final decisions about what we do in our family because that’s a parent’s role.”

This same conversation was repeated many times in many quiet and pleasant conversations over the next months. “I will lay out the choices for what to eat,
“ . . . Choices for what toys and activities we will have in our home.”
“ . . . Choices for which books and materials will be in our home.”
“ . . . Choices for where we will go.”
“ . . . Choices for who we will spend time with.”
“ . . . Choices for what kind of birthday party we will have.”
“You will suggest additional choices and lay out the reasons for them to be included. That is within your role as a child.

“I will listen to your suggested choices carefully, think seriously about each one and decide whether or not to include it. I will tell you why or why not and explain my decision fully according to our family culture.”
And so over the months the parent made clear the distinction between the roles of parent and child including many, many other things. In this way the parent let the child know who was responsible for forming the family culture and who was responsible for living creatively within it with choices and limits, with expression of ideas and feelings.

The explanation was given for each new choice the child suggested, but once that was done, it was not repeated. “You know why; remember, I explained it to you. Think it over yourself and remember. If I ever think differently, I’ll let you know. If I don’t come to you about it, you will know my decision and its reasoning stand firm. I hear that you don’t agree, but till then, that’s it! No more discussion.”

Collaborating with One Another to Discover Mutually Acceptable Solutions
The parent noticed a growing pattern of rudeness in the child’s requests. The child seemed edgy and bossy. “Take me home right now.” “Find my blue hat.” “I’m thirsty. Get me some apple juice.” “Take me to the park to play right this minute.” “These eggs are yukky.”

As usual, the parent made suggestions each time for more considerate, polite communication, such as, “I like it when you say ‘Excuse me, but I’m really tired. Could we go home, please?’” Or, the parent said, “I prefer to hear ‘Could you help me find my blue hat?’” Or ‘Could I please serve myself some apple juice?’ Or ‘I don’t care for these eggs. They’re not to my taste.’ Or ‘Could we leave for the park to play really soon? When I wait so long, I feel impatient.’ Instead of bringing the usual cooperative restatement, the parent’s suggestions brought on balkiness and irritation.

At a pleasant moment the parent said, “Sometimes you use a tone of voice that sounds unpleasant or words that seem abrupt when you ask me for something. I feel better helping you out when you are more polite and considerate in your tone of voice and words. But I notice that it annoys you when I remind you to say it in a nicer way. I thought we could plan together a way I could remind you that wouldn’t be irritating. Maybe I could just say two words like blue bird or a compound work such as grasshopper or something like that to remind you. What do you think about that? Can you think of a word or phrase you like us to use?”

The child chuckled and said he liked the phrase dump truck better.

“Oh, dump truck, I like that,” the parent said. “And if you don’t like my tone of voice or the words I use, you can say dump truck to me and I’ll know to say it over in a more pleasant tone of voice and nicer words.”

The child was delighted and offered other ideas. Parent and child settled on a phrase and for a couple of weeks things went really well. One day the child was testy again and the parent asked if it was time to choose a new phrase. They settled on a new one and the next weeks went well. After the third variation the habit of politeness or of accepting a reminder with civility was well established. Of course, at that point in time, the child was on to a new issue. As every parent has experienced, life with a child brings on a new issue as soon as the previous one has been resolved. And so life goes with the parent and child.

Waiting for Calmness and Respect
At another time, things had gone off track in a different way: the child began displaying emotional outbursts. The parent thought things through and chose a pleasant moment for another conversation with her child to further clarify.
“If you are screaming or being rude I will say with sincere sympathy, ‘I hear how upset you are and I want to listen to you. I want to hear your feelings. As soon as you can speak in a regular voice and use respectful words, I will be ready to listen.’ Then I will leave a glass of water and a tissue close by and wait at a little distance for you to calm yourself enough to talk. Until then, I’ll be waiting in the next room to comfort you when you are ready to receive comfort.”

Listening as Soon as Possible
Experiencing complications of a different sort, further down the road, the parent offered new information.

“Occasionally, I will have to listen a little later because there is a reason I can’t give you my full attention at that particular moment. It could happen because I’m in the middle of cooking dinner or because I’m driving the car. But, in order to make things easier, I will make and take most phone calls at night after you’re asleep so I’ll be available to you most of the time. In any case, I will always listen as soon as I can. That is the parent’s role, my role. Your role is to wait until I can really listen. I’ll always tell you a time that I can listen and you can depend on me to keep my word.”

Defining and Maintaining the Family Culture
As the child grew older, s/he encountered new and different ideas from friends or neighbors and began to mount campaigns for incorporating them into his own life, the parent gave further information.

“The older you get, the more new ideas you will have. Many of your new ideas will fit right into our family culture. We’ll have to work on others of your new ideas to make them fit into our family or perhaps even tailor a bit or a lot to make them fit. But there will be many other ideas that won’t fit into our family at all. You will have many friends who are allowed to do and to have things that we don’t do or have in our family. I will listen to how you feel about that. But I will be the one who decides because that is the role of the parent.
“I will spend time thinking about and discussing my decisions with our school community before I decide, but then I will be the one to make the decision. It won’t be up to you because you are the child. You may be upset, sad, disappointed, or angry about my decisions, but I will stick to them because I am the parent and that’s my responsibility. Maybe you will want to go someplace that we don’t go in our family. You might want to have a toy or gadget we don’t have in our home. You may want to have music or wear clothes that don’t fit in to our family.

It could be very disappointing or upsetting to you. I will hear your feelings about it. I will hear your ideas. But the decision will be mine to make because that’s a parent’s role. Your role will be to experience feelings of anger, disappointment, or sadness, to express them to me strongly but appropriately, and then to respect my decision. You don’t have to like or agree with my decision, but you do have to respect it.”

Providing the Child Security and Sparing the Child Emotional Exhaustion
When the child spends time and energy in emotionally exhausting opposition, the parent carefully evaluates his/her communication and behavior for clarity and resolve. It is unusual for a child to persist in behavioral campaigns that don’t work. It indicates a lack of clarity in the parents thinking and presentation or a lack of evident resolve.

“I will try to be clear about what your choices are and about which of your suggestions will be added to the choices and which will not. I will try not to be wishy-washy or vague by saying ‘I don’t think so’ or ‘I’d rather you not’ or ‘I’d rather you choose something I already offered to you or I wish you’d choose something else.’ I will try my best to keep you from the anxiety that comes when I give in or change my mind after a decision. I will remain steadfast when you display emotional outbursts or whine or threaten. I will make every effort to give you the security of knowing that your parent means what s/he says.”

“I will be the strong parent you need and spare you the emotional turmoil and energy drain of excessive begging, tantrumming, whining, and pouting that develop when you know from experience you might be able to change my mind or wear me down that way.”

The On-going Process
And so it goes with the parent. Defining, maintaining, and clarifying the distinct roles of parent and child takes time and effort. But that’s a parent’s role. We are parents, we are bringing up children, unlike dogs or cats, birds or fish. And children are highly intelligent, powerful, driven beings who require that we provide and maintain an ever-evolving structure to hold a social and family culture with firm limits for them to push against. Children need their parents to define clear roles of parent and child within the family for the sake of their emotional growth and security. We, their parents, are the last ones, the last adults in their lives, who should grow weary and let them down. We can rest when our children are grown.”

Donna Bryant Goertz, founder of Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas, acts as a resource to schools around the world. Donna’s book, Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom draws on her thirty years of experience guiding a community of thirty-five six-to-nine year-olds. She received her Montessori elementary diploma from the Fondazione Centro Internazionale Studi Montessoriani in Bergamo, Italy, and her assistants to infancy diploma from The Montessori Institute of Denver, Colorado.