“Montessori from the start” by Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jensen.

 

I had read Lillard’s book “Montessori today” and thought it completely inspirational, so was eager to see what she had to say about children 0 to 3.

 

Where it is based on Montessori’s approach and understanding of the child, "Montessori from the Start" contains a great deal of useful information about child development and good practical suggestions for what resources to offer at which age. However, as I read through the first chapters I felt a creeping, though at first indefinable, sense of unease. Then I got to the chapter on breast- feeding and the author really pulled off the gloves. It was only then that I realised why I had been feeling so unhappy.

 

The problem is not with Montessori methodology which is firmly based on a clear understanding of universal human nature, but rather on Lillard’s own highly personal, culturally specific view of parents and also of the child, and crucially her desire to impose her view on parents by the use of emotional blackmail. Her book is written in the tone of “this is good sense, anything else is bad and you are a bad parent if you do not do as I say”. And yet, Lillard makes many claims which are completely unsubstantiated either by reference to Montessori’s theory or to objective studies of child development.

 

Her vision of parents, especially mothers, is of uninformed people swayed by unavoidable but frankly trying emotions, who need to be told what to do. She relates the case of one such mother in her introduction, and her attitude to this mother informs her tone for the book, kindly but patronising and deeply, if covertly, dictatorial. This veil of empathy occasionally slips to reveal itself for the mere front that it is with such comments as  It is essential to work toward this nightly sleep pattern from the beginning.. The sooner you can get the baby into a night time sleep pattern [ie Lillard’s own prescribed pattern], the sooner you can be a better parent.” The message comes through loud and clear; not doing as I say? Giving in to your instincts despite what I have told you to do? Weak mother! Bad mother!

 

A parent reading this book, is unlikely to feel affirmed in their innate ability to make decisions regarding their children. On the contrary, their confidence is likely to be seriously undermined and they may feel the only way to be a good parent is to substitute Lillard’s judgement for their own. This is particularly the case if the parents are having their first child and at that delicate stage of building up a sense of themselves as educators. This result should be anathema to anyone genuinely interested in the building of cohesive, happy families. The first task of anyone purporting to support new parents is to facilitate the growth of self-confidence, especially confidence in their own unique judgement.

 

But it is Lillard’s view of the child that is the most disturbing.

Her vision is that of a child who is left to sleep alone (and that this end should be achieved with brutality if need be)*, who is breast-fed to a schedule and only in private, cut off from siblings and the wider community, who eats in splendid isolation, who is weaned from the breast at 9 months and who is toilet trained by 18 months old. The overall effect is of a highly competent training program for a robot.

 

Lillard’s “advice” on feeding, sleeping arrangements and toileting, flies in the face of Montessori’s approach to children, of recent research into early child development** and also incidentally of the experience of parents down through the millennia and across the globe. Universally and historically, children thrive when breast-fed as and when they express the need to, are kept together with their mothers day and night, are present constantly and welcome within the wider community (whether or not it is later than 7pm and whether or not they are breast-feeding) , when they are allowed to wean, sleep alone and toilet train to their own schedule.

 

We as parents are meant to be present for our children, to be models for affection and love. Montessori realises this.

She writes in "Education for a new world"(pp23/24):"Nature furnishes special protection for the young. For instance, the child is born amidst love; his very origin is by love, and once born he is surrounded by the love of father and mother, a love that is not artificial or enforced by reason, such as the sentiment of brotherhood that all thoughtful people are trying to arouse. It is in the field of the child's life that can alone be found the type of love which is the ideal of human morality, the love which inspires self-sacrifice, the dedication of oneself to the service of others...So the great French biologist, Fabre, concluded that it is due to this great mother-instinct that the species survived". Thus Montessori realises the special and positive nature of maternal emotions, their vital role in child development and the need for children to be our companions.

 

And this, I realise, is what is missing from Lillard's understanding of the child, this is what fundamentally mars an otherwise mainly competent account of the practical developmental needs of the child. She does not understand the vital and irreplaceable role in child development of physical affection between parent and child or the importance of parental  love in positively informing judgement.

 

I am very glad that I did not read Lillard's book 6 years ago when expecting our first child. It would have simultaneously undermined my confidence as a parent and put me off Montessori, probably for life. I would have been unlikely to read further on the subject and to do the positive work with our children which I have been enabled to do by reading Lynn Lawrence and the works of Maria Montessori herself. I could recommend Lillard’s book to parents who already have a couple of children, a strong sense of their own judgement and are just looking for practical suggestions as to resources to buy for a third or fourth child. It seems to me, however, that parents generally would be much better off, going to the source and reading  Montessori for themselves..

 

Karen Rodgers,

teacher, play worker with under 5s and mother,

Cambridge

March 2007

 

* Lillard states that a child must sleep with a closed door..” Children will go through a period of protest at some time in early childhood. When they do, parents must close the door deliberately and tell them “You cannot come out. I will see you in the morning.” Speak with finality in your voice. You are doing them a favour after all.”  p129. We would be doing them no such favour, but rather merely meeting society's expectation that children will be tidied away by 7pm. By doing so, we are also meeting this expectation at the cost of causing sleep problems to the whole family and of depriving a child of the affection and assurance on which children have thrived for millennia and continue to do so in the majority of cultures worldwide. Cot death and sleep problems are not universal difficulties; they are restricted to societies in which obliging children to sleep separately is the practice.  (For a summary of good, up to date, research on this matter see "Three in a bed" by Deborah Jackson).

 

** for a very competent and comprehensive summary of recent research into brain development see “Why love matters” by Sue Gerhardt.