When I was a young mother living out of state for a year, I learned a lot from a group of mothers working on bringing Montessori to their town, which was, thanks to their efforts, already rich in Suzuki. I took each of their stories to heart, tucking away in my heart when needed, the values and the points of practice for living them out.
One Mother’s Story
As Christmas approached, Ellen braced herself. It was a dangerous time for a single mom’s budget and self-esteem. As she often did, Ellen reviewed her values and goals. She recalled the preparation for her baby’s birth and her plans for staying home with her. That was nearly two years ago and she felt strong and happy that she had persevered in staying home with her baby girl.
Ellen shook her head as she heard a mother on the radio assert that, despite the fact that she had lost her job, she would make sure her children received everything they wanted and expected for Christmas. She would just put it all on her credit card and worry about how to make her mortgage payment later. “Christmas is for children,” the mom had said.
Ellen disagreed; it seemed to her that Christmas was for families and a parent’s job loss was a family emergency. All members of the family should share, age appropriately, the sacrifices required to return the family to financial security. Besides, no matter who Christmas is for, it is not primarily about getting or giving all the presents one wants. And, certainly, it would be a perversion of all the values of Christmas to use a charge card for presents one couldn’t afford. Even though Ellen was only twenty-four years old, she could see where that could lead.
Ellen thought that the mom was missing a rare opportunity to give her children a gift that would benefit them for the rest of their lives–the example experienced in their real everyday life of bearing disappointment and hardship gracefully, delaying gratification, and controlling impulses. Ellen wondered how children could ever learn to “Just say no,” if their parents couldn’t model saying no for them.
Only a few years earlier, Ellen had been wild and free. She had rebelled a little, experimenting with various lifestyles while she put herself through college. Ellen’s degree had not prepared her for a job and she was still searching for her career or profession. She had considered going to graduate school. She hadn’t considered having a baby.
When her baby girl was born, Ellen drove an old car in order to avoid having car payments. She lived in a cheap apartment. Teaching yoga to children allowed her to take her baby along to work, but the short hours and low wages made finances a struggle.
Beans, rice, and pasta were cheap, but fresh fruits and vegetables, even in season, were not. Avoiding drinks and juices, deli and specialty items and prepared and packaged foods made a highly nutritious diet affordable for Ellen’s baby and her. Ellen knew that if she were to stay in good spirits and keep her energy up during these years of sacrifice and hardship, she would have to take really good care of her health.
Ellen could make her own clothes and her baby’s clothes as well. She could buy books at the second-hand bookstore and yard sales. Sheets and towels were sold at resale stores.
By refusing to have a TV in the house Ellen ensured herself significantly more time for getting things done at a pleasant pace. She also eliminated the materialistic influence of commercials and the cynical attitudes of the sitcoms. Ellen had a radio and a tape player for her own enjoyment and for providing the particular music she had planned for the baby. Besides, there were no cable bills.
Ellen slept with her baby on a mattress on the floor. A table and chairs and shelves for holding clothing were all the furniture she needed for herself. For the baby, she had prepared a special environment in the living room: a full-length mirror mounted lengthwise along the baseboard for her months of creeping and crawling; a closet rod mounted along another wall eighteen inches from the floor for her months of walking while holding on; a little stair step up to a platform with a slide down the other side for adventure, and two long shelf boards to hold her developmental toys and books.
For Christmas, Ellen had bought a square yard of fabric printed with a town and its streets. She hemmed it and bought three little vehicles and five small people for her daughter to move along the streets, in and out of shops, to school and the post office, to church, and back home again. A bright red stocking cap with a big pompom and a ball to throw would round the presents out to three, giving her just the right number to open. Ellen gathered a few neighbor children, practiced Christmas carols, and took the baby and their caroling around the neighborhood. A few days later she had the same group over to make Christmas cookies. For presents for friends and family Ellen made ornaments.
Ellen thought that, in many ways, having so little money made bringing up her daughter much easier. She considered the temptations some of her friends struggled with and lost, overwhelming their children with far too many toys, video movies, and electronic games. Some of their children were bored, hostile, and demanding; others were bored, clingy, and whiny. A couple of Ellen’s friends felt sorry for her daughter. They thought she was deprived of the normal joys of childhood. Ellen found “joy” to be a poor description of the quality of her friends’ children’s lives and a rather more apt description of the quality of her own little daughter’s life.
It was Ellen’s passionate commitment to herself and to her daughter that she would always do her best to remember what really mattered and live by it. Six years later, when I heard from her again, she was enjoying an upper-middle-class income, a devoted husband, and a second child. Now Ellen’s commitment was being thoroughly tested by the amplitude of her resources, but with her characteristic reflective nature and her ability to persevere, she was able to remain true to that commitment. Ellen and her family continued to choose a life rich with family activities and fairly free of material excess.
One day a friend dropped by Ellen’s house. Even though Ellen’s children were in various stages of recovery from an intestinal virus, she had been working full and half days because of rehearsals and performances at her children’s school where she worked. Ellen’s husband had pitched in by reducing his typical 5:30 am to 9:30 pm work days to nine hours to help out during the family sickness. Carrying a casserole, she had made to help the family out, Ellen’s friend walked into the house expecting a disaster zone. The house was in pleasant order. Her friend expressed dismay crying out that her own house would only look this good if she had been preparing ahead for house guests. Ellen thought to herself that she would not be nearly so concerned with the comfort of temporary house guests as she was with her own children’s daily lives.
“They are creating themselves day by day from their environment. That’s what children do,” Ellen thought. “They invent and reinvent themselves, and make the adults they will become out of the environment I provide for them. This home is their workshop, their studio, and their laboratory. It provides the materials, supplies, ambiance, support, and framework for my children’s work of self-construction. I’m a mom. That’s my real job. I put my best efforts here. I don’t cut corners or slack off when things are tough. When my children are grown and gone, my husband and I can slack off to whatever degree suits us. For now, we keep the children’s environment, our home, prepared for their best development whether we feel like it or not, whether it’s convenient or not, whether we’re busy or not, even if we’re sick, no matter what. Besides, it’s easier and a lot more fun bringing up children this way.”
One of Ellen’s friends was given to proudly proclaiming that she spent her time on her children, not on keeping her house in order. Ellen considered her own life with children and the long hours she spent playing board games, wrestling, building a playhouse, helping with arts and crafts, making costumes for everyday play, playing chase and hide-and-go-seek, and playing dolls. It seemed to Ellen that keeping the home environment prepared gave her more time to spend with her children, not less. “If we are eventually going to clear off the table, pick up the toys, wash the dishes, put the dirty clothes in the laundry, fold the clean clothes, and put them away, how does it save time to put it off until later?” Ellen wondered. It always seemed to take at least the same amount of time to do it now as it took to do it later. The difference, Ellen thought, was that cleaning up and putting away now, allowed her family’s playing to take place in a pleasant and convenient environment where everything needed could be easily found. Cleaning up and putting away later would have caused Ellen’s playing with her children to take place in a mess where finding what was needed to be brought frustration and confusion.
It was the same old “pay now or pay later” choice as far as Ellen could see. Dropping dirty clothes on the floor just meant they had to be picked up later. Leaving the dirty dishes in the sink just meant they had to be washed later. How did this create more time to spend with the children? “Charge it,” seemed to be the principle some of her friends lived by. “Put it on the credit card. Pay later with interest,” thought Ellen.
Later there would be a bigger mess; it would take longer to clean up, and then, most importantly, it would seem pointless to the children to clean up their part at all. “Why now? Why not clean up another day or week later?” they would wonder since “Later” seemed to be their family motto. What difference did it make anyway? Living in a mess was normal for some families; cleaning up was abnormal, something that happened sporadically when mom suddenly got in a certain mood. To the children, it looked unnecessary and no fun. They were used to living in a mess. Ellen wanted to avoid setting up that kind of confusion in her family and in her relationship with her children. She was determined not to lay the groundwork for those losing battles in family life.
It was difficult enough for children to put away a morning’s or an afternoon’s mess, even a whole day’s worth. Expecting them to deal with a couple of days or weeks’ worth of mess would be unwise and unkind. Ellen had a deep sense that keeping up with things during the day was easier, more relaxing, and allowed more time for fun.
Once upon a Christmas, eight adults and eight children, three and a half to nearly twelve years of age, from Ellen’s husband’s family gathered at his sister’s house for a dinner party and gift exchange. Beautiful and fragile ornaments and decorations adorned every room of the house. The children alternated between playing back in the children’s bedroom and delicately examining the sizes, shapes, and wrappings of the presents that were scattered under the tree in the living room. Four of them spent a long time gathered around a new Christmas I Spy book. Now and then the children became overexcited, shrieking and running around, opening and closing doors. Once, they were sent outside for a while to run off steam and another time a child was hurt in a rough game.
In the living and dining rooms, two large tables were set with fine linens and silver. At dinner, the children and adults were seated alternately with families mixed in each room, but with either a mom or a dad beside each of the children under six. The first course of soup was served while the children were seated. They waited to begin until after grace was said and the toasts were made. Because the glasses were wide, the younger children were shown to lift them with two hands.
For the second course, the children carried the fine china plates and helped themselves to the buffet with a little assistance from the nearest adult. They focused on moving slowly and carefully. Staying at the table for conversation while the adults finished eating was difficult, but the children made the effort and succeeded. The adults did the clearing away because of the fine china.
Next, it was time to open presents and each person took turns, starting with the youngest. Everyone watched the unwrapping carefully and admired each gift. The thanks were sincerely expressed and genuinely acknowledged. Waiting for turns was not easy but it was important. There were dinosaur models, an extraordinary type of flashlight, baseball cards, puzzles, books, and more books. Ellen’s favorite present was a beautiful copy of The Oxford Book of Quotations. A favorite present for her now nearly twelve-year-old daughter, an avid swimmer and soccer player was a second-hand hard-cover copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories.
Ellen was content that she had prepared well for her daughter’s coming adolescence with all its potential for confusion, contradiction, and alienation. She meant to keep the ties close, the communications open and the trust optimal. The autonomy essential to the age would be based on her daughter’s strong sense of belonging, highly developed independence, history of responsibility, and pride in family culture, traditions, and values.