Friday, September 19, 2008

Criticism of Montessori

My stomach hurts and I can't sleep, so I might as well sit here and work out my Montessori gripes. Sitting in the dark in the middle of the night seems, somehow, like an appropriate time and place to do this, since as far as I can tell, critiquing Montessori is somehow taboo--internet searches on the subject yield pretty much two things--complaints about specific schools and articles about this one professor in the early days of Montessori who for some reason took major exception to the philosophy. Which is funny, because I feel like there's a lot more to say than that.

First of all, I want to make it clear that overall, I like Montessori. In my experience and judgment, there is no better system generally available to the American public for the intellectual development of children. It certainly beats the ever-livin' pants off public school, and public schools would be/have been improved in direct proportion to the number of Montessori concepts they employ. I went to part-day Montessori preschool for one session (my mother worked there as a janitor in order to afford it), and didn't learn anything new 'til second grade. One of my dear friends is a Montessori teacher.

All that said, I do have some significant complaints.

First of all, all I've read about Montessori attitudes and expectations in infancy is seriously flawed. Some examples:

  • Infants sleep best on their own, and are capable from birth of regulating themselves through the stages of sleep. No and no. This does not reflect either the most current research (infants need practice regulating their physical state during sleep transitions and can benefit significantly, even life-savingly from the presence of an attuned adult) or my personal experience ("Are you serious? AHAHAHAHAHAHA!")
  • Babies should be weaned from the breast at around one year of age, or they'll get an oral fixation. Uhmmm, NO. The scientific research shows that breastfeeding is beneficial for as long as it continues, and the anthropological research suggests that natural weaning age for humans is somewhere between three and five years old. As for whatever Freudian bullshit an oral fixation is supposed to be, it can't be too crippling, seeing as how the vast majority of humans ever have apparently had one. Personally, I can say that Evelyn now nurses at least as much as she ever did, it's a lifesaver when she's sick or teething, and it really takes a load off my mind to know that whatever solid food she eats, she's still getting good nutrition so long as I'm eating decently.
  • You should put a young baby on a rug or fleece on the floor so that s/he can watch what the rest of the family is doing and be interested. Yeah, this isn't going to happen with a lot of babies. Certainly not mine. She would not be put down, not even when asleep. My clear understanding is that this is quite common. I suppose this idea is intended as an alternative to sequestering the baby in a crib, though, in which case it's certainly an improvement. What would be far better, even for the easy-going baby who would lie calmly on the floor, would be to wear the baby so that s/he could actually be at the level of the action and in physical contact with a caregiver. The many benefits of babywearing are demonstrable both anthropologically and scientifically (as well as, believe me, experientially), but Montessori philosophy also disapproves of "too much" babywearing on the grounds that it limits physical exploration and hinders gross motor skills. The evidence suggests that this is totally unfounded, and that, indeed, babies who are worn extensively actually gain gross motor skills more easily and sometimes earlier than babies who are not.
  • Children are naturally ready for and interested in potty training between a year and 15 months or so. This one's funny, because it's one of the more frequently complained about tenets of Montessori, and usually people are complaining that it's just unrealistically early. I'm going to complain that it's just like the conventional opinion, only earlier. The Montessori attitude is that neurological and physical development doesn't allow for the voluntary control of the sphincters and other muscles involved until a year, whereas standard doctrine puts it at around 18 months. I have firsthand experience that this is utter bullshit, since my daughter has been voluntarily peeing and pooping at appropriate times and in set situations since she was, oh, two or three months old? She now often goes to the potty completely of her own volition if we leave her diaper off, and this morning she yelled at the bathroom door to be let into the potty when she had to pee. To any mama practicing Elimination Communication (by whatever name) this attitude is just as wrongheaded as the conventional take...maybe even a little more, since it is generally agreed in the ECing community that after your child becomes mobile it is more difficult to get him/her to sit on the potty.
There are other things. For example, while there are very valid reasons for avoiding plastic toys, the reasons generally given by proponents of Montessori generally sound disingenuous and more like a reflection of their own distaste for the material. It's "cold"--yes, well, so is metal, and my daughter loves to play with metal things and has from the start. "Natural materials are interestingly varied whereas plastic always feels the same"--well, no, actually. Plastic is a highly versatile material, and can be hard or soft, shiny, satiny, or bumpy, etc., and is usually brightly colored, which children love. "Children prefer natural materials"--well, I sincerely wish this were true, but my experience has not borne this out. I have quite a collection of lovely, carefully selected wooden toys, most of which have been played with very little, and a few plastic toys from yardsales, which see at least as much play, though frankly Evelyn can smell a phony from a mile away and largely ignores "toys" altogether. If you're going to choose not to buy your child plastic, do it because it leaches toxic chemicals and will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years before finally breaking down into millions of bits of persistent toxic pollution. That seems like a sufficient reason to me.

The next complaint I see as unfortunate, because I really think that modern Montessori is a privilege of the affluent, and after all it started out with inner city kids. Hand-crafted hardwood shelving units made in the US are wonderful, no doubt, but even we cannot afford to spend $300 on a single set of shelves, much less most of the world. Entire play areas, even rooms, set aside specifically for the child I disagree with in principle as well, because I feel like they create segregation, but they are also an impossibility for many apartment dwellers or people in small (read, reasonable-sized) houses. The focus on beautiful, carefully made toys and materials is laudable in some ways, but even for those of us who can afford an $80 shape sorter, we have to ask if this is actually a wise allocation of money in a world where millions of people don't even have safe drinking water. So no, I don't think that Montessori principles are accesible only to the affluent, but I do think that in practice, the world of Montessori has become populated almost entirely by people with significant disposable income. Certainly the tuition for Montessori schools, however much they might be a reasonable reflection of the schools' costs, is far beyond the reach of many if not most.

And lastly, damn, is it just me or is Montessori anal!? We must be calm, neat, tidy, organized, polite! Teach your child not to splash! Don't let the toys get spread all over the floor! Children love order! Well, yes, some children do have a fierce need for ritual and predictability...and some don't...but I think we should own our own needs and realize that, very often, kids don't give a damn if the house is a mess, and it's really our problem. Anyway, yeah, wow is Montessori ever anal. Like a lot.

Okay, it's no longer the middle of the night and I probably have better things to do than bitch. I would love to hear other people's thoughts, though, if anyone reading has experience with Montessori.

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