Is Your Child Too Old for Montessori?

"I'm a fourteen year old girl looking for a pen pal. I love fantasy, Star Trek/TNG, playing my clarinet, walking in forests, poetry, and writing." 

The Third Plane

Before the internet, there were fanfiction 'zines, and after I published the above entry, I received hundreds of handwritten letters in the mail. I didn't know any of their real names, and I didn't share mine either. I wrote stories with someone named Shadow from Minnesota. I started my own newsletter with a girl from NYC named Jenna. A boy named Sebastian came out of the closet to me in a letter and said I was the only one who knew. I promised to keep his secret. I spent hours and hours weekly, ravenously penning both letters and stories, lost in this world where certain special people had magical powers and horses could talk. While this world was very a very innocent and seemingly safe playspace for me to explore my emotions, sometimes violence seeped in.

The letter looked like any other introduction to a new pen pal, and I wrote back an equally benign form letter introduction of my own. This was only one of hundreds of similar letters I'd received in the past several months. A few weeks later when the next letter came in, to my horror, it was full of drawings of big-breasted women without clothing and a long, handwritten story involving quite a bit of sex, using my name as the protagonist. I took it to my mother right away, and using calm words, careful not to scare me too much, pointed out what I had missed the first time: the address on the envelope was from a local prison.

This was my first experience with a child predator, which is now a very well known internet danger, but it didn't end my affair with writing people I didn't know. As a child of the 80's with a father who built computers as a hobby, I had access to the first of everything tech. I frequented the first chat rooms with a variety of fake names. I turned down offers for virtual sex every time I logged on.

You heard that right.

I wasn't the first girl to fall in love through letters, but I'm pretty certain I had one of the first online romances the year before graduating high school. Over the dissection of a shark, my biology partner and I could barely breathe more than a few words to each other, but through email, we communicated effortlessly and flirted with abandon. This off and on relationship continued for a couple of years into college. Finally, we were laying on my dorm bed together in silence after fight that involved me sobbing until exhaustion. He blew out air and turned to look at me, a sense of finality in his eyes. "You need to find someone else," he said, "someone creative who loves music and literature like you do." It hurt, but he was right. It was time to let adolescent love go.

I kissed my copy of The Hobbit and put it in the back of my closet.  It would stay closed for many years.

The Fourth Plane

The next week, feeling weak and small with the ache of rejection, I walked in the door of the University Writing Center. I was applying to work as an English tutor for $5.00 an hour. I really wanted this job, so naturally I made myself available to work for free. Working a certain number of volunteer hours for free was a requirement for being hired. Generally, adults are hired first and paid for their hours in training, but college students are vulnerable and often grateful to be considered competent enough to work for money at all. It seemed fair compensation.

I was sitting on a stool in the back, hoping no one would notice how hard I was trying to blend into the wall among the odd pieces of art and ivy. Suddenly, I looked up and there was David, sitting there at a computer a few feet away telling his friend jokes and laughing, blue eyes twinkling until he caught me staring and went back to his work.

I don't think he remembers this moment, but I always will because the feeling hit me like a brick. I'm not saying it was love...not yet...but there was definitely a shift inside: a readiness for the next step. My life was going to change, including the way I felt about myself and the way I fell in love.  Something big had just happened, and I although I couldn't put my finger on what it was exactly, I knew it was big.

It rained on our wedding day. I was twenty three. It was a beautiful, glorious cleanse from the sky: tears of joy to match my heart. Two not quite grown up, nervous humans looking toward spending the rest of their lives in close proximity. A shift toward adulthood. This time we took those steps in growth together, graduating, pursuing jobs, traveling, buying a house, having children.

It's been sixteen years, and we feel like different people altogether now. We've changed. We've meshed. Some of his peculiarities, anxieties, and strengths have become mine, and vice versa. I wonder if we would have connected at all at age thirteen or twenty five. There's no way to know. The fact is that at age nineteen, we were momentarily in sync and then we became us.

Which brings us to this: Is your child too old for Montessori?

It's never too late. In fact, while each plane of development builds upon the previous one, however old your child is right at this minute is the perfect time for you to start. Maria Montessori helped to give us a holistic framework for life by explaining the characteristics of each plane of development and designing a method of education to support the child's needs at every age.

Adolescence, the third plane of development, is a time of great transformation. First, around age 12, a burst of creative energy propels the stable young bodies of elementary children into a growth spurt mirroring that of early childhood. Hormones surge, bringing with them a body on fire and mind practically incapable of anything but looking inward.

During this time, when we observe young adolescents between the ages of twelve and fifteen, we often see them wallow in self loathing, leap without looking, and sleep until lunchtime. They seem self-centered and egotistical: the center of the universe. They are highly susceptible to both addiction and mental illness. There is a shockingly high risk of suicide.

These are children in a crisis of development, and it is no wonder that many adults roll their eyes at even the word "teenager", a word that begins with a whine and ends in raging growl, two characteristics both associated with this plane.

Let's play a game, shall we? Just think of the word adolescent compared to these other words that end in -escent: effervescent, luminescent, fluorescent, incandescent, phosphorescent, iridescent, opalescent, convalescent. Through these related words, we get a general feel of something that is beginning to change, a flickering, a movement, a shifting, a burning, a shining. It's just as accurate as the feelings we get from the word teenager, but somehow it feels more respectful of the transformative process these young people are engaged in.

It is a becoming.

"Young adolescents should not be forced to study because it is a dangerous period."
- Maria Montessori, The 1946 London Lectures

We tend to think that children develop at a steady growth rate; that a thirteen year old has a higher intellectual ability than a ten year old and thus should be given harder coursework and a more rigorous schedule. This is the view of the child and thus the curriculum we offer in traditional elementary, middle schools, junior high schools, and high schools. However, from what we know about the nature of adolescence, what a child needs at age ten is vastly different from what a child needs at age thirteen. The younger child does need very challenging tasks and a wealth of information to study. The thirteen year old needs for us to give him or her a break! The teenage brain is not focused on academics in this period but is dealing with very intense physical and psychic (social/emotional/spiritual) changes. Is there room here for rigor and high expectations for achievement? Absolutely not. No wonder so many young people crumble under pressure at this age. What is needed is a strong support system.

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The child of this age must be given a very special type of education: one that is unhurried and allows for studying whatever it is they'd like to pursue without the pressures of our adult expectations. Maria Montessori envisioned a school on a farm, where these children could get connected with the earth, strengthen their developing muscles through the intense physical work, and have a space to get away from it all. She saw the way they were driven to socialize and their growing need to not just study but actually do something meaningful for the world. Running a farm would encourage collaboration as they figured out money management and gained real-life problem solving skills. I do wonder...would a farm still be relevant for adolescents today? Or is the startup culture of a today's tech-obsessed world real life at its best?

By age fifteen or so, the fire is still burning, but the transformation is becoming more peaceful; the creative inner work that was done in the first half of this plane is being perfected. All of life shows this pattern. An ebb and flow. Ages fifteen to eighteen are the "flow" of the third plane. You are likely to look at a seventeen year old and see a great gain in decision making skills and a resurgence in academic interest compared to a few years earlier. This is a sign that while not fully developed, the child is seeing himself more as an adult, looking outward into the world, the universe in its proper place again.

In like a lion, out like a lamb

take care of this life quote fb

The fourth plane is a calm and steady rate of growth, mirroring the second plane in mental capability. It is from here that the leap into adulthood is finally made. Recent research puts the end of this passage somewhere between the ages of twenty four and thirty. Many do not feel that there has been a notable transition at all. It is seamless. The aching and stretches of childhood have simply become part of the past and are no longer relevant.

You might be reading this with a toddler in your arms. You might ask me why you would want to be reading about adolescence right now instead of troubleshooting tantrums. The answer is simple. The planes of development build upon each other. Look forward into the future and know that your little one is going to be throwing tantrums again someday and be at peace with that. If you are prepared, you can help make this transition as easy as possible.

Take care of this life, this little being who has such great potential! How? Cuddle your baby as often as she wants to be touched. Put trust in your two year old's ability to teach himself. Give your four year old clear answers, helping to discern fantasy from reality. Do not rely on rewards or punishments to goad your child into compliance. Give your seven year old the entire world - as much cultural knowledge as you can explore together. Put your full effort into strengthening your relationship and communication skills. Problem solve together. Experience joy together. Be prepared for and accepting of the developmental shifts. Let the storm of adolescence rage on. Be there for to offer guidance along the way.

It is a long road to adulthood for humans, my friends. If we want the possibility of helping young adults create a better life for humanity in the future, we must be ready to aid their development right this minute. If there is one thing I can impress upon you it is to have patience and understanding and faith; at the end of every sweaty hike up a mountain, there is a beautiful view making the heart cry out for joy, and then a skip in your step on the way back home.

Navigating adolescence.
"Roads go ever ever on, Under cloud and under star, Yet feet that wandering have gone, Turn at last to home afar. Eyes that fire and sword have seen, And horror in the halls of stone, Look at last on meadows green, And trees and hills they long have known."
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit