Dads: The Third Rail of Montessori
I’m a member of a fairly exclusive club. It has nothing to do with the fact that I am a trained Montessori teacher, that I own and operate a Montessori school, that I attended Montessori as a child or even that I’m a member of the Montessori Madmen. I am a Montessori dad. In a few months I’ll be renewing my membership for the fourth time. I’m by no means a charter member, but I try to attend all the meetings. I read the newsletter. I’m in the know. Recently, I had a revelation about our club and I wanted to share it with you. At the risk of being controversial, here it is: Dads are the third rail of Montessori.
I didn’t coin the phrase. I’ve heard it used in politics “Social security is the third rail of politics.” The analogy refers to the third rail on the subway tracks that carries the electricity. Essentially, the third rail is where all the power is, but you need to treat it with care or you might get shocked. I think the analogy applies to dads, just as it does to Social Security. No one would suggest that social security is the most important of political topics and I am certainly not suggesting that dads are the most important part of child education or any family unit for that matter. I think the analogy holds for both because in spite all our effort, nobody really knows the best way to work with either of them.
That’s where the comparison ends. Social Security isn’t going to stand up for itself. We can’t inspire social security. Social Security is not a club. Montessori dads, however, are all of these things and more. In January, I held a club meeting of sorts to discuss a few things. I inventively called it “Montessori for Dads.” My goal was simple; make Montessori occupy a larger part of dad’s brain. Thirty-five dads showed up and kept the discussion rolling for more than 2 hours. The energy was great. The questions were thoughtful and the discussion was fun and informative. It was our most successful dads event ever. There was no “shock”, but unfortunately, it is difficult to say what -if any, will be the long-term results of the meeting.
Here’s what I learned:
When you get a group of dads together to talk about parenting, there is a palpable sense of humility in the room. In case anyone out there misunderstands, humility is a good thing when it comes to parenting -it might be one of the best things. My theory is that we dads have grown comfortable with the idea that parenting is mom’s game. In that game many of us are considered bench warmers. Sure, we get our time on the field, but it’s usually only when mom goes down with a hammy. I’m sorry if that stings a little. Being a dad, I’m not so happy about the news myself. However, I’m basing my theory on 13 years of experience in working with parents and their children.
O.K. yes, there are some great dads out there. You might be one of them, but that doesn’t change my theory. If you think it through, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Turn on any family sitcom and you’ll see what I mean. Mom generally has her act together. She’s organized, handles the kids and essentially is responsible for the parenting. Dad, when he’s not at work, scratching himself or watching football, mows the lawn and fixes the sink. Cross those lines and you’ve got a disaster on your hands. It’s funny because its true.
In the case of our club meeting, the humility worked well. It created a wonderful openness to the ideas being shared. Dads didn’t feel like they needed to have all the answers. Society gives dads a hall pass and says it’s o.k. for us to be clueless when it comes to child development. We took advantage of this that night. But the group also had something else going for it, drive. I didn’t have to force anyone to show up and I certainly didn’t force anyone to stay and participate. The dads did it themselves. Halfway through the meeting, I found myself thinking of how much we could accomplish if we work together. Perhaps like most bench warmers, we want to get in the game, we just need the opportunity to show what we can do.
After the event, I started thinking about what really seems to be a paradox of Montessori education. In the overwhelming majority of parents that I have enrolled, it is mom who makes the decision to enroll in our school. If I only meet with mom the first time (which is the case 90% of the time), I try very hard to meet with dad shortly thereafter. This is harder than it sounds. Most of the time, when I do meet dad I hear “My wife makes the decisions on this stuff. I’m just here to check the place out.”
Fast forward 2 years. The child has grown emotionally, socially and academically, but that growth is far from complete. It’s the third year, the Kindergarten year where everything comes together. For more than 100 years the value of the three year cycle has been proven over and over again. All that the child learns in those first years has been building toward this moment. It should be a no-brainer. MAB Kindergarten? Where do I sign? For some moms, it is. Then, I get the note that says “We have chosen another program for our child.” So I talk to mom and what do I hear? “I really want to send Timmy back for Kindergarten, but I can’t convince my husband.” BZZZT! SHOCK! We just hit the third rail.
Year after year this happens. Of the reasons students leave Montessori before the third year, this may be the most frustrating, because it tells me something could have been done somewhere along the line to avoid this. But What? Why is it that mom gets the child in the door but dad is the reason he or she stays? Moms, does this sting a little for you, too?
Once again, society and conventional thinking may be a part of the problem. Our entire educational system is based upon the idea that “real” learning starts at first grade. I’ve even heard that from a few dads who have come through my door. Yet all of the most recent scientific studies of brain and child development tell us that it’s actually the first 6 years of life that are the most important. Even President Obama has realized this and has directed a new focus of education on preschool. Yes, Dr. Montessori figured this out more than 100 years ago, but this is not just a Montessori concept. It’s science!
At our club meeting, one of the dads very graciously asked me “Now that you have us here, what we can do for this school and the children.” What a great question! A soft-ball, if you will. What can you do? First, learn why your child is here. Why he or she is thriving. Learn what the teachers do and do not do to aid in that growth. Take advantage of the fact that almost all of what we do here can be done at home. Experiment with your parenting. Discuss parenting with your friends. Discuss it with your child’s teacher. Learn about brain development. Learn what is going on behind the scenes in your child and figure out what is coming on the horizon. Surf the internet to find videos and resources on child development. Start at www.TED.com and work out from there. In short, make Montessori and child development occupy a larger part of your brain. That’s all we need.
Most importantly, don’t fall victim to society’s views. You are not a backup. Dad’s don’t babysit! Remember you are not just one dad in a sea of parents. You are a member of an exclusive club but one which consists of literally millions of dads around the world. We are the third rail. We have the power to make a huge difference -one way or the other. As a group, we have yet to flex our collective muscles to influence the path of our children’s education and development, but it’s high time we get off the bench and get in the game.
-Bart Theriot, Head of School, Montessori Academy at Belmont Greene