No need to explain

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“Mum, I’ve been watching you do it for 7-and-a-half years – I think I can work it out!”

These were the words from my 7 year old son last week – and they stopped me in my tracks.

We were getting groceries on our way home from school and although my son has been checking out the groceries himself at the ‘self-serve’ aisle for some time, I was always standing right there, ready to hand him the credit card when he needed it.

So this time I decided to wait outside the supermarket while he zoomed in by himself, cash in hand and under instruction to get two things – yogurt and almonds. (I say zoomed as he had a distinct spring to his step. Okay, he was running. We did have a conversation at a later time about appropriate walking speeds in supermarkets. The thing is, my son LOVES any chance to flex his independence muscle so he is literally off and running at any and all opportunities. He’s already talking about school camp every day and it’s still four months away!).

I watched with interest from a distance as he found the yogurt easily but had to ask a shop assistant for help to find the almonds. He didn’t skip a beat. Can’t find it, have checked a number of aisles now, ask for help.

Love these Montessori kids.

Shopping list complete, I watched him head for the self-serve checkout as usual and as he came out with the groceries, change and receipt, I said “I just realised – I always give you my card to pay, you’ve never paid with that machine using cash before. I wasn’t sure if you’d know how to do it.”

That’s when he said he’d been watching me do it for years and could work it out for himself.


Of course he could.

Show don’t tell – the Montessori mantra
He didn’t need a ‘lesson’ from me on how to put cash into the self-serve machine and how to get the change (which is kind of funny because even I hesitate on the rare days that I pay with cash – so many options and lights and slots on those machines).

He’d been watching me do it for ‘7-and-a-half-years’. Ok then.

“Show don’t tell” is the Montessori mantra and the good news is, we parents already do this every day without realising it.

What better way to learn (and what a scary thought as well – to think that our children really do watch us that closely and absorb everything we do!).

It’s why that old saying from our parents’ generation doesn’t quite cut it: “Do what I say, not what I do”.

I don’t think so.

I’m afraid by the time you’ve uttered those words, it’s a little too late.

If your children have already watched you ‘do’ the things you are ‘saying’ not to do – then I’ve got bad news for you.

That horse has already bolted.

It’s why we have to be careful what we do around our children!

Words are open to interpretation
It’s also why ‘show don’t tell’ works so well – in our Montessori classrooms as well as at home. There are actually a few reasons for this besides the obvious (that children take in the information through all of their senses, not just by listening).

By presenting a lesson using precise movements and as few words as possible – there is less chance that the lesson will be misunderstood. Actions are clear, while words are open to interpretation.

Another reason is one I find SO fascinating, as my Montessori friends will attest.

We know children – and adults, too, actually – learn by doing. We know that repetitive movements and the hand mind connection builds pathways in the brain as well as muscle memory. It’s why we can write without consciously having to think how to form each letter. We think it, and our hand and mind know what to do.

But did you know that we also learn by watching others? We don’t even have to be doing the activity ourselves – when we watch someone ELSE doing it, the same neurons fire in the brain as if WE had done it.

It’s a relatively new discovery in neurology called ‘mirror neurons’. They exist in the frontal lobe of the brain and recent brain research shows that they fire by watching someone else do something. To our brain, it is as if WE had done that activity ourselves.

Now, Dr Montessori didn’t know about ‘mirror neurons’ 100-plus years ago. That research was still many decades away.

But she DID know that multi-age classes produced superior results. She DID know that a child doing a maths activity would benefit by having an older child doing the next level maths activity right next to them.

She also knew that guides should PRESENT materials by showing, not EXPLAIN them by telling.

The child on the next mat just learned that too
We know Dr Montessori believed that concrete concepts should be introduced before abstract, which is why, for example, children in Montessori classrooms physically count items before writing numbers. It’s one of the many key differences between Montessori and traditional schools (where pencils are often put to paper before a child REALLY understands what a number is – or how a unit relates to 10 or 100, for example).

Just watch a child do a bead chain activity in a Montessori classroom – you can SEE the lightbulb going on. Explaining that a chain of 60 beads is the length of the six chain put end-to-end 10 times just doesn’t cut it compared to counting out that long line of beads yourself.

And what about the child on the next mat watching that growing line of beads? Well, they just learned that, too.

How fabulous.

So don’t underestimate your children. If they’ve watched you do the same thing week after week since they were a baby, you can bet they have been taking it in. Whether they are ready to do that activity themselves is another matter (I’m thinking about my boys watching me drive here – that is still a few years away, thankfully) – and that is a judgement call based on their age, interest and ability. But be prepared to be surprised.

And be prepared to step back a little – just a little bit at a time – and let them step in.

Before you know it they’ll be doing the full grocery shop by themselves while we just hand over the cash – and the car keys!

Thankfully I’ve still got nine years to prepare MYSELF for that one.

Have a great week,

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P.P.S. Leave a comment below! Have your children surprised you before with something they are capable of?

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