Friday, June 7, 2013

Handling a Screaming Toddler | Casey's Last Word

I won’t be here next weekend for Father’s Day.

KLRN will be airing its “Blazing Gavels” fundraiser, and then I will be leaving town for a daughter’s college graduation.

So I’d like to deliver a Father’s Day story this week.

It’s a true story that I’ve told many times, once in print, once on this program and frequently to younger friends with small children.

I’ll keep telling it because it addresses one of civilization’s most intractable problems: How to deal with a screaming toddler.

In America, Montessori is widely thought of as an avant-garde educational approach designed for pampered middle-class and upper-middle-class children.

Once, when my daughters were at Judson Montessori school, now the Montessori School of San Antonio, an acquaintance allowed as how his child needed more discipline than that.

Maria Montessori would have been amused.

I watched Montessori faculty control classes with velvet methods that would make the strict nuns of my youth envious.

Montessori was, nearly 120 years ago, one of the first female physicians in Italy.

She began her career working in asylums with children with mental disabilities.

So her theories weren't developed while working with children of privilege, but with street urchins and others at the asylums.

When my daughters were at Judson, my wife and I took advantage of an evening course for parents on the writings of Montessori.

It was taught by Peter Sebring, then and I suspect still one of the best on an excellent faculty.

At that time, my 3-year-old – the one who graduates this year -- was punishing us for the unwarranted pride we had taken in how well-behaved she had been during what are commonly known as the terrible twos.

One of our daily struggles was getting dressed in the morning.

She would refuse to put on the clothes set out for her but would not select any of her own.

The tantrum trigger was quick, and soon one parent would be holding her while she screamed and kicked as the other parent tried to stuff her legs into pants.

Once I resorted to spanking. It failed, made me feel like a bully and just made this tough, tiny girl even more defiant.

Then, in our Montessori readings, we came to a passage on how to handle a child who is acting up.

I was more than interested.

For the misbehaving child Montessori recommended two steps.

The first was to remove the child from the group and take him to a quiet place.

That sounded familiar. It’s called “time out.”

But the second part was to smother the child with attention and affection. 

We were to reward the child for misbehavior? This struck me as un-American.

But Maria Montessori was a smart lady.

So the next morning, when the battle resumed on schedule, I picked up my screaming daughter and removed her from her sister and mother and went down the hall to a quiet place.

Then I stroked her and hugged her and quieted her.

Within minutes, she was calm and cooperative. We returned to the room and she happily got dressed.

The next morning, we again went through the revised ritual: tantrum, removal and affection, happy cooperation. In the weeks, months and years afterward the remedy worked whenever I was wise enough to use it.

At our next weekly class I offered my testimony like a convert.

"You know what you did, don't you?" asked Peter, after I related the happy ending.

He clearly was not surprised by my experience.

"I have no earthly idea," I said.

"You've reminded her that she loves you," he said.

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