This month I am taking part in a project on Instagram all about the concept of “The Prepared Adult”, and I thought I would share some thoughts here too. If we’re not already connected on Instagram, come along and say hi!
Last week (I’m a little behind – oops!) the participants in “The Prepared Adult” were writing about observation, a key part of Maria Montessori’s method and a vital skill for Montessori guides and parents.
Observation as a vital aspect of parenting
For me as a parent, observation is a fundamental part of how I raise and educate my daughter. This doesn’t mean staring at her all day, but taking moments to watch her and really notice what she is doing. What frustrates her? What is she currently drawn to playing with or working on? What does she enjoy? Where is she excelling? Where might she need our support? Where might our home environment be helping or hindering her?
I believe that taking the time daily to sit back, observe, and truly see her – as she is, not how I might want or imagine her to be – is one of the most precious gifts I can give her. Which of us doesn’t want to be truly seen and unconditionally loved by someone we care about?
For me, observation is fundamentally about respect. Taking this time to observe her carefully by making adjustments to our home, our rhythm, my behaviour or expectations, or the materials or activities I offer her, shows my daughter that I respect her and her work.
Observing our children’s behaviour through the lens of Unconditional Positive Regard
Coined by the psychologist Carl Rogers, the term “Unconditional Positive Regard” means that when we’re interacting with someone – or observing them – we choose to accept and think the best of them regardless of what they say or do. A powerful therapeutic tool, this is also invaluable for the parent-child relationship.
When we see our children as inherently good, and their behaviour as simply them doing their best to get their needs met in whatever way they know how, then we allow them to develop a strong, positive sense of self-worth.
When we adopt an unconditionally positive attitude toward our children – parenting them without trying to change them – we allow them the freedom & emotional safety to try new things, make mistakes, & take risks. We show them that whatever they do they are loved, important, and good. They believe that they are worthy of love and care just by being themselves, as they truly are.
For example: imagine that my daughter gets frustrated and pushes another child. When I observe my daughter’s behaviour through this lens of unconditional positive regard, I see that her behaviour is a form of communication. If I am observing her whilst holding firm to the idea that all of her behaviour comes from a place of goodness, I am able to learn:
- What she is really trying to communicate through her actions and words, whether consciously or not;
- What she might be needing in that moment – and how I can best support her to get those needs met; and
- How she might be feeling in that moment – and how I can help her feel seen and heard.
I am also able to respond in a way which helps her to feel unconditionally loved and cared for.
Observation and the prepared environment
After observing my daughter, I may decide we need to provide materials to help her follow her interests – perhaps a new book, material, tool, or toy – but I may also realise that she already has everything she needs and that buying something new for the sake of it would not add anything.
I might also realise through observation that we need to make changes to our home environment – for example, adding a small mirror, low peg, or child-size chair. Observing how our children utilise certain spaces can give us profound insight into how that environment is serving their needs! In the Reggio Emilia approach, the environment is seen as the “third teacher”, and for Montessori the “prepared environment” was crucial. Observation is the best tool that parents have at their disposal for creating a home environment which truly works for their family.
The important thing is that carefully observing our daughter means that it is her needs and desires, rather than any external expectations or timeframes, which are directing and framing the childhood that my husband and I are lovingly working to curate for her.
Observation and the Zone of Proximal Development
Writing in the early 1900’s, the term Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was coined by Lev Vygotsky. Simply speaking, the ZPD is the space between where the child currently is at intellectually, and where they could be. For example, with a toddler this might be the difference between a simple pegged puzzle the child can do with ease, and a jigsaw puzzle they can do only when helped by an adult. The ZPD is somewhere in the middle of here.
When we carefully observe our children we are able to identify the ZPD across many areas of our children’s lives and give our them just the right amount of support (also known as ‘scaffolding’) to help them grow and develop both practically and intellectually, providing challenge and opportunities for growth as well as support.
I really do think that careful, intentional observation is a key tool for any parent who wants to raise their children more consciously. But we mustn’t forget to also observe ourselves.
I am currently undertaking counselling, and something I have been talking about a lot with my wonderful therapist is the concept of “curious compassion”: observing my behaviour and feelings with kindness, empathy, curiosity and love, in the same way that I would observe my daughter.
When we are able to observe ourselves with Unconditional Positive Regard, we can slowly begin to understand our actions and feelings better. We deepen our inner work as we deepen our relationship with ourselves. We spot patterns, start to notice our triggers, and can work to disrupt harmful cycles of behaviour. This inner observation can be challenging, but is just as important as the kind and loving observation we bring to our children.
We will be talking about observation in the context of screen time in my Making Sense of Screens course next month. In the course I will teach you how to observe your child’s behaviour in the context of screen time: How do you know the “right” amount of TV or technology for each of your individual children? How do they respond to TV? Is tech causing more conflict or joy overall in your family? How can you spot signs of addiction and support your child to develop a healthy relationship with technology? We’ll explore these questions and so much more in Making Sense of Screens, which will run again in September! Find out more and book your place here.