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Slowing Down for Purposeful Work

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I am approaching three months as a full-time working parent after being a stay-at-home mom since both children were born. 

It is a big adjustment. I took off running and immediately grew busy building a new routine, while simultaneously increasing expectations on my kids. Working or stay at home, this is easy to do when they graduate from the clear baby days of dependency into the independence-seeking toddler years. I’ve seen them do more for themselves, so they should always be this way, right? If they could just hurry along, because there’s more to get to!

Of course, there was a Montessori lesson built into this. The obvious: It is not our children’s job to hurry along to our pace; it is our job as parents to slow down to our children’s pace. The less obvious:

Are my expectations of independence justified if I am rushing past their need for purposeful work?

Purposeful work. It speaks to the idea that our children are capable, and that they should be trusted and empowered to try, to do, to contribute, to discover for themselves. It’s honoring that the activities we might view as repetitive or mundane, like having to wash a table or fold clothes, are deeply engaging to them. When I slow down to give my children purposeful work, then I am supporting a pathway to the independence I so desire for them to have.

But, when I went back to work, I got busy. I grew distracted. I was craving for them to do for themselves for selfish reasons, and I wasn’t necessarily slowing down to ensure  they had the building blocks to do so. As much as our young children are saying, “I want to do it!’ They are also saying, “Show me how.”

I’ve been through this observation and lesson before, but once again lost sight of it. I was reminded to slow down after attending my son’s lead-guide conference the other month.

He is 3.5 and suddenly taking an interest in academic concepts: Letters, numbers, continents. Since I knew he was diving into academics, I was prioritizing unstructured, free play at home. Between the unstructured at home and the structured at school, I started to treat this practical life stuff as a thing of the past, as if it were no longer an interest for my bigger, capable preschooler, but better suited for my younger 2-year-old. He still had accessibility to do many things for himself at home, but it grew stagnant because I grew busy.

Yet, practical life is even more exciting at his age of 3.5. He is switching from the acquisition phase of new skills to the refinement phase. Where he once looked a bit clumsy trying to use both hands to sweep up a mess on the floor, he can now use his hands swiftly and skillfully. I saw this drastic improvement the other day when he swept up glass pieces of a broken ornament. He was so focused on getting every last, tiny piece. Now, he was really doing it. Imagine the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment our children have when they finally master something! And yet, why is it so easy for us to keep turning the page, “onto the next?”

The letters, numbers and continents are fascinating. Academics have purpose, but the purpose of learning is far greater than academics. You know what’s amazing? The fact that he cleaned up broken pieces of a glass ornament completely on his own; that he loves the steps of baking cookies from scratch far more than I do; that we keep finding our dishwasher running because he wants to learn how to help more with the dishes; and that my husband cannot even think about raking the leaves in our yard without inviting my son, because that’s one of his favorite activities to do outside.

There is something incredibly valuable in-between the two pillars of supporting academics at school and protecting free time for play, and that is, ensuring we slow down to see our children’s reaches for purposeful work. It’s so easy to overlook, isn’t it?

This self-reflection grew crystal clear the other night when bedtime struggles returned, and I had told my son that I could see he seemed frustrated and sad. I asked him if he wanted to talk about it.

“Mom, I miss you. I also don’t like when you order groceries on your phone. I really want to go to the store with you so I can pick out the vegetables and fruit.”

I had been doing grocery pick-up due to life getting busier, and I had no idea it bothered my son this much. If anything, I thought it was saving me time to be home with him. I was wrong. Helping me plan meals for the week and navigate the grocery store, albeit slower and frustrating sometimes, is meaningful and purposeful to my son.

“You and me, this Sunday, we’re going to the grocery store. I would love your help in picking out food for the week.”


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