As I’ve parented two children into the teenage years, what has always helped me is hearing about how others have navigated the years ahead long before I was at this stage.
So I thought it might be useful to share my experience navigating life with teenagers to remind you that it’s the long game we are playing in parenting; to stand up for teenagers that they are delightful to be around if sometimes a little volatile (sound familiar parents of toddlers?); and to let you know that it will be possible to sleep in again some time in the future (I had nearly 11 hours sleep on Saturday night – please don’t send hate mail).
I’d love to be a positive example for you that you don’t have to fight with your teenagers, that you will be endlessly entertained by them, and to let you know that your parenting job doesn’t end when they start high school – they just need our support in different ways.
Here is what I have learnt so far about parenting Montessori-style with teenagers…
Transitioning from Montessori to regular high school
Both my children attended a public Montessori school in Amsterdam up until 12 years old. There are Montessori high schools here in Amsterdam but my children opted for different high schools. Is that interesting to hear about?
We went to look at high schools together and we let them choose the high schools they wanted to apply for. We vetted their choices for sure, but we were also ok with the schools that they put down. Giving them the choice was really important as then I never felt like it was my fault that their school had a certain start time, or rules etc. It was the school that they themselves had chosen.
There really was very little adjustment starting at high school after going to Montessori school. The teachers told them what they needed to do, what was due when etc, so in fact traditional high school seemed easier than Montessori. I always checked that they had enough time to do their homework but left it up to them to plan it in, study for their tests, and work on their projects. So I still apply the philosophy of giving as little help as possible and as much as necessary. Occasionally if there was an overwhelming week, I could help them break down what needed to be done first and they’d be on their way again (admittedly sometimes with some tears).
Being their guide
Even though they were no longer at Montessori school, I feel like I have still applied the same Montessori principles to parent them through the teen years. The idea of being their guide rather than being their boss or servant has served me well.
It means that I can often be their friend and enjoy hanging out with them. We continue to bake and cook together, curl up to watch films and – whilst I avoided screens as young kids – now watching a Netflix series can be time for connection.
I love travelling with them. Teenagers can pack for themselves, carry their own bags (toddlers too!), and are happy to walk cities for hours. In our most recent trip to Paris we each chose a place to visit and had the most delightful trip ever. It was fun to share the planning and exploring, and everyone got to do one thing they had chosen (visiting locations from the film Amélie, eating macarons, and an evening visit to Musée D’Orsay).
And sometimes being the guide means keeping them safe and being the parent. I’m not scared to take that role when it’s needed (albeit luckily it’s not been that often). After all, I’ve been practising this since they were babies – “It’s my job to keep you safe. Let’s climb over here,” “It’s my job to keep you safe. We hold hands on the busy road,” “It’s my job to keep everyone safe – I can’t let you hit your friend. What did you want to tell them?”
With a teenager, it looks more like, “You want to go to that concert and it’s my job to keep you safe. How can we find a way that you can go to the concert and I know that we’ve done as much as we can to keep you safe?” The agreement we came up with was that they’d eat pizza at our place before the concert (so I knew who they were going with), I’d cycle with them and sit somewhere surreptitiously to see they got in ok, I warned them about the risks inside the venue with alcohol, drugs etc, and I’d pick them up at the end of the concert (I wasn’t the only parent there and they got to go to the concert).
There have been a few times (not many) when there wasn’t a way I could find that was safe enough and I told them to blame me that they weren’t going to be able to go. And I think that they need those limits and look relieved when I set them.
Similarly they don’t have a strict curfew. If there is a school party ending at 1am, then they can come back at 1am. On a regular evening, they’d be home by dark. And text if time had snuck up on them and they were running later than expected.
Do you see how the principles of working together (rather than threatening and bribing) and setting limits when needed are the same with toddlers and teenagers?
I think one thing that has helped build a strong relationship with my teenagers is eating meals together. We rarely miss a breakfast together or dinner time unless they are sleeping at a friend’s place. It’s always at the kitchen table, never in front of the TV, they know I don’t like phones during meals (and laugh at me if I need to use mine to check something during a meal), and it’s simple but home-cooked food.
They also will help out with the cooking and are great bakers (we have a sweet tooth in the genes).
If they sleep in at breakfast on the weekend, I’ll have a second breakfast with them when they wake up or a cup of coffee to join them. And if they are happy to hang out chatting after a meal, then I stay and enjoy all the company I can get.
Chores and pocket money
I’ve never had a list of chores they had to do or given them pocket money. If they were available to help set the table, clear the table, empty the dishwasher or other then I asked if they could help or whoever finds clean dishes in the dishwasher would put them away. I need to wash cloths for my classes every day so they know that if they want me to do their washing, they just need to bring it to the laundry hamper. The most I need to ask them is, “I haven’t seen your sport clothes for Saturday. Do you need them?” and they’ll hurry off to grab them.
It’s honestly never been a battle.
This is pretty much how it’s been since they were little. They helped me set the table as toddlers, we prepared food together, they carried their dirty clothes to the laundry hamper.
See that you are laying the foundations already for some ease in the teenage years?
Regarding pocket money, rather than giving my kids pocket money for chores, my kids learned that we would buy things for them that they needed and helping out around the home is just part of being a family. When their trainers were worn out, they’d be able to choose a new pair in our budget. And then they didn’t just buy junk with pocket money. When they started high school, I’d give them €5 to buy lunch at school. They soon worked out that if they made their own lunch, they’d be able to save the €5. And they are pretty savvy with money (so far). Pocket money is a personal choice for sure, but this has worked for us.
And with the teenage years comes the desire to earn their own money and both have started part-time jobs on the side – something I never expected but even for a few euros an hour, most Dutch kids get a part-time job.
Big emotions and independence
I love the similarities between toddlers and teenagers. There is enormous change happening in their bodies in both periods. And they are both periods of enormous volatility. They are also both seeking independence – for a toddler they are learning to be independent from their parents, and teenagers are seeking to be independent from their family seeking out other social relationships at this time.
Regarding the big emotions, hormonal outbursts are not so dissimilar from toddler tantrums. I’ve chosen never to take them personally. The advantage of teenagers over toddlers is you can wait until later that day to say, “You know when you rolled your eyes at me earlier…” and they are quick to apologise, “I’m sorry! I don’t even know why I was so frustrated.” With toddlers this would be all but forgotten later in the day and needs to be dealt with once they are calm.
While I sometimes wish I could take away all the awkwardness of the teenage years, they need to go through their own experience. I tell them it’s hard to see them having a hard time or tell them I love them even when they are at their worst. But otherwise, I am simply the rock they can turn to if they need me.
So even though teenagers are much more independent and might disappear into their room for a couple of hours, they do appreciate a cup of tea, to chat as I’m heading to bed, or to plop down at the kitchen table as I’m writing this newsletter and I’ll simply close my laptop and be available until their feet make their way upstairs.
As a teenager I would sit on the telephone (a wired one with a curly cord) and chat to my friends for hours. And today’s version of this is texting friends, sending Snapchats, perusing other people’s lives on Instagram, and some online gaming.
In primary school they didn’t have mobile phones and very limited access to screens. And once they started cycling to school by themselves they got a phone in their last 6 months of primary. At first we were very strict about no social media. But then they started using it without us knowing. Better indeed to know what apps they are using so we can give them guidance on how to use it safely.
These kids are growing up with technology. They are negotiating the same battles we are – turning off notifications so they can get their homework done, practising communicating clearly with friends so that they can make plans to meet up, and finding the balance between online and offline life. We are there to help them navigate it and I wouldn’t be shy to step in if I thought they needed some limits.
But, again, they’ve been pretty good at self-moderating their use too with very little intervention from the parents. I try to model putting my phone away during meals and when there are guests, and when we are out exploring in foreign cities (they’ve even told me I should put away my phone and not take photos!). I tell them I’m taking an insta break (a conscious choice to use social media rather than aimless scrolling). And we’ll see the fall out soon enough.
Sometimes I think they have a better handle on it than many adults.
Super interesting conversations
The most delightful part is seeing these children grow into their own unique selves. The conversations are fascinating.
Teenagers love to look at the world and come up with ways to solve the problems they see around them. My daughter has come up with an idea for a better way to teach chemistry than their text book, they are active in the climate debate, and social choices. And my son is a black belt and loves to give lessons to the younger kids in his martial arts class. One day my daughter wants to go to film school and the next to study aerospace engineering. What I know is they see that they don’t have to earn a lot of money to be successful. They want to love what they do.
There is a lot I don’t know about. Parents don’t need to or want to know everything their teenagers are up to. But I want my kids to know that I am here for them if they need me.
What lies ahead for them, I cannot wait to see. It will be an adventure for sure. And I’ll be there at the kitchen table waiting for them with a cup of tea.
From childhood to adolescence, by Maria Montessori