Essay,  Montessori Bunnies



It is a punishing habit of mine to check before reading a Curious George book if the book is actually by H.A. Rey & and his wife Margret. If I’m paging through one it’s because Joan handed it to me, so of course I am already committed to reading it. But just to know what I am getting in to, I check the author byline before. Because of the insatiable nature of publishing children’s classics, and the fact that the Reys only wrote seven George books, most of the bright-yellow flap books you find on shelves today are not by them. They are in the style of the Reys, or based on the characters of, or however they choose to word their copyright ripoffs. Even without checking the byline though, you can tell a few pages in. There is a blissful simplicity to Reys’ narrator-driven style, a complete lack of anxiety or social pressures, and an emphasis on the adventure of the day. George does whatever the hell he wants, and the man with the yellow hat wanders cheerfully to the scene in time to let things really get mucked up before he gets there.

(truly does it get better than innocently floating away with a fistful of balloons, and then having the adult make sure the balloon man gets paid?)

But the versions beckoning to children these days just don’t carry the tone. More characters are loaded in. Instead of a narrator guiding us through a foolish yet thrilling caper, there is dialog burdened with the tiresome troubles of “George’s friends.” Betsy, a somewhat-timid character that the Reys introduced in Curious George Goes to the Hospital, shows up regularly, beset by interior anxieties and fears that George must solve. There is even Curious George’s Easter, a boring and confusing story that is difficult to imagine George’s Jewish creators ever writing.

I know this might sound exhausting but I’m a tad obsessed with tone and children. The other day we were at a museum where children’s psychology grad students had set up a booth in the corner. They asked if the girls could be part of their experiment, and of course I said yes. The experiment was to watch how the kid handled something once it broke. Did they try different methods to fix it? Or did they keep trying the same thing? Joan tried different methods, at least ten times. Afterwards the graduate research student brightly told me this was great—“most kids her age just do the same thing again and again.” But I had watched from afar, and I was frustrated how the experiment had ended: after letting Joan try to fix it using all different shapes to get the faux-machine to turn on (in fact the student was turning it on and off herself), the research student then “fixed it” for her using one of the shapes Joan had already tried (and simultaneously flipping a switch under the table). Joan trudged over after the experiment, downtrodden. “It was broken,” she said. “Looks like you solved it!” I said hopefully. “No,” she said, “the girl solved it.” And so ends my forays into other people’s research projects involving my kids.

I know the grad student thought the two-year-old would just be pleased to see the kaleidoscope light spin and turn on again, problem solved, bye!, but that’s just not how it works. (And I know I should have told the grad students how I felt, in person, but you will understand that I was barely surviving this museum trip at all given that my stroller had been left in the lobby and I had forgotten my baby carrier and Alma had fallen asleep into my elbow.)

And to be fair to these ghost in-the-spirit-of-the-Reys authors and hapless broke twenty-somethings grad students, let’s turn the lens on myself for a moment. These last weeks I’ve been asking Joan “will you let me help you?” as she fruitlessly jams her right foot into the left shoe or attempts to hole in six buttons on her pea sweater. The question felt right and I put my best mama-loves-you tone behind it. But the other day my friend pointed out how un-empowering the word help is to Joan.  Every time I said it, I reminded her that she couldn’t do without it me. This week I think I’ll experiment with “Could I do one shoe and you do one?” or “I wonder if it would work if we did it this way?”



  • jolie

    This is one of my favorite discussions. It seems like I have so much to learn when it comes to talking to my children! I may never finish reading it (always get sidetracked) but that book called How To Talk So Kids Will Listen (and how to listen so kids will talk) gave me some good ideas about helping Rosie through emotions, and also talking to her in a way that is less helicopter mom problem solver, and more kind + inquisitive bystander. Most of it was just about repeating back what I saw happening in or around her. “Hm, you seem really frustrated!” and “Looks like that boy has a toy that you want, huh?” so that she feels affirmed and clarified in her feelings, but also, it’s left open ended so that she can decide where to take the next step. if anything (though I know this wasn’t the direction you were going in regard to tone) I’ve noticed that this sort of tone with her hastens the resolution to tantrums immensely.

    I’ve noticed with things like getting dressed and helping with chores and feeding oneself, that I constantly have to check my hastiness in order to “just get it DONE” with her, because I know in the long wrong I am kind of shackling her to me, and giving her the mentality that she needs me. I want to work on this!

    • Claire

      As a researcher who has worked with what are called “vulnerable populations” (children, people with disabilities, the elderly), I know how hard it is to think of every possible detail when you set up an experiment, including the very important ethical question of how the participant feels afterward. If you feel comfortable reaching out when you do have time, please do contact the primary investigator on the project and let them know that their “debriefing” didn’t work -their contact information should be on the consent form. They have probably never even considered the issue, and should be grateful for the feedback – who knows, it could inspire a follow-up study! Researchers work hard to create an environment that’s safe and even enriching for their experiments, and I would be sorry to see the scientists of Boston lose participants because of a clumsy grad student!

  • Kimberly

    Or even, “can we do it [put on the shoes, fasten the buttons…] together?”

    I’m now brainstorming an arsenal to keep on deck of different phrasings to utilize for my two year old. 🙂

  • jess

    Oh man. Love this. It’s incredible how early the things we say – the tones – how early they matter.

    For thought or discussion: how “un-empowering the word help is” … I am have struggled with asking for help since jr high (I’m now 30). It used to seem that asking for help with homework made me feel stupid- that if I was smart enough, I could get it by myself. Now, there’s mama guilt behind it (“I’m sure other moms can do it ALL without asking for help.”) It doesn’t matter that rationally, I know it isn’t true. The “not enough” feeling still lingers. My question is this:
    Is there a way to introduce asking for and offering “help” without the un-empowering implications?

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