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the pretenders

The day my first kid was born, my husband stepped out into the hallway at the hospital and dialed a Montessori school in town, to put our newborn on their waitlist for admission. Three and a half years later, Finn finally got into the school. And I’ve been stepping in it, both literally and figuratively, ever since.

It is an amazing place. I once saw Tate’s teacher get tears in her eyes while talking about how much she enjoyed working with the twelve toddlers in her class. From joy. I have a good radar for emotional fakery, and she wasn’t faking it. I feel incredibly fortunate that my kids spend their days with extraordinary teachers who care that much about them.

It’s not the teachers (“guides”), or even my children. The problem is me. I have no previous experience with Montessori schools, so the language of Montessori and the unspoken rules are utterly foreign to me. For instance, because Montessori is fundamentally a practical, work-based approach to education, “pretending” of any sort is generally out. In my family’s day to day life, what that boils down to is this: no costumes, no books involving imaginary characters (talking animals), and no clothes depicting characters.

I try to toe the line at home, but it’s hard. My kids spend 75% of their time at home pretending to be Batman, and given that they are children, I imagine they reveal a lot of their active fantasy lives at school, foiling my desperate attempts to convince their teachers that I’m bona fide. At home, my 27-month old (Tate) is regularly armed with a foam sword or plastic light saber. I cannot stop it. It is simply not stoppable. I took the weapons away once and he started using our chopsticks–which, it turns out, are a lot sharper than foam or plastic.


I picture Tate at school, impaling his buddies on imaginary swords, and fervently hope that he is keeping the make-believe on the DL during school hours, but I fear it’s not happening. I also fear that he’s showing off his new verbal skills by shouting his favorite words (“good guy,” “bad guy,” “Chewbacca”) to all passerby.

Montessori is not big on TV. My kids watch TV sometimes. And I imagine everyone at school is aware of that fact, given that my five-year old (Finn) has a keen ear for music and mimicry that these days, mostly retains TV jingles. If he’s singing at school what he sings at home, his teacher is hearing a lot of the Sprout jingle and voiceovers for Zhu Zhu pet ads. Outed again.

Back at the school, I do a lot of pretending of my own. I pretend that I have it together, that things are under control, that I’m living the Montessori dream and loving it. But I’m failing miserably, and I’m pretty sure everyone can tell. Every time I enter the school to pick the boys up, I square my shoulders and give myself a little pep talk: “I’m a good mom. I’m a good mom.” And then I go in and spend ten minutes chasing Finn in laps around the playroom while the other parents watch. I know what they’re thinking: they’re wondering how bad things can be at our house that my kid doesn’t want to go home.

If the chase goes well, Finn will lose speed after a few laps and I can get close enough to hiss that there’s a granola bar in it for him if he will just GET IN THE CAR. If it goes poorly, I have to kick it into turbo and grab his arm firmly enough that he will inevitably yell “YEEOW MOM YOU’RE HURTING ME!!!” loudly enough for the entire school to hear. And that’s usually when the image of Maria Montessori turning in her grave pops into my brain.

It’s not like I don’t try. I do. I watch amazing parents like my friends Suzanne and Mollyanne, who sew napkins for the class, or can get their children to stop doing something by calmly saying, “that’s not available.” I want in that club like you wouldn’t believe. But the harder I try, the worse it goes. I actually thought hard about Finn’s Bruce Lee t-shirt, which he really wanted to wear, and which depicted a realistic image of Bruce Lee (not a cartoon). Thought it would pass the mustard, especially since Bruce Lee was a) a real person, and b) an Asian and therefore diverse. No dice. When I picked him up, Finn’s shirt was on inside out, a silent protest. Or when I baked healthy banana bread in mini cupcake molds and carefully packed one in Finn’s lunch. At pickup, Finn handed me his lunchbox, looked at me sternly, and said, “no cupcakes, Mommy.”

If I sucked this bad at my job, I’d quit. But it’s my kids. I can’t quit them. So I do it wrong, pick myself up, and try again. That, to me, is what parenthood is all about: getting your teeth kicked in and smiling through the blood. I’ll keep at it, and one day, I’ll look at my boys and see two confident and self-reliant citizens of the world, and there’s no question it will have been worth it.


37 Comments Post a comment
  1. dawniemikkelson #

    Hey Yoona. I’ve read in various posts about your boys’ Montessori education. My daughter is beginning Children’s House this fall and I just got the student handbook in the mail. I’m experiencing many of the emotions you conveyed in this post. I, like you, don’t have personal experience with Montessori education and I feel like I’m projecting my own insecurities of inadequacy onto my daughter because I’m afraid I won’t fit in with the other parents.. and that I’ll break all the rules because we like to wear bright colors and she thinks she is Curious George. Your post inspires me to move forward with her enrollment.

    On a lighter note, our school requires students to wear indoor, soft-soled footwear. You seem like the kind of mom who knows where to buy a fashionable toddler slipper. Any recommendations?

    June 30, 2014
    • Hey. Thanks for writing your note, regarding a post that was difficult for me to write. Have faith. I have struggled so much with Montessori but when I observe my self-sufficient, compassionate, and confident kids, the only emotion I feel is gratitude and that it was all worth it. My heart goes out to you. Regarding the shoes, for the toddler room we liked those foamtreads shoes–like boiled wool slippers with soft bottoms and an easy Velcro closure. Good luck, and my heart is happy for your kids and the journey they are about to embark upon.

      June 30, 2014
      • dawniemikkelson #

        Thanks for the foamtreads tip! I will check those out. Can you sense my anxiety level? I’m losing sleep over shoes.

        Your boys look so happy and healthy in their photos. Thanks for providing me a great example of what Montessori can do. I won’t lie- I’ve already plotted a few escape plans. But I know I should push forward and embark on this journey!

        July 1, 2014
      • dawniemikkelson #

        Oh, and if you’ve read any Montessori books, etc. that you’d recommend, I’d love to hear!

        July 1, 2014
  2. Grayson #

    Love this post, love the pictures. Your boys are awesome and so are you. Xo

    February 16, 2012
  3. >>>I know what they’re thinking: they’re wondering how bad things can be at our house that my kid doesn’t want to go home.>>>

    Funny, and honestly it’s happened to most people. Besides, he probably thinks its a great game you guys play every weekday.
    And the other mothers are probably “Pretending” as much as you are.

    And what’s up with no pretending for the kids? Is the place devoid of creativity? Why would they stifle a kid’s imagination. Imagine if the moms of Disney, Spielberg, Jobs or Oprah actively did that?

    Fine, turn the t-shirts inside out, but with above: Now, they’re going too far.
    Best Wishes navigating that treachery. At least it sounds like kids getting a good education — you’ll just to home school the imagination portion!

    January 30, 2012
  4. I can relate to the part about worrying that other parents think your child doesn’t want to go home. When I used to pick up my young boys from after school care, one of them would invariably yell at me in protest of my arrival and try to refuse to go. He enjoyed playing with the other kids, and apparently I always came “just when thing were getting fun”. I could imagine how it looked to others, but I was unable to prevent this reaction from him. I tried asking if he wanted me to leave him there until closing but he misunderstood and thought I was threatening to abandon him there permanently, which only made the situation worse.
    Thankfully, that phase passed.

    January 29, 2012
    • The not wanting to leave is actually reassuring on some level. You are leaving them somewhere that they want to be. But man is it annoying!

      January 29, 2012
  5. The author. #

    “That is not available.” That line made me laugh out loud. For a long time. There’s no way in hell that line would work for the adult professionals in my office, much less for kids.

    I came from Oklahoma and Montessori is not well known or available there. My kids were tv-watching, cupcake-eating, make-believe-playing (public school) banshees. And I think they turned out to be pretty great teenagers (though they still spend excessive amounts of time doing all those things). I say to hell with the rules. They might be fine for school hours, but every mother has to run her home according to her heart. With you at the helm, your kids are going to be just fine, Montessori or not.

    January 28, 2012
    • Sorry — I forgot to leave my name. This is Joan.

      January 28, 2012
    • “every mother has to run her home according to her heart.” words i want to learn to live by…thanks joan

      January 29, 2012
  6. Awwwwwwwww. First of all, your kids are SO ADORABLE. I hope my kids are just as adorable 🙂

    Second, this was such an amazing post because it was so honest (and also written in your humorous ways =P). I think it takes so much to put yourself out there like that, but sometimes the reward can be so great when others comment and let you know that they can totally relate and you’re not the only one who feels this way! (well, if that actually makes you feel any better haha).

    Anyways, great post as usual! 🙂

    January 28, 2012
    • the dialogue is a great reward. even when it’s not agreeing with you. i love that part of blogging. thanks janice!

      January 29, 2012
  7. Stephanie #

    Maria Montessori would never spin in her grave as a result of your parenting! Maria Montessori was shocked and amazed by the harmony that spontaneously occurred in the first Children’s House – NOT something she had ever seen before, knowing young children. It is still magical to me when I experience the peace of the environment on a daily basis. And please, let me reassure you as a mother of three, and as Finn’s lucky Montessori guide, parenting struggles are definitely part of the job – if anyone is judging you, they just don’t know any children. I often say parenting is absolutely the most challenging work we will ever do – but the work that comes with greatest rewards. And as an aside, I am the mother of Oliver (firefighting, sword bearing, crown wearing princess), Charlotte (the woodland fairy, ballerina, doctor), and Sir Elliot (currently the dark knight). So, we clearly need to have a talk about the wonders of pretend play and imagination. A heady topic to be sure. Please know, we all support you and your lovely, lovely boys.

    January 27, 2012
    • Stephanie, I think your comment pretty much sums up why I think the guides at the school walk on water. Thanks for your understanding and empathy. Finn tugged on my arm last weekend and asked if he could help with dinner. So I stood at the sink with him and watched him carefully wash a head of lettuce and peppers for our dinner, then carry the bowl to the table and serve his grandma. All with such pride. Amazing to observe. Thank you for empowering Finn. Yoona

      January 27, 2012
  8. Nope it’s not you – kids have to pretend it’s their nature any attempts to suppress that makes them determined to be more imaginative in an shape or form – reminder the scorpion and the frog:

    he Scorpion and the Frog is a fable about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that the behaviour of some creatures is irrepressible, no matter how they are treated and no matter what the consequences.

    January 27, 2012
  9. Christie #

    You’re obviously a good mom. You listen to your kids and know they want to swing foam swords and wear Bruce Lee t-shirts, rather than imposing your own beliefs on them and telling them how to feel and what they want to eat. I am practically a pacificist, and yet 72% of the words out of my son’s mouth are either “good guy” or “bad guy” or “lets wrestle!!” I also found out the hard way that you cannot get a sword or any other “fighting machine” away from at least certain little boys if your life depends on it, because they will use sticks, pillows, their hands, etc. What can you do? I say just love them, they’ll be great.

    January 27, 2012
    • thanks christie…we should get our boys together one of these days.

      January 29, 2012
  10. Dawn #

    I remember the first time I held my son, so little and new, and imagined he expected that I should know everything. It felt unbelievably overwhelming and I felt SO under qualified. His first year in the Children’s House he really struggled with hitting – talk about feeling like you were being judged as a mother (and I’m the Montessori teacher too…oh the humility!) What I discovered as a parent was that I had to tune out all the shoulds and perceived judgements, real or imagined, focus on the moment, put one foot in front of the other and adopt the mantra ‘it will all work out’ because it does! I don’t know any parent who hasn’t had to carry a screaming child out of some public space or another – we all just feel so alone in those moments.

    Can’t help but interject that creative play is not off limits…I spend a lot of time on the playground and you will find many happy unicorns and warriors running through the bamboo 🙂

    Your’re doing a great job and you have two amazing little guys with big smiles and big spirits!

    January 27, 2012
    • Dawn, this was such a personal post to me, and I meant it as a general comment on feeling inadequate as a parent. We love the school, which is why it’s so stinkin’ hard when I can’t get it together! Thanks for commenting, and for the advice about tuning out the (perceived) judgments of others–helps to have the reminder.

      January 27, 2012
  11. Courtney #

    Me and my kids do better when we’re not trying to fit in a mold that is different from who we are or what we believe. Joe did Montessori for a while and liked it, but Maddie–who is not a high maintenance kid–was so bored she could not stand it and the idea of doing it past age 6 would have just been horrible. You know my thoughts: Public school, especially in Irvington, which has a great, diverse population of people, has been wonderful for my kids and helped them not to be brats. And we just had Leo tested for high school admissions purposes, and it’s clear from that he’s been learning all he’s supposed to learn and then some. I’d pull those kids and get them into something more realistic and more covered by taxpayer dollars. I’m also with penguinkaty on the standard of good moms. Go with your instincts.

    January 27, 2012
    • Kim #

      I’m with Courtney. I whole-heartedly disapprove of any “education” that requires children not to pretend. It’s not you.

      January 27, 2012
      • Kim #

        PS: Your kids are so cute I could squeeze them until they popped. Please note the use of the unreal conditional here. In other words, I promise to never actually do that.

        January 27, 2012
    • Courtney and Kim: as an aside, why aren’t we spending more time together? Kim, I still think about the conversation we had around Courtney’s table about schools. Thank you for that, and for commenting here. Courtney my love, I seem to be spending a lot of time diffusing your posts . Please keep sharing the Courtney perspective–I can’t do without.

      January 27, 2012
      • And Kim, thanks, I think they’re pretty awesome. But if you squeeze them too hard, boogers come out

        January 27, 2012
  12. Eric Shoemaker #

    True Story: I was kicked out of Montesorri school. In classic Montesorri fashion, my parents were asked that they “not enroll me” for a second year because I would be a “better fit” somewhere else. It must have been my then-overpowering interest in simply being a kid. Last I checked, things turned out pretty good. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re a great mom.

    January 27, 2012
    • Darling, you got kicked out because you can’t spell Montessori. Also, I imagine the list of institutions you have been kicked out of is long and illustrious. XOXO

      January 27, 2012
  13. Suzanne #

    I’m so glad to hear that my charade of having things under control is so convincing. Clearly you have not witnessed the majority of our pick ups, where Tillie runs into my arms and subsequently kicks, pinches and headbutts me. During the first couple months of school last year, our pick ups were so bad that Stephanie had to intervene. If sewing napkins is all it takes, and you don’t already know how, I can show you.

    January 27, 2012
    • I have a sewing machine. I’ll pay you for a lesson on how to use it. Then I can start making Tom’s clothes.

      January 27, 2012
  14. I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but this is the first time I comment.I just can’t help it.

    Why on earth would they be against kids playing make believe? It’s what kids do! It develops their imagination, their creativity!

    I can’t help but think yours are more well adjusted than the others. You kick ass girl, and don’t you let anyone tell you different.

    January 27, 2012
  15. Thank you for this post… I was just looking into Montessori preschools this week. I like that they make them wash dishes and clean the table, yay free labor, but your post tells me I have a lot more research to do on the subject, especially regarding imagination and pretend play.

    Also, your kids are alive and healthy and fed and not naked – you’re a good mom.

    January 27, 2012
    • Penguinkaty, the Montessori method has been a good fit for my boys–just not as great a fit for me (but I’m working at it!). The emphasis on practical skills makes absolute sense to me and they are self-reliant little dudes. They are always asking to help cook, clean, “DO” stuff. I love that. But yes, research is always good. Have you checked out this website?

      January 27, 2012
  16. Matthew #

    Alternatively, you could pull him from Montessori, put him in a Waldorf school where imagination and cupcakes are allowed (at least when I went to Waldorf…of course that was a bit of time ago…). No cupcakes, Bruce Lee, no books with imaginary characters…man that’s a longggg list of books I grew up with. I had not idea this was the Montesorri way…bummer.

    January 27, 2012
  17. Yoona, you bring tears to my eyes. That was my life with our children 25 years ago. Before becoming a parent I swore I would never let my kids run around and scream like banshees or show up in the grocery store with a runny nose. Then reality happened. Everywhere I looked I found other women that were better mothers, better wives and better career professionals than I could ever be. At that point I decided to let go and just be the best I could be; imperfect or even poor on many scales.

    And, wonder of wonders, despite not being close to being as good as I wanted to be, my children grew up to be magnificent human beings. And, as they will be the first to tell you, I never once made banana bread cupcakes for them to bring to school!

    January 27, 2012
    • Carolynn, any time I have doubts about the Montessori approach I think of Linds, who is by far the most well-adjusted and secure person I have ever met–and you Montessori’ed her. That is the honest truth. So kudos to you, and thank you for sharing–it’s really reassuring to hear that these doubts I feel are ones that have been felt by others, for years. XO.

      January 27, 2012
  18. Bridget #

    Montessori or not, they are YOUR kids! Montessori is something you’ve chosen, not the other way around. And if they know anything at all about kids, it’s that they will pretend.

    When a few of my friends gave birth to sons, they decided there would be no guns allowed. They started to waver in this resolve when they found themselves banning all sticks, then spoons, then spatulas. The last straw was when they found the boys with their sisters’ Barbie dolls in hand, one of the legs jutting forward like the barrel of a pistol. Boys will be boys.

    If there’s a pretender here, I don’t think it’s you.

    January 27, 2012
  19. Gwen Erin #

    Wow! I don’t have any kids nor do I know anything about Montessori, but no pretend?? What is that? How could you expect kids not to play and make believe and all that stuff they do without thinking? Are we not supposed to develop their creativity and imagination? Sheesh. I must be missing something.

    January 27, 2012

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