The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.
The Essential Question: Your Toddler at the Coffeehouse
What does my child need from this environment and how can I provide it?
It’s a peaceful Saturday morning and the house is casually flopping about. You have a great idea: a family walk down to your local coffeehouse to read the paper and grab a cuppa. Two hours later, you’re exhausted. You’re still hungry. You’ve got coffee on your shirt and your toddler is screaming. What happened?
The easy outings you may remember from before your child was born aren’t gone forever, but they do need some special preparation to make sure they’re still as relaxing as you remember. Coffeehouses are far simpler for adults to navigate than for children. Think ahead to assure you all enjoy the outing.
Eat first. But, wait! Aren’t you going to the coffee shop to get something to eat? Why would you eat before you go? OK, ok. You don’t have to eat, but you should make sure your toddler has a small snack before venturing out to a restaurant breakfast. Although our bodies can wait a little longer on weekend mornings, toddlers need smaller portions of food more often to keep their bodies balanced, and the delays you’re certain to experience eating out can leave your toddler without the fuel he needs to maintain his composure. Before you venture out, have a small serving of a high protein food, like some scrambled eggs, nuts, or yogurt. Make sure your child is hydrated, too, choosing fresh water over milk or fruit juices.
Choose the time of your visit wisely. Weekend mornings can be hectic times at the coffeehouse, as more patrons visit and tend to stay longer with a wait staff who may not be as comfortable with the demands of weekend service. Earlier in the morning or after lunch are typically quieter times on weekends. For the child in a Sensitive Period to Language, the loud sounds of a busy weekend morning coffeehouse can be overwhelming. For the child in a Sensitive Period to Order, the chaos of a crowd will be uncomfortable. Visit at times when you think the environment will be less busy.
Imagine the experience with your child. As you’re heading out, talk about what you think you might eat there, how many people there may be, and what you’ll do when you’re sitting at the table together. Consider before you go whether you will let your child choose from the display case or if you want to narrow his choices: your answer may depend on what you know about the coffee house menu. Imagine out loud whether you’ll get your coffee and breakfast and carry them to your table or if you’ll have a server bring you your order. Imagine whether there will be many people there or just a few. When you arrive, you can describe the ways in which your predictions were accurate or not. Doing so helps the order-aware toddler to prepare for the new environment and for you to model the ease with which you can adapt when predictions are wrong.
Model grace and courtesy. Speak softly. Put away your phone. Make eye contact with your child. Remember to acknowledge your servers with “please” and “thank you.” Sample small bites of your breakfast and remain seated until your meal is done. The many distractions of this environment can be navigated by helping your child to focus on his experience with you. Watch what your child is looking at: that will help you to know what he needs more information about and how to frame your talk. Model calm, even if your child gets wiggly. Remind your child in affirmative language what he can do if his movement or volume increase beyond what’s appropriate for other patrons. “You may sit at the table. Later, we can walk around the coffeehouse together. Now, it is time to sit.” “Please speak softly in the coffeehouse.”
Finally, modify your expectations. Like any outing with your child, a casual visit to the coffeehouse is as important for the lessons it will teach him about your relationship together and his place in the world as it is for the tasty muffins you’ll enjoy together. Slow down. Use the outing as a chance to talk with your child. Pay attention to the things you want him to pay attention to, and, when he’s got other things distracting him, help him to notice those things with the same limits you would want someone else to ask of his or her child. Until your child is comfortable in the environment and experienced with its expectations and norms, treat each visit as a means to develop that mastery. Soon enough, the sounds, smells and rhythms of the coffeehouse will be as predictable to him as they are to you. In the meantime, savor the process of teaching your child about an environment that provides you with a relaxing place to unwind.