Going to the peace table
Montessori parenting lessons for fun and survival
“Love and peace,” David Burliuk, 1914
My colleagues are my three children, ages 3 to 5. Like scientists in an Antarctic research station, we see each other constantly and we have little human contact outside our walls.
Some days feel idyllic and cozy, in spite of the world outside. Some days the cabin fever is real.
My wife and I are more fortunate than a lot of parents. I have a job that allows me to work from home while the schools are closed. I have a mom who lives nearby and comes over to help keep the peace during the day.
Still, the struggle is real. One of our saving graces has been our friend Elizabeth, who leads the children’s ministry at our church and has worked extensively in Montessori education. One idea she brought up early in the quarantine was creating a peace table for our family.
We already had a kid-sized table and benches beside our living room window. We added a candle, a ceramic dish full of interesting rocks with magnifying glasses, and a sort of homemade lava lamp made with a plastic bottle, liquid soap, and glitter.
The bottle is our peace object. At the public Montessori school our girls attend, the class uses a plastic rose called the “peace rose.” It can be anything.
Here’s how it works in our house: If someone calls you to the peace table, you have to go. The person who called the meeting holds the bottle first and explains the problem and how it made them feel. The other person has to sit and listen.
Then the bottle changes hands, and the other person has a chance to respond and explain how they felt at the moment of the original offense. This is a good opportunity to apologize, although it doesn’t have to happen yet. The two parties pass the bottle back and forth until they reach a resolution.
In theory the kids will be able to conduct their business without us one day, but for now, especially with our 3-year-old, we usually have to mediate. Today, for example, I was wrapping up some work when my daughter and son came screaming into the bedroom, yelling over top of each other. My daughter called her brother to the peace table, but he refused. I enforced the rule: He had to sit at the table and listen.
Come to find out, my son had accidentally kicked my daughter’s Lite-Brite board and knocked some pegs loose. She blew up at him about it, and he stormed off and called her stupid. (He claimed that she had also called him stupid, but he later said he had made that part up.)
My son apologized to his sister. He apologized to me for lying. I suggested he could prevent future incidents like this by walking more carefully around his sisters’ projects, and he agreed to do that.
Dr. Maria Montessori was a radical educator with some beautiful ideas. Chief among them was the belief that we could create lasting world peace by changing the way we educate children.
I’ll admit, Maria Montessori’s utopian thinking feels far-fetched. World peace sounds impossible. I’ll work on house peace for now.
Here’s how Elizabeth explained the peace table:
One of the highest aspirations of humanity is world peace. This global desire advances each time we resolve conflict between people on a micro level. The Montessori Peace Table is designed to teach children how to resolve conflict through empathy and negotiation. The Peace Table provides a concrete place that is designated a safe area to speak with those with whom you are upset.
This non-authoritarian method allows people of mixed ages and differing verbal sparring skills to be on an even playing field.
The peace table can function as a non-punitive alternative to time out: If you are freaking out, you can flip the bottle, watch the glitter cascade inside it, and maybe take a look at the cool rocks for a little while. It’s a place to collect yourself and process big feelings.
For us, it’s mainly a place to resolve conflicts. As Elizabeth wrote in a blog post recently, one of the first lessons in a Montessori classroom is how to walk around other students and avoid running into one another. Soon after, the class talks about managing conflict.
I appreciate the peace table approach because it forces all of us to be courageous, direct, and humble with each other. Rather than hold onto resentment or dole out punishments, we can reason and empathize with each other, even at a young age.
My daughter called me to the peace table the other day. She felt hurt because I had called her a weenie for not wanting to play some kind of game in the backyard. (I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but the peace table isn’t about justifying yourself anyway.)
The peace table bench sits maybe a foot off the ground. I had to hunker and fold myself in half to fit my legs under the table. My daughter explained herself, she passed me the bottle, and I apologized.
My daughter is a tough person. I’ve taken her on 3-mile mountain hikes without complaint. But her heart is tender, and I don’t aim to change that.
There are days when you feel like you’ve hit your stride as a parent, and there are days you just survive. That day was a little of both. We made peace in our house; I consider it a victory.
This past weekend’s subscriber-only post was a podcast I recorded with Travis Andrews, guitarist for the experimental metal band Freighter, that dealt with the ecstasy and delirium of early parenthood. It’s a good listen! You can check it out, along with other subscriber-only stuff from the archive, with a $5/month subscription.