“Lower your standards” with Zahra Kassam and Chaya Weiner
Lower your standards: This may seem strange but it’s an important strategy since all of the working mothers I know set impossibly high standards for themselves both at work and at home. When I was growing up, my mom cooked amazing Indian or African food every night and I wanted my kids to have that same experience. But when I thought seriously about my priorities, I realized that I’d prefer to come home from work and play with my kids rather than go straight to the kitchen to start cooking. We order in a lot, our nanny cooks, and once in a while when we have time, I involve my kids in cooking my mom’s recipes. Eliminating unnecessary pressures on yourself helps create time for the most important stuff.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Zahra Kassam, Founder and CEO of venture-backed start-up, Monti Kids. Monti Kids is the only at home subscription for children ages 0–3 that gives parents access to an authentic Montessori education, proven in schools for over 100 years. Zahra holds a BA in Psychology from Harvard and a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is an internationally certified Montessori teacher at the infant, toddler and preschool levels and a mother to two young boys. Through Monti Kids, Zahra is filling the education gap from birth to preschool, the most critical years of development when 85% of the brain is formed. Zahra has been invited to the White House Early Education Summit, named a Global Education Influencer, named a ‘World Changing Woman’ by Conscious Company Media, and was nominated for the Dalai Lama Unsung Heroes of Compassion Awards for her work with children. Zahra appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank on January 27, 2019 and secured a deal with Kevin O’Leary.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
I’ve wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, where my parents grew up poor and managed to turn their lives around through education and the opportunities it affords. For this reason, education has always been a strong family value. At four years old, I remember sitting my older brothers and cousins down so I could play teacher, waving a ruler at them. Soon after, we moved to Canada where I grew up in Vancouver, B.C. In sixth grade, I was paired with a first grade reading buddy, and as I helped her string words together, I knew for sure that I was meant to teach. I studied Child Psychology at Harvard and received a Master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, all the while working part time in schools.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
After becoming an internationally certified Montessori teacher for children from birth to six, I began teaching preschool and thought I would spend my career in the classroom. When my son Musa was born, the school where I was teaching started at age three (like most preschools around the world). I knew that I could not wait three years to give my baby a rich learning environment. So I hacked together a version of Monti Kids at home and struggled to stay on top of his development at every turn. While on maternity leave, I was also teaching “Baby and Me” classes at a local parenting center. The parents in my classes were anxious; they understood how important the early years are but they had so many questions about how to meet their baby’s developmental needs. Researchers know that 85% of the brain is formed by age 3 and that this is the foundation for all future learning. And yet, children start school later and parents are left guessing how to support their baby’s development. I think it’s crazy that there is an education gap during the most critical years of child development. This is the problem that drives me and that led me to create Monti Kids. We bring the infant toddler Montessori program to families at home, offering a curriculum that has been proven for over 100 years in schools but has been mostly inaccessible.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
Our son Musa is now seven and our younger son Zayd is one. If I can wake up 30 minutes before them to meditate and get ready, I always have a fantastic day. If the kids wake up early (which happens often), then I meditate in my office as soon as I arrive at work. I try not to get too attached to strict morning and evening routines for myself because with young kids, these are shared hours of the day and being flexible is just as important as establishing good routines. Our beloved nanny drives Musa to and from school and cares for Zayd during the day so my husband and I can work until about 5:30 p.m. I squeeze in an evening dance class as often as I can, since this doubles as both exercise and mental health maintenance for me. I used to work the so-called “third shift” every night, pulling out my computer after the kids were asleep after having spent all day at the office (1st shift) and worked hard to get the kids fed, bathed and asleep (2nd shift). I no longer do this unless it’s absolutely necessary because I’ve found I’m more productive overall when I prioritize sleep. My husband and I recently started reading to each other before bed and that has been such a relaxing way to end the day.
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?
Experiencing deep emotional connection with a loving adult is what lays the foundation for your child’s lifelong health, well-being and learning. Affection literally impacts the development of a baby’s brain. And because emotions are stored at the brain’s core, they are intrinsically linked with your baby’s capacity to learn. Establishing a strong bond with at least one caregiver is just as important in infancy as it is throughout childhood and adolescence. The path to creating these types of relationships, as we all know through experience, is through quality time. Quality time spent with your child is heart and brain food — for both child and adult.
On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?
As any parent knows, we have one of the most challenging jobs in the world. What makes it pleasurable is the loving relationships we build with our children and the precious moments when they smile at us or we hear their adorable laugh. These are the positive reinforcements that keep us motivated to do our best as parents and that make the experience joyful. These moments are, of course, made possible and multiplied through quality time spent with our children.
According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?
1. My kids and I love to snuggle. I make sure to spend time every day snuggling with each of them: sometimes first thing in the morning, and always before bed. Loving touch has the power to calm children and help us drop into deep connection with each other. Now that Musa is older, we have some of our most important, honest conversations during snuggle time.
2. My favorite family activity is packing a picnic and heading to a beach, park or one of our amazing California forests. Although I am mindful of not overscheduling our kids, between getting to school and the morning and bedtime routines, it often feels like we don’t have enough time to just be. Being in nature where they can explore freely with few limits is so important for their well-being and development and equally healing for my husband and me. It’s the perfect setting for quality time.
3. As a busy mom, I appreciate activities that achieve multiple benefits at once, so I love cooking with my kids. Preparing food together allows me to share our culture and family traditions, teaches them important life skills, and makes for great quality time as long as I don’t get hung up on sticking to the recipe exactly! I’ve learned through my Montessori training that we can involve very young children in food prep, whether it’s showing your toddler how to wash and chop veggies with a dull knife, or letting your baby explore the ingredients with their senses as you talk about them and add them to the dish. Cooking with children is not the fastest way to get a meal on the table but the benefits make it a great weekend activity.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?
- Set an attainable goal: A few years ago, a very wise psychologist told me that children need 20 minutes of quality time with their parent every day in order to feel secure and happy. When I stick to this practice, it really does feel like I’m meeting my kids’ emotional needs as well as my own. Because I’m being very thoughtful and deliberate about quality time, I don’t end up feeling as guilty about the number of hours in the week spent working and away from my kids. I love this advice because it’s so concrete and so impactful.
- Wear a watch: Like many people, I stopped wearing a watch years ago since I always had my phone to check the time. Reintroducing a watch has helped me maintain a habit of putting my phone into a drawer in the evenings and on weekends when I’m with my kids. This definitely lets me be more present and also helps me to model healthy phone habits for them.
- Lower your standards: This may seem strange but it’s an important strategy since all of the working mothers I know set impossibly high standards for themselves both at work and at home. When I was growing up, my mom cooked amazing Indian or African food every night and I wanted my kids to have that same experience. But when I thought seriously about my priorities, I realized that I’d prefer to come home from work and play with my kids rather than go straight to the kitchen to start cooking. We order in a lot, our nanny cooks, and once in a while when we have time, I involve my kids in cooking my mom’s recipes. Eliminating unnecessary pressures on yourself helps create time for the most important stuff.
- Try meditation: After years of trying different styles of meditation, I finally found one that works for me based on Emily Fletcher’s book, “Stress Less, Accomplish More.” When I’m meditating regularly, time really does seem to expand, making me more productive at work and creating more space for me to be fully present with my family.
- Be open with your child: Given that I have a demanding and fairly unpredictable job running a start-up, there are times when I’m traveling or just can’t make it home for dinner or bedtime. I tell my kids sincerely that I really miss them when I travel or that I’m sad I have to leave again. Honest, emotionally rich conversations offer your child quality attention that helps build a strong relationship. Expressing how much you love them, no matter how old they are, counts for a lot.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
A good parent gently guides and supports their child to create a life that is right for them, while offering a ton of love. They seek to recognize and nurture their child’s unique talents, gifts and inclinations because people are happiest when living in alignment with those. This is the type of parenting and education that the Montessori method encourages. The founding director of one of the most well regarded Montessori schools in the country encourages parents to get comfortable with the possibility that their child could emerge wanting to be a lawyer or a rock star. He reassures them that as long as their child is supported to forge their own path, they tend to design a life that feels fulfilling to them.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
I’m not particularly concerned with getting my children to dream big because I don’t think it’s my place to judge their dreams. If they choose to live very simple lives, I would support them. The world needs some people who have chosen simple lives and some people need simple lives in order to be happy. That being said, I do actively observe my childrens’ curiosities and interests and aim to encourage those. For example, my son Musa loves art, so we have lots of great art supplies at home. Nurturing those buds of curiosity is what helps them flower into dreams.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
When someone is content with their life, fulfilled and joyful, I believe they have achieved success. This means there are countless paths to achieving success — although experience and research tell us there are some proven routes like through being of service to others and through maintaining strong relationships. One reason I love this definition is because we can’t judge from the outside whether anyone else is successful or not.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
My parenting has been deeply influenced by the writings of Dr. Maria Montessori. I highly recommend her books: The 1946 London Lectures and The Absorbent Mind. Dr. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times and founded what is now the world’s most popular education method, used in 25,000 schools in 144 countries. She was ahead of her time, and over a century later, her thoughts on educating and raising children are still groundbreaking.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman) When I graduated from college, I was shocked by how few of my classmates had a strong sense of what made them “come alive,” even though we had received what many would call the highest quality education. This experience caused me to question the purpose of education. Soon after, I became passionate about Montessori, which shares the intention of the quote above and offers a blueprint for raising children according to this intention.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am dedicated to spreading the Montessori method because I believe strongly that this is a path to building more peaceful families and a more peaceful world. As related to the quote above, if someone is doing what makes them come alive, they are the best version of themselves, making their best contribution to society. Children already have a strong sense of what makes them come alive. It is the role of parents and educators to help children stay connected to that, to help them pursue their interests and to nurture their gifts so they can grow up to fulfill their purpose. This is what Montessori education does. And in this way, it really is a means to building a better world. That is the mission that drives me and makes me come alive: bringing Montessori to as many families as possible, and making their lives better as a result.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.