The Gift of Independence
Many parents are drawn to Montessori because of its emphasis on independence. As parents, we wish for our children to grow up and become independent adults one day. We want them to know when to rely on support from others and when to complete a task by themselves. Reaching this level of autonomy starts with healthy doses of developmentally appropriate independence in childhood.
The Montessori method builds independence in countless ways. Incorporating the Montessori principle of independence into your home can empower your child with the irreplaceable gift of independence and help them become self-starters.
The Montessori Principle of Independence and the Prepared Environment
In Montessori, the “prepared environment” refers to a space designed to give the child freedom to learn and explore. There are three components of the prepared environment: the actual room and furniture arrangement, the materials in the space, and the guides/observers (the parents or adults present).
Preparing the environment with autonomy in mind is the first step to giving children the independence they crave. In a properly prepared environment, children can move freely, make choices, and care for themselves. This independence gives the child confidence to express themselves.
In Montessori environments, furniture is child-sized so the child can use it on their own. Montessori homes may include a floor bed for the child. A child’s clothes, utensils, and other materials are stored in low shelves and drawers. Small chairs allow them to sit safely without the help of an adult. Stools can help a child reach high spaces, like sinks and counters.
The Montessori parent involves a child in self-care routines from infancy and prepares their home with opportunities for independence in mind. For example, a parent may keep a stool by the sink or fridge so their child can independently get a drink when they’re thirsty. Of course, this depends on a child’s developmental readiness, and children should always be supervised around water for safety. The environment should be set up so children can brush their teeth, wash their hands, and get dressed independently.
The Montessori Principle of Independence and Practical Life Activities
Montessori stresses the importance of practical life activities. In Montessori homes and classrooms, children learn to master skills that are typically reserved for adults. For example, Montessori children learn to drink out of glassware. Depending on readiness, a child may learn to pour their own drink. Most children will not succeed the first time. It can be messy, but it’s worth the trial and error in the long run.
Let’s be honest — it takes work on the parent’s part to involve your child in practical life activities. But the child wants to learn to complete these tasks on their own. They just require you to guide them. In the end, it benefits both of you. The child gains a sense of satisfaction and pride, and the parent doesn’t have to do that thing for them any longer. (Hooray!)
Patience Is Key
It can take time for the child to complete these tasks successfully. It requires work from both the child and parents.
Toilet learning is a great example of this. When a child is ready to learn to use the toilet, it takes work for a parent to help them do so (and clean up the inevitable accidents.) It would be easier for the parent to keep the child in diapers. But keeping a child in diapers when they’re ready to toilet train would be doing them a disservice. Toilet learning may be intimidating for children at first, but once they get the hang of it, they feel empowered. This is true for many skills that give children independence. Luckily, most skills take a lot less time to learn than toilet learning.
The Montessori Principle of Independence and Materials
In Montessori, materials are carefully selected to match the child’s developmental readiness. In a Montessori at home setting, materials include toys. Introducing new materials can require trial and error. The parent may need to remove materials that prove to be too difficult at the moment. You don’t want the child to become overly frustrated. You should also remove materials that are not challenging enough.
In a Montessori environment, children direct their play and learning. They choose which toys to engage with, how to play with them, and for how long.
Gentle Guidance and the Montessori Principle of Independence
In Montessori, the adult takes a more passive role in their child’s learning. They are not teaching as much as they are guiding. In fact, much of the time the adult is simply observing. The adult allows the child to take the lead so the child can learn at their own pace. The child learns to have confidence in themselves to complete a task.
Positive Language and Discipline
The Montessori method believes children should learn from mistakes without bribes or punishments. Positive discipline helps children feel secure and confident. Rather than scold, aim to redirect. Redirection gently teaches your child about limits. Give choices. If your child’s behavior needs to be changed, you can offer them two options. For example, if your child is refusing to put on their jacket, you can ask, “Would you like to put on your jacket or would you like me to help you put on your jacket?”
It’s impossible to avoid saying “no.” However, you can make a conscious effort to reframe your language. Positive language is important for building self-confidence, and children often respond to it better. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t drop the bowl,” you could say, “Please hold the bowl with both hands.”
Instead of constantly telling your children “don’t touch this,” let them help. Allow your child to help with the cleaning and cooking. Although it’s not easy, it’s important to let your child struggle a bit. Maria Montessori advised to “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” Challenging tasks build character, and children feel a sense of pride after mastering the task.
Learning to Make Choices
Allow your child to make simple choices every day. This is an excellent way to empower them and boost their independence. You can offer choices when it comes to clothing, food, or books to read. Making small choices helps teach the child to make decisions and feel confident in them.
Take a Step Back
Parents today are quick to entertain their children. Downtime is seen as a negative thing. However, children need to learn to play independently. If the child is constantly presented with solutions, they don’t learn to be resourceful. They are prevented from being creative or imaginative. Let your child be bored. This encourages them to make decisions and come up with their own ideas.
Resist doing everything for your child. If we are constantly serving our children and always anticipating their needs, we stop them from working to find a solution. Of course, if they ask for help, you can help them. But that doesn’t mean you should do it for them. First, demonstrate the task and then work on it with them. Offer the minimum amount of help necessary to help them complete the task independently.