What I got wrong about “follow the child”

“Follow the child” is at the heart of practicing Montessori. I remember when I first dove into reading about this, I kind of glazed over the child-led principle because it seemed self-explanatory, and I thought I had already been doing it. My approach to my first-born’s baby days were largely rooted in following his cues for feeding, sleeping; so it wasn’t like I had previously been in a rigid habit of parent-led. I had a tendency to follow my children already, I thought.

Then as I devoted more energy and attention to incorporating Montessori, this concept of child-led ironically became one of my biggest hurdles. People further along in their Montessori journeys kept reminding me to follow the child, and I see now it’s because I was initially so distracted by following this shiny new philosophy that I wasn’t following my children like the philosophy itself says to do.

I vividly remember the day when this hit me. It was a super hot, muggy summer day, and I had just received a new order of child-sized practical life utensils from Montessori Services. I wanted my oldest to do pouring activities and to learn how to roll and un-roll a work mat, and he wasn’t interested in any of the above. I was frustrated, but so was my son. I thought it was the method until I stepped back and realized it was me. This was the first of many efforts where I grew more aware of just how much I was actually over- inserting myself in their development rather than genuinely letting them lead. Suddenly the thing I thought I was good at, I was new at.

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Follow the child is so much more than being receptive and responsive to their wants and needs. It’s proactively observing them before they even have to communicate their preferences so that you shift the dynamic from leading their days to guiding their days. There is a big difference between leading and guiding. I was trying to lead my son’s day when I repeatedly tried introducing water pouring and mat rolling just because I had bought the supplies for it, not necessarily because he had showed any interest or readiness.

Once I stepped back to observe him, I noticed he wanted to play outside. I noticed he chose to turn the water hose on. I noticed he began spraying the dirt off our porch. When I gave him room to lead, I noticed more about him, which allowed me to better guide. And so we put the new utensils away, and we spent the next few weeks watering plants, sweeping the sidewalk, washing the porch, digging up soil, trimming leaves. This is when it clicked.

Follow the child requires us to do more than listen to our kids, but to truly watch them and understand them so that we can meet them where they are rather than where we want them to be.

My tendency to want to lead and direct revealed itself again months later when we were visiting a Children’s Science Museum, and I was unimpressed that my kids kept wanting to linger in this play room that preceded more enticing exhibits. I was hurrying them along, trying to convince them to, literally, follow me. I stopped in my tracks and realized that I was so focused on my agenda for this museum that I was breaking their concentration. The tricky thing about follow the child is that it is an active practice. It is an ongoing effort in which we have to remind ourselves to give space, to plan less, and to value unstructured in an otherwise structured environment.

But how far do you follow the child once you finally adjust to letting them lead? There are inevitably some things, as the adult, that we know are good and bad for our children, and inserting our guidance becomes necessary. Just as freedom and accessibility in a Montessori environment has its limits, so too does child-led. My toddlers are impulsive per no fault of their own, and they are learning social skills where I’ve had the chance to somewhat master them by now. I also might notice that they struggle in certain areas, which might mean that I do need to insert myself more in those areas. Follow the child does not mean remove yourself. But it does mean that your interventions are purposeful.

I follow their needs, not necessarily their wants. I follow their interests, but I also honor their struggles. I follow their ideas, but I also protect their safety. Just because I no longer lead their days doesn’t mean that guiding them is any less intensive. It’s arguably more intensive as I better tune in to every single action and reaction.

Follow the child is, like many other aspects of Montessori, a beautiful give and take. It is more than meets the eye. It is work. It is rewarding. It asks of us to be more conscious parents. And it allows our children to discover more of their inner voice.

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