“Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.”- Maria Montessori
Often in Montessori, we hear the phrase “treat them as capable.” This was one of the first principles I had associated with Montessori, but I initially took it at face value. I largely assumed I was already doing so because that is what my intentions have always been. From an outside standpoint, it is admittedly a vague statement. What does this actually mean? How are we not treating our children as capable to begin with?
Two years later, however, I hold this phrase close to my heart and I contemplate its meaning with much more humility. It’s not simply an outlook we take towards our children; it’s something we have to actively practice as an intentional response to them.
In light of Maria Montessori’s birthday this month, I want to share a few of the most transformative points in our journey that have triggered the biggest “ah hah” moments – moments where it finally clicked and I began to see more of my children than ever before.
Born to move
I’ll never forget the moment I watched my 8-month old daughter climb for the first time. I was completely taken back because she wasn’t even walking yet. “Babies can climb?!” We had already been giving her freedom to move since birth, but this new skill was particularly eye-opening, probably because she literally went from crawling on the ground to blissfully balancing upright.
Montessori exposed me to natural gross motor development, movement as learning. I was blown away by the strength and determination she had to discover her body free of interferences and containment, as well as what she was able to accomplish on her own in this way.
I under-estimated a baby’s lack of mobility as a dependency rather than an opportunity. She didn’t need to be contained or propped in positions before she was ready, she needed space to practice using her body, as well as patience from me to understand the progression of her development.
Worthy of autonomy
I couldn’t believe how early my first-born son began responding to me with “No!” My knee-jerk reaction was to associate this with the misunderstood “terrible two” label, as if this was a sign of misbehaving, rebellion. Montessori’s perspective of the whole child allowed me to see this was actually an empowering, new capability.
He had just spent the first year-and-a-half of his life not being able to use words to communicate, yet he has been capable of preferences all along. It’s why as early as four months old, when offering a choice between two toys, he was able to bat at the one he wanted. It’s why at six months old when introducing solid foods, he turned away at sweet potatoes yet leaned in for avocado. It’s amazing when you think about it; Having someone make decisions for you for so long, and finally, you can advocate for yourself!
I under-estimated a toddler’s ability to make choices. He didn’t need me to communicate more forcefully at him, he needed me to communicate more intentionally with him.
“I want to use the potty, mama.” It was an abrupt desire that my son expressed a little past age 2, and as a first-time mom I was completely unprepared for it. While I could see his own self-motivation loud and clear, I was bombarded by a mainstream belief that he needed to be trained to do it. I was following his lead, I thought, by awaiting his readiness, but then I sent a mixed message by implementing a 3-day training plan and overriding his intrinsic motivation.
Montessori taught me that children do not need to be bribed, tricked, distracted, rewarded, rushed, or worse, threatened into learning. They are human, and as humans, we are best motivated by our own internal desire to succeed.
I under-estimated a child’s innate desire to feel accomplished. They don’t need me to motivate them to acquire new skills, they need my guidance and respect, as well as the ability to keep ownership of these efforts that belong to them.
“If you don’t give the shopping cart to your sister, I’m putting this ice cream back and we’re going home!”
My three-year-old rarely has meltdowns in public, but we had just instigated one with this misplaced instruction. His dad insisted that he give up the cart simply because his sister expressed interest in it. Our initial perspective was that it was somehow mean if he didn’t want to share. Except, it was truthfully mean that we were forcing him to give something up he wasn’t done using, and instead rewarding the impulsivity of his sister. Real-life generosity doesn’t look like giving up our stuff any time someone wants to take it. Kindness is waiting our turn and respecting others’ belongings.
Montessori taught me that where our children lack in social skills and emotional coping tools, it is not because they are being selfish in the mean context that we think of as adults. Their first task in life is to develop as an individual before they can be expected to contribute socially.
I under-estimated a child’s self-correcting ability to learn right from wrong. They don’t need punitive correction, they need us to patiently model, teach, and let them navigate the consequences that come with various freedoms and boundaries. True discipline comes from within; Being kind and choosing what is right does not happen when someone directs us to do so, but when we are able to make those choices internally because we know in our hearts it is what feels right and good.
Since we started our Montessori journey, I’ve had the honor of watching my children move with greater strength; think more independently; initiate with greater confidence; and reveal so much more of who they are free of my biased filters. I see now, how they are capable.