The Montessori philosophy is built upon the concept of promoting independence by giving a child choices. When the student walks into the classroom, whether she is 18 months old or 11 years old, the teacher greets her and asks, “What would you like to do today?” A toddler student sees something attractive and heads toward it. An early childhood student may circle the entire room looking at all of the activities before choosing just the right one. The elementary student has chosen her academic exercise the day before and gets right to work knowing that when it is complete she may choose from a variety of activities. This approach builds responsibility, self-direction, intrinsic motivation and a sense of purpose.
Making choices independently also allows a child to experience consequences first hand. A toddler soon learns to keep a tray level when carrying it so the contents do not fall on the floor. An early childhood student learns what happens when the water pitcher is filled too full or when too much soap is used in washing a table. An elementary student may choose to spend the morning avoiding completing an assignment but this could necessitate working through recess. We adults so often want to spare the child the pain of a mistake, but allowing the child to learn from his mistakes opens a world of learning opportunities that are much more direct and effective.
At home choices must be carefully prepared for young children, just as they are at school. Even a toddler can choose what to wear, but a two-year-old should have just two weather-appropriate choices on a low bar in the closet or a low drawer where he can reach them. A four-year-old might have three or four choices available and a six-year-old may be able to choose from many seasonally appropriate clothes. By about 8 years old most children can choose appropriately from a wide assortment of clothing options.
In the kitchen there should be choices in snack foods that the child can choose from at any time. A 3-year-old might choose from fruit leather or granola bars, a 5-year-old could have a choice of fresh fruit, vegetables or corn chips while an 8-year-old might be able to prepare nachos for the whole family.
Of course there are times when choices need to be limited such as when it’s time to go. If leaving now or later is not an option, ask, “Do you want to put on your red shoes or the blue ones?” When it’s time to brush teeth the choices could be, “Do you want to brush your teeth for 30 seconds or 45 seconds?” When it’s time for bed suitable choices might be, “Do you want me to read a story or do you want to read by yourself?”
Be careful not to offer a choice if there really isn’t one. Don’t ask, “Would you like to go to bed now?” if “no” isn’t an acceptable choice. Instead give the child a choice he does have control over such as, “Do you want to sleep with the door open or shut tonight?”
Children love to practice their burgeoning independence and they can make many daily choices successfully on their own. There are also choices that a child is not qualified to make such as when they are old enough to cross a street without an adult, which medicine to take for an illness, whether or not to attend school and which school to attend. As a parent you’ve had years of education and life experience and know how to access expert help in making these important choices for your child.
Your child is growing more independent and confident as she assumes increasing responsibility for her own life choices. By the time your child is in high school you’ll be down to the last choices that parents remain in charge of – curfew and car keys. By then your child will have been practicing making appropriate choices for 16 years while testing you on many of your choices and noticing that you are reasonable and consistent in what you allow her to do. On graduation day when the last of those parental obligations drops away you will see an independent, confident and responsible teenager driving down her own life path after thanking you for encouraging her growth. Okay, maybe it will be another ten years before you hear those words of gratitude, but they will come!
Duna Strachan, AMS
Soaring Wings International Montessori School
Park City, Utah USA