‘Follow the child’ is the mantra of the Montessori method when it comes to parenting and education.
When Maria Montessori opened her first children’s house back in 1907, she observed how her young charges naturally showed deep levels of concentration, enjoyed repeat activities, and preferred practical activities over toys. In time, she noticed they developed spontaneous self-discipline.
She based her educational system on what she saw, and there are now thousands of Montessori schools worldwide. Their popularity is testament to inherent methods and beliefs which include a relaxed, child-led approach to parenting; one of the biggest mistakes we make, according to Montessori, is believing a child needs to be constantly entertained or engaged by an adult.
So what lessons can we learn from the Montessori teachers when it comes to parenting our own kids?
1Kids like to be included
When our children are babies, it’s second-nature to include them in everything we do. We lie them on blankets next to us while we work or watch television, take them into the kitchen while we prepare meals or carry them around the house as we do the chores.
As they grow, though, it becomes easier to leave them in a playpen – when instead, we should continue to make them feel involved. Even small children can sort out laundry or fold clean towels – and a sense of purpose tends to prevent misbehaviour that can occur when our kids are trying to get our attention.
2Time in, not time out
Time out – removing a child from their immediate environment when they display bad behaviour – is a common method of discipline for parents. Montessori teachers opt for time in, instead.
The reasoning is that poor behaviour is often the result of children needing our attention. Rather than sending them away, take a break and spend quality time with them instead – even five or ten minutes is enough. Read a short story, have a race around the garden, play a quick game of I-Spy – they’ll feel closer to you again, and be happier for it.
3Give them freedom to move
Montessori kids are allowed to move around the classroom freely. They can choose where they sit, go to the bathroom when they like, and enjoy activities like yoga if they feel the need to use their bodies.
At home, this can translate to placing a baby on a blanket on the floor rather than in a crib or playpen, so they can look around and try to roll over. Child-proof your toddler’s room so they can explore it without any restrictions, and give older children as much time and space outside as you can.
4Let them know what’s going on
One of the first things new Montessori parents or visitors notice is how the teachers talk to their young charges; they explain clearly what will happen next before they do it.
“I’m going to pick you up and give you your bottle,” they might say to a baby. Or, “While we walk outside to the playground, I’ll hold your hand to keep you safe,” to an older child.
It’s a way of showing respect for even the smallest person, and also helps to develop language skills. It can be tricky when you’re not used to it, but regular practice will turn it into a habit.
5Do with – not for
One of the cornerstones of the Montessori method is to encourage independence, and many teachers carry this on at home . They partner their child rather than doing things for them. This holds true even with younger children, who are encouraged to help while their nappies (diapers) are changed. If a child spills a drink, a Montessori parent won’t rush to clear it up – instead, they’ll sit there to guide and supervise as they get rid of the mess together.
There’s no denying this means even simple tasks will take up more time, but it’s a powerful way to empower your child and teach them how to take responsibility for themselves.
6Set an example with your manners
Children generally want to behave well – they just don’t always know how. Things that seem obvious to us might not be so clear to a child. For example, we might not understand why they think it’s ok to interrupt when we’re on the phone – but to a toddler, getting your attention because they need the bathroom is urgent.
Modelling good manners yourself will help teach them what’s appropriate, and explaining how to act politely in social situations is much better than getting cross with them.
A Montessori teacher’s role is to help the child make discoveries, rather than simply passing on facts. Encourage your child’s interests by giving them the chance to learn more about them. This might mean a telescope in the garden to watch the stars, some pencils and an art pad to sketch out fashion designs, or a book on anatomy to learn how the body works.
8Use real tools
If you visit a Montessori school, try not to be surprised when you see young children using real knives, hammers or a sewing machine. It seems the trick is to watch your child so you know when they’re ready to learn how to use real-life items, then you show them how and – of course – keep a watchful eye on them.
Apparently children take more care when using real tools rather than toy versions as they understand the difference and treat them with respect – which makes sense. We won’t be handing over our heavy-duty cleaver any time soon, though.