Freedom, Independence and Discipline



Before the holidays I had the privilege to join a lecture by Ms Louise Livingston at the Maria Montessori Institute about FREEDOM, INDEPENDENCE & DISCIPLINE in early years education.
These three concepts are quite unrelated to each other in traditional education (and in many parents’ minds!) but they are highly interconnected in Montessori.
There would be so much to say about this topic but I don't want to make this a dissertation.
I just wish to offer a point of view on the topic of discipline, because that's the one point where many well intentioned parents often get lost (I make no exception).

I’d love to be able to show you how the magic of freedom unfolds in a real Montessori classroom, as many of you may have never had the chance to visit one.
I can’t, although you can peek into some Montessori classrooms here 
What I can do is to debunk some myths about Montessori, the first being that children do whatever they want.
That’s FALSE.


In Montessori freedom means ‘spontaneous activity’.
Children are FREE to:

- MOVE, thanks to an environment that is created just for that purpose and thanks to child-sized furniture and tools;
- CHOOSE the activity they want to do;

AS LONG AS

- The material is available (there is only one per type in the classroom, so that children learn that resources are limited and get used to wait)
- They don’t disturb friends at work;
- They don't damage the environment and the materials, and these are put back into place for the next friend to use;
- The activity is age-appropriate (each piece of material or activity prepares to something else)

So you see that there are many limits to freedom and rules to take in in a Montessori environment, the first is RESPECT for others and for the environment itself.
But children are given the space and time to move and work (no desks, no schedule).




Children have FREEDOM WITHIN LIMITS.

The LIMIT is set by THE COLLECTIVE INTEREST,
The FORM of such FREEDOM is graceful, intelligent movement.
The condition for freedom is INDEPENDENCE, 
because we can’t be free if we are not independent.


FREEDOM & INDEPENDENCE are truly empowering achievements:

- The children learn HOW TO MOVE (vs learning to stay quiet and still,  which seems to be the main aim of teachers and parents in a traditional education system). They are allowed to make mistakes and to practice coordination of movement, also learning about the consequences of their actions (ceramic breaks, a chair must be moved slowly to avoid noise, a glass full of water must be carried with extra care to avoid spilling, because water on the floor will be dangerous for other children walking around that child etc..)



- they develop SELF-CONFIDENCE, a SENSE OF DIGNITY and SELF-DISCIPLINE (vs discipline as a form of repression of the child's will imposed by the adult).


What is SELF-DISCIPLINE?


“Certainly in our system we have a different concept of discipline; the discipline must also be active.A person who has been made artificially silent and immobile is not necessarily disciplined. That is not a disciplined but a annihilated human being”
Maria Montessori 'The Discovery of The Child'.





The aim of the educator is to DISCIPLINE ACTIVITY, and to avoid that the child associates good with staying still and ‘don’t cause any troubles’ and evil with being active.
Whims and tantrums are a sign that the child’s vital instinct to activity is being blocked by the adult, or by an environment that’s not suitable to the child's life.


When allowed to work and to learn HOW TO do things by themselves, when TRUSTED AS CAPABLE, children learn also learn how to master themselves, they are busy and active but calm and content.




We often liquidate children's meltdowns with the word 'tantrum' to highlight that tempers are irrational reactions of the child to something trivial. 
As 'irrational' and 'trivial' they must be disciplined. Here I am not really interested in how positive our discipline may be. Even the word 'positive discipline' is misleading and implies an action of the adult to control the child.
While we need to really change the way we see tantrums, in order to support the child in developing SELF-Discipline.
We need to question ourselves, we need to go back being students of our child.
When a 'tantrum' occurs (but seriously, NEVER use such word in front of your child, as it is quite offensive), let's check the child is safe and let's STEP BACK for a moment (yes I'm telling you to ignore your screaming and kicking child. If he can't hurt himself, he will be fine while you think!)

What happened just before the tantrum?
Is the child upset because I failed preparing him for something that happened? (going out, leaving the playground, having a bath, having his nappy changed?)
Is he overstimulated by people or objects around him?
Did I interrupt something? Maybe he was observing something while walking and we abruptly took him him?
Does he have everything he needs (including time) to carry out the activity independently? 

This particularly applies to WALKING, as we see so many children throwing tantrums in the street and then being carried away, (you are familiar with the rugby hold, right?).
That usually happens when children are overtired, and when we forget that they walk with a different purpose from ours.
All children love walking, from the moment they start, it's their greatest achievement. 
They walk for the love of moving, and observe an awful lot along the way, they don't walk to reach a destination, like we do.

So we must remember this, when we get them stuck in buggies declaring that 'they can't walk enough' and we force them to hold our hand, likely facing a tantrum afterwards.
That's not a tantrum, it's not something irrational, children love and need to walk, to practice coordination of movement and to feel independent and free, but they need us to slow down.

It takes great patience to get a toddler used to walk safely down the street, I'm not saying it's easy, but maybe we could keep the above in mind and find more opportunities to walk with our child in nature and in any place where he can explore more freely.
WE are the ones who need to learn how to walk with children, not the opposite. And tantrums nearly always emerge from us, when we expect children to do something that they cannot do.


So le's go back to our child, whom we left on the floor screaming.
Once you've finished examining the events, try the most humble, empathetic response. This does not mean to allow everything to the child, often it's just not possible. It means to acknowledge the child's need and in case our mistakes, and to give options):

"I'm sorry, I was walking so fast because we are very late, if we don't arrive on time, the shop will close.
I know you would like to do this on your own, maybe we could take the time to do that tomorrow morning?".

"I see that you really wanted to play longer with that drawer and I interrupted, I'm so sorry about it. 
I can't let you do that because it's dangerous. Would you check what's in those boxes instead, or would you like to help me in the kitchen?"

Also keep in mind that young children have a very, very strong sense of order and they NEED consistent routines. 
Why? No it's not something irrational or some sort of neurosis. 
Children orientate themselves in the environment thanks to routine and order.
Order is what children need to understand SPACE: they need everything to be at its own place, they need to tell you where they are hiding when playing hide&seek, because knowing where to find things is what amuses them the most. Routine is what they need to understand TIME and what happens next.

Turning the tables too often leads the way to temper tantrums.

So consider how your routine looks like and if you are being respectful of your child's needs. If you are consistent enough (in case you are wondering, NO, children don't become more flexible with flexible/messy routines, they just get lost and nervous).

Regarding space, consider how your home looks like. 

Toddlers shouldn't have more than 4-5 toys available at a time (I found this rule is applicable to pre-schoolers as well), they can get easily confused and overstimulated by having many objects around them, and struggle more to complete whatever they are doing. 
Seriously consider to set up a storage space for toys, in order to keep what's not needed out of sight.
Yes, toy rotation requires a little effort (but not much more that tidying up a mess everyday in my opinion) and has great benefits in terms of learning opportunities and emotional wellbeing.
Credit: The Montessori Guide

And there is INDEPENDENCE. All children want to be independent, no child likes being served. 
If a child gets used to being served, it may look like they don't want to do things by themselves, when they get older, but that's because they have not been allowed to do so when they were younger, and their natural instinct towards independence has been repressed by our unsolicited care.

Ask yourself if your child is given enough opportunities to move freely and do things independently and if you can remove any restriction and obstacles around the house. 
Kneel down to your child's level and see how it feels.

Can you reach the sink to wash your hands?
Can you reach the toothbrush? Do you have a child-sized knife at reach to cut an apple? can you reach some drinking water? Can you reach your clothes if you need to get changed?
If you spill water, do you have tools and cloths available to clean after yourself?
and so on.
How frustrating would that be for you to ask for help for ALL of these things?

These are not tantrums, our screaming child is screaming for freedom, he is screaming to be understood, he is in fact way more patient than we thought.

If we see it this way, our need to discipline our child will soon turn into a different need, that of understanding him.

We often say ‘you need a bit of experience, and practice to do this and that’ but this practice must start in early childhood.
If you are hoping that children will naturally outgrow clumsiness when they grow up, that they will become independent when they’ll turn 18 without any preparation...
well they won’t.
And we must understand that motor skills refinement is strictly related to brain development. 
It takes an enormous precision work to control and move all of the body muscles.

Let’s set our children free from our NOs , STOP, I DO IT, NOT THAT WAY, THIS WAY, DON’T TOUCH, BE CAREFUL.

- Let’s just give them the right tools (real working tools, not pretend tools!),
- Let’s prepare a home where they can move freely without constantly asking for our help
- Let's refrain from worrying if the child is spilling too much water or if he will break a glass (btw IKEA kids glasses are rather unbreakable!)

Isn’t the ability and self-control your child is developing more important than that glass? (spoiler: really not much will end up broken along the way)


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