You probably know that encouraging independence is a hallmark of Montessori education and parenting. The best way to teach our children to do things for themselves is to create supportive structures so that they can gradually depend on us less and less. You may be wondering exactly how to do this, and we are here to help! Try these seven handy tips to get started:
1. Allow your child to dress themselves.
As soon as they are ready, young children should physically dress themselves, even if it means allowing extra time for them to do so. Even toddlers can begin making choices in regards to their clothing. Start simple with your littlest ones. For example, you might ask if they would rather wear their yellow shirt or their pink shirt. Another option might be setting out five outfits for the school week and letting them pick which one they will wear on any particular morning. As children get older, it’s okay to give them general guidelines before stepping back and admiring their unique self-expression. You may let them know that pants are a must on a cold day, but be sure to respect their desire to pair zebra-print leggings with a plaid dress. Enjoy those adorable moments while allowing them to feel empowered by their own decision-making.
2. Teach your child skills they show interest in.
Does your child like to watch as you fix the fence and build shelves? Figure out a simple woodworking project you could do together, and let them learn how to measure, saw, and hammer nails. The same idea goes for crafts like knitting and sewing, outdoor activities like hiking and geocaching, electronics repair and computer programming, sports, and just about any other activity you can imagine. Their first interests will likely be based on what they observe at home, but eventually they will branch out and want to try learning more skills. As adults all we need to do is shed our preconceived notions of what young children are capable of; we are often surprised when they achieve much more than we expected!
3. Let them care for a living thing.
The simplest way to do this is to purchase a small, low-maintenance plant. Keep it on a sunny windowsill and teach your child how to water it. Some Montessori teachers use a clothespin method; whenever the plant needs watering, the adult places a clothespin on the rim of the pot as a signal to the child that they should water it. As kids get older, we can teach them to feel the soil itself for dryness.
Already have a pet at home? Find age-appropriate ways for your child to help out. They might assist with brushing, feeding, watering, or walking, depending on their age and the particular pet.
4. Include them in household chores.
All children, even toddlers, should help out around the house. This may actually make our jobs a little more challenging in the beginning, but the payoff will be well worth it. Start with something simple, like teaching your two-year-old to fold washcloths. Before you know it, your eight-year-old will be loading the dishwasher and your twelve-year-old will be mowing the lawn. Participating in family chores gives children a sense of purpose in their (home) community. If they start young, the concept of chores is not boring or tedious, it’s a meaningful way to contribute “like a grownup”.
5. Give them opportunities in the kitchen.
Making dinner? Baking for a holiday? Packing lunches for tomorrow? Get your kids involved. If they have already been attending a Montessori school, they may surprise you with their spreading, cutting, and mixing skills, as these are taught and practiced regularly in primary classrooms.
The act of preparing food for our families is an act of love. Teaching children how to do this not only gives them skills they will need to be self-sufficient one day, but gives them a sense of belonging and purpose as a contributing member of the family. The benefits are endless:
- Kids who cook learn a variety of math skills.
- A child is more likely to try new foods if they have helped prepare them.
- Cooking something challenging will impart a sense of pride and self-confidence.
- Cooking together is quality time spent together.
- Regular time in the kitchen may create happy memories.
6. Encourage bodily autonomy.
One critical and powerful mantra to repeat to your child early and often: “You are in charge of your body.” This means we don’t force them to hug their grandparents or accept kisses from a pushy aunt. This even means if they don’t feel like cuddling with us, their parents, they don’t have to.
Having the power of decision over one’s own body is an important lesson to teach, and extends to others as well. We teach our children that while they get to make their own bodily choices, everyone else does as well. A good time to bring this up is when they are perhaps playing too rough and you need a break. You can say, “I don’t want you to wrestle me right now, and it’s my body so I get to choose.”
7. Offer desirable choices
This is where the all-important concept of freedom within limits comes in. Montessori, and giving children choice, doesn’t mean that children get to make all the decisions. It just means that we provide our children with a range of desirable options they get to pick from. Some examples:
- You need to get dressed and brush your teeth. Which would you like to do first?
- Would you like strawberry or grape jelly on your sandwich?
- Your room needs to be cleaned today. Would you like to start before or after lunch?
- Do you want to walk or skip to the car?
By giving choices within parameters, you can increase the chances of success for both you and your child. This gives kids safe boundaries within which they can practice doing things for themselves.