Montessori's Advice for Parents
Originally published on The Parenting Handbook
The story of education throughout the ages has been the story of gradual and triumphant expansion to an ever-greater number of people. What was once the domain of gentlemen’s children or the boys destined to become fathers of the church, has slowly grown to include children from even the humblest of beginnings. What was once reserved only for boys, soon broadened to include all children. The expansion of education has been so successful that the world’s literacy rate now is nearly the inverse of what it was 200 years ago.
Not only has education spread to more of the population across time, it has also expanded to include younger and ever-younger children, so that today in the U.S. nearly half of 3 to 4-year-olds are in school.
Maria Montessori, starting in the early 20th century, was a prominent and outspoken champion for early-childhood education. In fact, she asserted that education should begin from birth. She stressed that the newborn was doing more than eating and sleeping, but was man-in-the-making. The infant had a profound task in front of him. A physical task of growth, yes, but so much more than this. The child must develop his body: his hands, his coordination, his equilibrium. The child must construct his mind: his intelligence, his will, his character.
To embark on this task, the child needs a specific environment and the adult is the only one who can provide it for him. Accordingly, Montessori considered the role of parents in a child’s life to be paramount. While she didn’t believe they had the power to create the child’s abilities or virtues, she did believe they had the power to provide the proper mental nourishment or the obstructions that would hinder his progress.
Montessori created a plethora of systematic materials to help meet the child’s needs and guide him as he developed capacities across many domains. Because the child’s needs change as he grows– the sheer amount of these materials is quite staggering– it won’t be possible to discuss in depth the concrete strategies and curriculum she provides. Instead, I will be sharing the overarching principles and advice that Montessori offers to parents. I will also be linking to some helpful resources at the end in case you’re interested in more specific ideas for your context.
A New Attitude
From time immemorial, parents have thought of themselves as the creator of the child. They thought they must mold him into a wise man, a useful citizen, a good spouse. They believed it was their responsibility to develop the child’s abilities and form his character. She describes the general belief as follows:
"The parent sees himself literally as the force, which animates the child and his inner life, therefore he acts externally upon the child as one would upon a creative piece of work, giving suggestions and directives in order to develop intelligence, sensitivity and will. The adult ultimately attributes to himself powers nearly divine and ends up believing that he occupies a place in the child’s life quite like that of God in Genesis..."(1)
Montessori begins her advice for parents, then, with a radical challenge. The first responsibility of parents is to reform themselves. Above everything, parents must change their attitudes, their preconceptions, and their prejudices.
The child is not formed from without. Rather, he must actively work to construct his capacities and character. The work the child does, especially in the first three years, is tremendous. He goes from a weak, inert newborn whose only form of communication is screaming or crying, to a robust, energetic toddler who can take on the world on his own two feet and proudly proclaim his thoughts for all to hear.
The proper attitude of the adult toward the child is one of reverence. The child, even the newborn infant, is a powerful force acting for his own development. He should be admired and respected, not pitied, coddled, or corrected. He has immense significance, not because of his weakness and need of us, but because of his great strength and capabilities. It is imperative that parents admire the child for his strengths, rather than pity him for his weakness. Only with this attitude of veneration can the parent be prepared to provide the needed support to the child. Montessori remarks:
“The child is important, not because he needs our love, not because he needs our protection, not because he is a poor beggar, but because he is the creator of man. The child is important, for his powers, though mysterious, are intelligible. We must understand the child’s needs in order to be of help to him."(2)
Though the child is not conscious of his needs or the requirements for adult life, he knows better than the adult what he must do to develop.
Adults, whether parents or teachers, must not think they can override the laws of nature by interfering with the child’s work, according to Montessori.
Instead, she urges parents to learn about the child. They must learn that, as she discovered, the child would much rather work than play. He would much rather do a purposeful, intelligent task that requires great effort, than engage himself in aimless, monotonous play. The child who plays is often the child who has been left no other choice, who has been shooed from the kitchen, laundry room, or yard where the parents are working. In place of real work and real tasks, the child is relegated to a pale and unsatisfying mockery of the real world. He has toy kitchens to cook in and toy dolls to care for instead of real food to prepare or real opportunities to care for his needs.
Of course, many of the things the child wants to do look like play to an adult. He is joyful, concentrated, and his task seems to have no outward purpose. He would like to line up pebbles in order. He would like to use a key to lock… unlock…lock a door. He would like to pick up a heavy stool and carry it back and forth across the house.
The conclusion, though, that these tasks are the child’s “play,” i.e. unimportant, purposeless indulgences on the part of the child and therefore can be stopped or interrupted with impunity, is a mistake. It is a failure on the part of the adult to understand the child’s nature and his needs.
The parent’s reverence for the child must come from acknowledging that he is impelled to act. Most importantly, it must come from acknowledging that it is through this purposeful action that he constructs his adult self: his coordination and equilibrium, his mind and character. His accomplishment is hard-won and well-earned, and for that he is owed enduring respect.
A New Role
“Perhaps, looking around us, we shall perceive that though we cannot directly mold its individual forms of character, intelligence, and feeling, there is nevertheless a whole category of duties and solicitudes which we have neglected: and that on these the life or death of the spirit depends.
The principle of liberty is not therefore a principle of abandonment, but rather one which, by leading us from illusions to reality, will guide us to the most positive and efficacious care of the child."(4)
Though the parents have no direct control over the adult the child will become, they still have an essential role to play in the child’s life. Just as the infant can’t acquire physical nourishment, shelter, or warmth on his own, so he can’t acquire mental stimulation, a proper environment, or supportive routines on his own. Yet, he needs all this to survive and flourish. Parents, then, are not cast aside as trivial or unimportant, but elevated to their true and vital place as helpers, but not creators, of the child.
Though the full scope of the parent’s role can’t be succinctly described, it can be condensed to two primary tasks: (1) to learn about the child’s needs and (2) to prepare the environment so the child can, as independently as possible, meet those needs.
Learning about the child’s needs involves studying the universal laws of child development, such as the particular characteristics of each of the four planes of development and the young child’s transitory sensitive periods which enable him to make leaps in his progress. When parents study the child’s needs, they can more easily understand puzzling behavior, provide suitable alternatives if necessary, and avert the suffering and tantrums that usually proceed when a child is thwarted from meeting his needs.
Just as important as abstract study, however, is carefully observing the child. Montessori urges parents to observe the child within the context of what they know about natural development. The child who is lining up pebbles may be craving sensorial exploration or a sense of order. The child who is entranced by locking and unlocking a door with a key is refining his fine motor control. The child who insists on carrying a heavy stool across the house is using maximum effort to refine the equilibrium and control of his body. When parents carefully observe what their child is communicating, they can more easily prepare ways to meet his needs.
Preparing the environment for the child involves a whole array of material and non-material factors. It means providing the tools a child needs to grow intellectually, such as the sandpaper letters used in Montessori classrooms to teach a child to read and write. It also means the organization and structure of the environment which fosters independence, such as the shelves low to the ground that allow the child to pick materials freely, or the stool in the bathroom that gives the child free access to the sink.
It also includes the routines a child grows accustomed to that bring clarity and order to his day, such as his family’s particular bedtime routine or his daily work period. Most importantly, it is the respectful treatment he comes to appreciate from the adults in his life, such as the respect they show for his budding concentration even as an infant.
While in one sense, the parent’s role according to Montessori is more delimited than the traditional role, in another sense it is much more extensive. Parents may not be the force animating the child, directly molding his intelligence or character, but they can be the force animating themselves and their home to meet the child’s needs. They become the quietly supportive observer, the meticulous preparer, and, most of all, the loving admirer.
1. Respect for the Child’s Activity
In line with the parent’s new attitude and role, Montessori advises parents to abide by three main principles in their dealings with the child. The first is to respect all reasonable forms of activity that the child engages in. There is a dual responsibility implied with this call for respect. It means on the one hand to take a more passive role. To observe the child and not interrupt him when he is working.
These interruptions include anything that breaks the child’s concentration: clapping, giving praise or correction, teaching etc. Concentration and purposeful work are the means a child uses to construct himself, any interruption could irrevocably wipe out his progress, like the genius or artist interrupted in the midst of discovery and creation.
“Adults can thus hinder this inner labor, when they fall suddenly upon small children without understanding what these are about, and dance them up and down or try to amuse and distract them. … The adult, who is unaware of this mysterious labor, may wipe out the primitive pattern of the child’s mind, like the sea when it sweeps over the sand and carries away the sandcastles, so that those who would build on the sand must begin over and over again.”(5)
On the other hand, it implies that not everything a child does with his time is reasonable. The non-interruption principle does not entail a license for a free-for-all. Anything that is destructive or dangerous must be stopped. Anything that is purposeless should be redirected. Judging whether an activity needs to be stopped, though, requires more than cursory observation or a parent’s intuition. It requires, above all, understanding the child’s nature and his needs.
With a proper understanding of the child and careful observation, the adult will learn how to respond appropriately. Maybe the parent objects to the child opening and closing the lid to a perfume bottle but, knowing that he is learning about how the world works and refining his coordination, decides to provide an alternative and equivalent experience with a different container. Maybe the parent is uncomfortable with a 10-month-old climbing the stairs to the basement, but can provide other suitable ways for the child to practice.
Without an understanding of the child and his needs, any one of these activities could be misunderstood as destructive, dangerous, or purposeless to the detriment of the child who is seeking ways to develop his faculties.
2. Support for Independence
The second principle is to support the child’s desire for activity. Montessori asserts that the proper help for parents to give is not the help of waiting on the child and doing everything for him, but instead giving him the means of being independent.
This means making the tasks of life accessible to the child. It might mean stools in the kitchen and a slow progression from dull to sharp knives. It might mean taking turns to brush the child’s hair or teeth or providing dressing frames so the child has practice with all the different buckles, snaps, and zippers. In every task of life, the child is supported by the adult with staggered levels until he can be totally independent.
It is certainly more efficient to do things for a child, whether it’s getting him dressed for the day, preparing his snack, or cleaning up his spills. What takes a couple minutes, at most, for an adult, can drag on for quarter of an hour or more for the child. The task will also undoubtedly be done much more to the adult’s satisfaction if they complete it than if the child tries.
Montessori, however, encourages parents and teachers to give children the support they need to become independent even though this makes things initially more difficult for the adult. As a result, children in Montessori environments are known for their precocious independence. 9-month-olds can drink out of glass cups. Children, a little over a year old, can successfully use a fork and spoon and even dress themselves independently if they’ve been prepared and supported along the way. Toddlers and young children learn to clean using brooms, mops, and sponges. They learn to prepare their own food, knives and all, before they can even read.
The children love the opportunity to do these tasks and loathe when it is snatched from them in the form of an all-powerful adult who rushes in to do the tasks for them. This, however, is not the reason why support for independence is advised by Montessori. It is not to make children happy or give them their way that they are encouraged and supported in their quest for independence.
The point is also not to teach children things earlier to ‘show up’ others or to teach things they otherwise wouldn’t learn. All healthy children learn to dress themselves, eat, and perform basic cleaning tasks whether or not they start as early as those in Montessori schools. It is not to make children into prodigies or to teach any concrete skill that the children are supported to become independent.
Instead, the goal is indirect. The child is learning to have foundational control over his mind and body. He is learning to persevere, to concentrate, to make decisions, to problem-solve. He is learning to walk with grace, to deftly use his hands, to balance his body, to coordinate his movements. Of course, he does also learn the concrete skills of buttoning coats, chopping vegetables, or sweeping floors, but the more important accomplishment is psychological. He gains ability and therefore confidence. Over time, he builds virtues into his character. He constructs himself into the man he will become.
3. A Careful Relationship
The final principle is to be careful in our relationships with children. Montessori explains that children are sensitive to external influences. It is only too easy to influence a child and cause distortions in his development as a result. She urges parents, and all adults, to watch children closely, try to understand what they need, and then respond appropriately.
The tears of a young child indicate real suffering, not manipulation. They can come from frustration of not being able to communicate fully because their thoughts are ahead of their ability to speak. They can come when help from an adult arrives too late. They can come when a child is being interrupted from his serious work or when his activity is being thwarted because an adult doesn’t understand it.
Montessori asks parents, and all adults, to try their best to look for the meaning of a child’s activity and to respond intelligently to his needs. If the adult responds too late, which will inevitably happen sometimes, the thing to do is to comfort the child. Not to tell him “It’s okay” or “It’s nothing,” because it isn’t. His suffering is real. Because it is likely a result of the adult’s failure, it is only right that the adult should console him.
She sums up her advice for parents in one of her final works, The Absorbent Mind:
"So what advice can one give to mothers? To tell them to give their children work and interesting occupations; not to help them unnecessarily, and not to interrupt them if they have started any intelligent action. Sweetness, severity, medicine do not help at all.
Children are suffering from mental starvation. If anyone is suffering from physical starvation, we do not call him stupid or hit him or sentimentalize over him; that would do no good; what he needs is to eat.
So it is with this question too; neither harshness nor sweetness will solve the problem. Man is by nature an intellectual creature and he needs mental food almost more than physical food. Unlike animals, he must construct his own behavior and life is life for this need. So if he is on the road where he can construct the behavior for which life has been given to him, all will be well. …
Lack of character, faulty character disappear without the need of preaching or of an example by the adult. Neither threats nor promises are necessary, but just conditions of life."(6)
The New Parent
The result of this advice, Montessori hopes, is a great lessening of the burden and anxiety that falls on parents’ shoulders. Instead of worrying about forming the child from the outside, it is the child’s responsibility. All that the adult must do is provide the conditions for life: the tools, the environment, and the Goldilocks level of help. The child will do the rest.
Instead of fighting the child to supplant him, parents can focus on their proper role of being the great helpers of the child. This is not to say that the work is easy, just that it is easier when the job is outlined properly and one doesn’t aim for the impossible.
Montessori often tries to invoke sympathy for the child by asking us to imagine visiting a race of strong, fast giants. She asks: how would we feel in the homes of these giants where the steps and furniture came up to our waists or higher? How would we feel if our hands were too slow and clumsy for the giant’s liking so they forcibly dressed or fed us? How would it feel to walk alongside these giants and their hurried strides that we could not keep up with? How would it feel if we could not speak their language and tell them that we could do things on our own if only we had the chance, if only the tasks of life were made accessible to us?
The greatest thing that is asked of the adult, according to Montessori, is the power of restraint. Adults must realize the power they have and commit to not abusing it. The child is a powerful force who drives his own development, yes, but he is also fragile and easily disfigured.
Adults should change their attitude from one of condescending pity to one of reverence and respect. They should change their role from creators to helpers of the child. They should respect the child’s activity and support their quest for independence. They should be careful and tread ever so lightly as they guide the child to greater and greater levels of accomplishment. Above all, they should view the child properly as he really is: the builder of man.
- Montessori in the Home
- An eight module, online course for parents of children 0-6
- $49, by the Prepared Montessorian Institute
- The Child in the Family & Montessori Speaks to Parents
- Two short books by Montessori
- Perfect for getting a background to her ideas for parents
- Montessori From the Start by Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jessen
- A book explaining materials & strategies for children 0-3
- Understanding the Human Being by Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro
- A book on child development & strategies to meet the needs of children 0-3
- Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook
- Short book of materials and curriculum for children 3-6
- Nicole Kavanaugh’s blog: The Kavanaugh Report
- A great resource for ideas & application, she has children aged 0-11
- Montessori, Maria. The Child in the Family (The Montessori Series Book 8) (p. 21-22). Montessori-Pierson Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The 1946 London Lectures (Montessori series Book 17) (p. 40). Montessori-Pierson Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
- This point refers only to children under the age of 6 who have sensitive periods and an absorbent mind. The older child needs more explicit instruction and direction, though the work is still his to do.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 6-7). .Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood (Montessori series Book 22) (p. 54). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 287). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
Samantha Blaisdell earned a B.A. in Secondary Education with a focus on Spanish and ESL from Spring Arbor University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Idaho. After working as both a brick-and-mortar and online teacher and as an engineer, she discovered and fell head over heels for the ideas and method of Montessori. Samantha lives in Idaho and, in her free time, enjoys reading, spending time outside, and playing with her cats.
- Core Philosophy
Montessori's Discovery of the Normalized Child
Montessori’s most important discovery, the one that enabled all the others, was her discovery of the “normalized” child. It informed her philosophy of education: her ideas on the role of the parent and the educator in the child’s life, the role of the child himself, the role of the environment in his development, and the very purpose of education.
- Core Philosophy
The Child's Self-Created Mind
Based on her astute observations of children, Montessori concluded that children had a mind and a mental life from birth. This meant that, to her, education was proper and necessary for infants and young children. Yet, it was clear that education for infants and toddlers could not function in the same way as education for older children and adults. Their unique minds demanded a rethinking of education.
- Core Philosophy
Montessori believed she uncovered the natural laws governing a child’s development and discovered that he had mental needs from birth. Based on these discoveries, it was clear to Montessori that the traditional ways of interacting with children, educating them, and rearing them were tragically inadequate. It was time to re-think childhood, education, and parenting. It was time to articulate a new philosophy.