I taught a parenting class once where I asked the question, “What important traits would you like your child to have twenty years from now?” Along with wanting their children to be happy, loving, and responsible, parents wanted their children to be independent. But when I asked them how they could help their children reach independence, they found the question was harder to answer.
Independence is not a state at which one just arrives at a certain chronological age. Nor does it just happen. We hear about life skills teenagers need to become independent, yet learning and developing those skills must occur at a much earlier age. Dr. Montessori tells us that from the moment of birth, children are moving toward becoming independent.
Studying the Works of Montessori - The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 8: The Child's Conquest of Independence
“The child’s conquest of independence begins with his first introduction to life.” (Montessori, p.83)
There is within all infants what Dr. Montessori calls a divine urge that guides them to grow and develop. This natural progression from helpless infant to independent child is a force so strong that it cannot be stopped. I often hear parents wish that they could stop their tiny baby from growing up, knowing it is not within their power to do so. What they truly mean is that they wish these fleeting moments of childhood would last longer, for no parent wishes to stop or prohibit natural development.
Dr. Montessori tells us that the newborn uses his senses to absorb the sensory stimuli found in his environment, learning to decipher and distinguish between sights, sounds, tastes, and touch. All the while, the infant’s body is developing to assist him in becoming independent. Within the first year of life, babies develop the ability to digest solid food and they cut the first set of teeth, they utter their first words, and they learn to walk. Each of these developmental milestones is a major step toward independence. By eating food, children are less dependent upon their mother’s milk; as they develop speech, they develop the ability to communicate with others; and learning to walk leads to the children’s mobility and freedom.
Walking, Montessori says, is extremely important to the child’s development and it relies on a set of chronological phases that lead to stability of upright movement:
- Rolling over
- Holding the head up
- Sitting up
The ability to walk cannot happen any sooner, no matter what device is used or how much practice the child has to ‘strengthen’ the legs. Nor can we stop the progress once it has begun. The child must have the natural experience of development or there will be serious physical and developmental consequences.
“The behavior of every individual is a product of his environmental experience.” (Montessori, p. 88)
Along with physiological development, the child develops psychologically and intellectually through his direct experience. Just as one cannot learn to ride a bicycle without actually doing it, the young child cannot learn the skills necessary to be a fully functioning independent adult without having experienced them himself. He yearns to:
- Walk and run rather than be carried or confined to a stroller
- Dress and undress himself
- Feed himself
- Drink from a real cup
- Help with household chores such as setting the table, sweeping, vacuuming, washing dishes, and folding the laundry
Internally, the child knows he must do this by himself, and he resists and defends himself against those who try to help. Montessori says that through constant activity and effort does the young child become free and achieve independence.
We cannot expect young children to be as free as adults. We must, however, allow them to develop freely by preparing an environment that allows for a natural development of their abilities. Without forcing our own timelines or ideas upon them, we must trust that they will naturally develop according to their own ability and constant effort.
“Independence is not a static condition; it is a continuous conquest, an in order to reach not only freedom, but also strength, and the perfecting of one’s powers, it is necessary to follow this path of unremitting toil.” (Montessori, p. 90)
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, March 18, 2014.