Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cultivating Independence in Children

Henry watching the mobile above our bed

Independence is at the heart of the Montessori approach, but not in a Puritanical-I-can-do-it-myself-and-don't-need-anyone way.

To a Montessorian, helping children cultivate their ability to do things for themselves is how we respect children. We honor that they are capable of doing things for themselves and that they are eager to learn how to do those things.

For example, at my Montessori class last week, my teacher explained that her three children (ages 6.5, 4.5, and 2.5) each pack their own rolling suitcase and backpack when they go on a trip. Then they are responsible for rolling/carrying their own luggage through the airport. She told us that she starts this habit when they are very young, so it's something they want to do; it isn't seen as a chore. She went on to say that children want to do what adults do.

I believe that helping children develop independence, self-direction, and agency is the best way to help them develop self-confidence and a high sense of self-worth. If we try to build our children's self-esteem by giving them affirmations (e.g., "You're so smart!" "You're so great!"), then they learn to depend on external assessment from others. If, instead, they see through their own actions that they can set goals and accomplish them, that they can make things happen, that they impact their surroundings, then their self-esteem comes from an internal place and is more stable.

At least that's how I see it. And I believe that cultivating independence needs to start at birth. The primary way I do this with Henry (who is now six weeks old!) is to allow him independent time to interact with his mobiles (which is pretty much his primary activity at this age).

When I'm showering, for example, he hangs out on a towel on the floor underneath his wooden arch that has hanging black-and-white images. I periodically peek out the shower curtain and he is happily staring at those images and moving back and forth among the three of them. Occasionally, I will talk to him (especially when he's making a lot of sounds), but otherwise I try to respect the fact that he is concentrating and focusing on his "work."

One of the hallmarks of a Montessori home for young babies is a movement mat on the floor with a long mirror alongside it and a mobile hanging within the child's range of sight (which is pretty close for an infant). While Henry is happily watching his whale mobile on his movement map in his room, for example, I'll fix myself breakfast. Because our house is so small, I can hear him from the kitchen. Then I eat my breakfast and do my work on the couch in his room. He is quite content to work alone for 15-20 minute stretches of time (his awake time follows breast-feeding and a diaper change, so two of his essential needs have been met). I don't take it upon myself to endlessly entertain him. I am convinced that giving him this time away from me helps him develop his independence and also helps him develop his trust in me. If he starts to get fussy, I immediately go to him to see what he's trying to communicate. He is learning that he can be alone but that I will be there for him if he needs me.

But don't worry. In addition to this independent time, Henry gets plenty of interaction and cuddling!

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Carrie said...

I am all about teaching independence in young children! At two, my son helps out around the house all the time, and we encourage him to do things for himself whenever he can. The abilities of children are SO underestimated so often. There is no reason a 2-year old cannot put his own clothes in the hamper, put his toys away, find his shoes and bring them to Mom, put on his coat (and zip it up after Mom gets it started), help get the mail, unload the dishwasher, put in the laundry, sweep, and even vaccum. My son LOVES it all! I also fully agree with you that these things are not "chores" and should not be characterized as such. Especially with two working parents, but with all families, everyone is a part of the family unit and should pitch in at his or her ability level.

Sarah said...

Sounds like a great system you've worked out in the past six weeks! I love the Montessori approach and couldn't agree more that the way to foster self-esteem and confidence is to give kids responsibility and encourage independence. I wish I had a similar Montessori class I could attend in my area. For now, I've been reading up on the Montessori method and following your blog and the Montessori in the Home group. Thanks very much!

Anonymous said...

This sounds fabulous! As a Montessorian, I have been following the same priciples for my now-15-month-old daughter. As they get older, showing them how to do things themselves gets more and more possible. I have also come to feel that it is "unfair" of me to do complicated tasks in front of my daughter that she will want to try but I *know* she cannot do (for example, one day she was mesmerized watching me cut strawberries with a knife... but, of course, I could not give her the knife and let her try. So I now try to do those activities when she's not looking. Needless to say, that is often impossible, but when it *is* possible, I do it.) All activities involving safe objects, I just let her watch. She now brushes her own hair (with *my* hairbrush) in the morning, brushes her teeth (after I do it "for real" on her teeth to prevent tooth decay!), gets a rag and wipes of the floor anytime something spills (including when she creates spills so she can wipe them up!), and so many other things. The latest has been jamming her feet into her shoes all by herself without undoing the buckles because, well, that's how Mamma does it when she's in a hurry... another oopsie on my part! They are *always* watching and listening... :)

Have continued fun with Henry. It just gets better and better!

Christin said...

I love this post!! Thank you for saying what I have trouble putting into words when someone asks me what I love about Montessori method!!

Urban Environmentalist said...

Wonderful post! This independance is also mine and my husband's favourite aspect of the Montessori Method. My little guy attends Montessori "Casa" class three mornings/week here in Canada (not sure if they are called the same in the US) we will most definitely be sending our next child to the same school once they reach the age of one. Having an independent/confident child makes all the difference to making the parent's job easier, in my opinion, and frees up more time for parent and child to have meaningful interactions since so much time is not spent having the parent devote 100% of attention on child. The child can learn more from the parent if that makes any sense.

Moxie said...

I have minimal experience with kids and am amazed to hear about the 2.5 year old child packing his/her own suitcase and carrying/rolling it on trips. I would love to see how the process works! /impressed

Anonymous said...

That is how people USED to raise their children. We didn't call it Montissori though. Kids are coddled too much these days and can't even do the basics.
High 5 on doing a good job.

Melissa said...

Wow, I'm impressed that your six week old has the ability to "work" on his own for such stretches. In addition to the awesome Montessori setup you've got going on, I'd venture to guess that he also has a pretty easygoing temperament. As a postpartum doula I've gotten to know quite a few babes during their newbornhood (in addition to my own) and I do find that ability to be somewhat rare. How wonderful for you and him!

Randa said...

So funny - this is how my parents raised me but they didn't think of it as Montessori - just how it's always been done! Gotta love families from the farm.


I agree with this approach on so many levels. It's not like you're leaving Henry to fend for himself! You're still there for him and take care of his basic needs. Love this post! said...

hi sara,

i just want to say i think you are doing a great great great job being coconut's mom and matt's wife and just you. your thoughtfulness and care will go such a long way towards filling the hearts of your important people with love and trust, and that is truly priceless. you are very inspiring and i learn so much from you!

with respect,

Daniela Stewart said...

Thank you Melissa, as a mother to a newborn who didn't want to be away from me for a minute, I like to point out that all babies have their own temperament too. It is something we parents have limited influence on and if our babies don't agree with the Montessori newborn approach, we have to listen to them.

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