My daughter Betty learning to surf in Pacific Beach, CA last summer
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, a contemporary of Dr. Montessori, wrote "The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered."
Most if not all parents are confronted sooner or later with a rambunctious youngster who insists on doing things his or her way. The interaction can run the gamut between flat-out refusal to cooperate and the acquiescence of the more complacent child who will appear to accept help, only to undo what was done and redo it his way.
Either way, most children reach a stage when they communicate clearly to us that unnecessary help is in reality a hindrance. While we may have any number of justifications (it is quicker, better, easier done by the adult etc...) it turns out that substituting our activity for the child's is more detrimental than just a missed opportunity.
Independence leads to increased academic progress
Dr. Montessori observed children of all social and economic backgrounds who, once they had learned how to care for their environment and their own bodies, spontaneously expressed a "burst into independence" that drove them to do everything they could themselves. These same children, soon afterwards, were seen writing, reading spontaneously, and showing an understanding of mathematics. She connected both phenomena, stating "These very children reveal to us the most vital need of their development, saying "Help me to do it alone!" (From Childhood to Adolescence, p67)
Opportunities for independence encourage a growth mindset
More recently, psychologist Carole Dweck has explained the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and the implications in terms of resilience and achievement. Providing a young child with opportunities to do things herself can encourage her to put forth effort and creativity in order to problem solve, rather than to give and or ask for help. The growth mindset is a strong indicator of success: those who believe that they can impact their learning, by challenging themselves, systematically do better and are driven to continue learning (Mindset - the New Psychology of Success, 2007).
Independence and sense of self
The link between independence and achievement is taken one step further by Madeline Levine, who explains that when we do for our child what he can do for himself, we rob him not only of the experience, but more importantly of the opportunity to construct his sense of self as a capable individual. She writes "While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood; to develop a robust sense of self" (Raising Successful Children, New York Times, 2012).
What to do about it
I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about education (in the largest sense of living or working with children in ways that best support development) and how to encourage parents to make informed choices. It seems that in the case of independence, many informed parents know that it is better when their child takes the initiative. But what precisely can they do to effect change in their households? There are three main ingredients that we Montessorians implement in the classroom and the home - we talk of preparing the environment, giving a presentation and allowing for uninterrupted time to work.
For more details, see http://aidtolife.org/independence/independence.htm
These three ingredients will give your child the tools to be successful and experience the joy of knowing he did it alone. And you will experience the joy of knowing that you participated in your child's achievement while supporting the healthy development of both his ability to problem solve and a stronger sense of self. It's a win-win!
Below are some specific tips in the key areas of daily life.
Steps to supporting independence at home - 10 things you can do
1. Offer clothing that allows independence - pull-on clothes, elastic waists, velcro and snaps.
2. Provide accessible storage of clean clothes and a dirty clothes hamper
3. Provide a low mirror and a brush and comb
4. Place tableware in a low cabinet
5. Use breakable objects and show how to clean up breakages that occur
6. Provide opportunities for the child to assist with food preparation and clean up
7. Provide a small toilet chair so that the child feels secure
8. Provide a step-stool to access the sink
9. Use a floor bed or low bed that the child can access independently, and activities for use when awake.
10. Create a bedtime routine that supports slowly winding down
The joys and benefits of raising an independent child are infinite. When we realise that the personal feelings of taking the passenger seat are not only immensely beneficial to our child, but in the long run immensely beneficial to ourselves, stepping back becomes easier, and can gradually develop into our practice as parents.
"When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself". Jean Piaget
Françoise Sansoni is a happy parent of Eliott and Betty, and a trained Montessori Guide. She hopes that her blog posts will connect parents and children everywhere, so that we may thrive, together.