Encouraging Independence in Children

If you’re anything like me, you may find it difficult to consistently encourage your children to be independent. When you need to get winter gear on in a hurry, it’s so much easier to put their boots on yourself than wait for them to do it. But this is an obvious example – where I really need work is in the less-than-obvious things I do that thwart their independent choices.

The journey that a child takes towards independence is a huge part of Montessori education. Indeed, it is part of each plane of development and is one of the basic tendencies of humans, along with exploration, work, mastery, and perfection. Naturally much of the material in the Montessori classroom calls for independent work; and we Montessorians often say, “Never do for a child what he can do for himself.”

It’s helpful to continually ask yourself, “Could my child do this?” If the answer is yes, than let them. You’ll have to plan your day differently to allow more time for different tasks, but the results will be worth it.

Another way to foster independent thinking is this: instead of asking your child to do something (“Please put your coat and hat away”), you ask them a question that prompts the action. For instance, “Is there something you forgot to do when you came inside?” Let them be the one to think of the necessary task.

Make it a habit to offer assistance without criticism, if they do need help with something. Saying, “Can I help you zip your coat?” is so much nicer than, “You’re zipping your coat wrong. Let me help you.” As you continue to model the correct way of doing things, you’ll be able to scale back your help. This is called “scaffolding”; only offering the exact amount of help they need and no more. At first, this might mean zipping the coat completely. Then, it might mean starting the zipper and letting them finish. Careful observation will help you know exactly how much help to offer.

The easiest way to help children master everyday tasks is to teach them as separate skills through the activities of Practical Life. A child who has done the Dressing Frames will be much more deft with real-life dressing activities. The same is true for pouring, scooping, stirring, sweeping, and so on. Learning these tasks as “work” means that the child is ready to apply them to real life situations whenever necessary.

A child who is encouraged to be independent will usually be confident and self-assured. This is a good thing, but it means accepting that this kind of child will likely have strong opinions and ideas. When you encourage independence, you need to be ready to handle the consequences of it.

My parents will be the first to admit that they made many mistakes, but one thing they did correctly is that they let me and my sisters express our opinions freely. We weren’t allowed to be rude, but they were willing to listen to a well-reasoned argument. And they were willing to change their positions if we could make a good case.

Sometimes friends and family members will be a bit surprised by an independent child. I’ve heard Montessori children called “self-centered”, “strong-willed”, and “outspoken”, among other things. These weren’t meant as compliments, either. Be ready to explain why you let your children do/say/think things that other kids might not be allowed to try. Independence should be balanced with the grace and courtesy also common in a Montessori classroom. Opinions should be expressed politely, and the needs of others should always be taken into account.