"Freedom within limits" is one of the most misunderstood principles of the Montessori method, just as discipline and rules given to children are particularly controversial topics of parenting and education.
The the Montessori method considers discipline a process that leads the child, thanks to the balance between freedom of choice, independence of movement and limits set by the adult, interacting positively with the surrounding environment and others. By giving children the opportunity to follow and develop their interests, offering a level of freedoms appropriate to their level of development, guiding, redirecting and modifying the environment when limits are exceeded, children come to internalize the rules and respect them by understanding the reasons behind them.
The rules placed on children's freedom help them become an active part of society, follow its rules, respect others, the surrounding environment, and keep themselves safe. How can we put these ideas into practice? Here are some tips for offering freedom while setting consistent boundaries at home.
- Choosing the rules
The rules must be established and made clear from the start to support children's ability to regulate themselves. They should be shared by all adults in the house so as not to create confusion. It can be helpful to think in advance about which rules are fundamental and what freedoms we can provide instead. This will depend on the physical characteristics of the house but also the needs of the family.
- Using positive phrases
One of the keys to ensuring that the rules are assimilated is repetition. Choosing words that focus on what children can do rather than what they shouldn't help make communication clearer. For example, if climbing the furniture is not allowed, rather than "Don't climb!" we could say "Let's keep our feet on the ground in the house" or "We can climb in the garden", making it clear what behaviour we find acceptable.
- Adjusting our expectations
Our expectations must reflect the actual abilities and the level of development of children. Before offering a water play activity, we might reflect on the amount of water on the floor that we are willing to tolerate, the focus of interest, and the child's ability to self-regulate. It is likely that an 18-month-old baby will be tempted to empty it on the floor in front of a basin of water, while a 5-year-old will tend to have more physical abilities and control of his impulses which allow him to keep water inside the container.
- Establishing the consequences
The Montessori method does not use punishment but instead establishes consequences and supports children in making amends. For example, if a book's cover is broken, children are encouraged to fix it and reminded how books are to be respected and treated well. Similarly, suppose an activity or toy is damaged during use. In that case, the material itself is removed for a period, explaining: "I see that at this moment you are not ready to use it, we will put it away for now and try again later ". The consequence is always directly linked to the event that just happened.
- Supervision and re-addressing
Behaviours, especially negative ones, are often a symptom of an unmet need. Through supervision, we can prevent certain behaviours even before they happen or redirect towards an activity that we consider acceptable. Some examples of redirection are: "I can't let you keep hitting the toy against the window because the window could break. If you want, we can go to the garden and bang some wooden spoons against the pots to make a noise" or "the sofa is for sitting. If you want to jump, you can do it on the ground".
For our expectations to be clear and for children to feel safe and free to move with confidence in the environment, it is crucial that the rules, our reactions and consequences remain the same. Imagine the confusion in the mind of a child who is allowed to eat standing up one day, walking around the room, and the next day is scolded for the same reason. Precise and invariable limits to freedom make the environment predictable, reassuring and respond to children's innate need for order.
- ... most of the time!
There are no rules without exceptions! Sometimes it is necessary to adjust the directions to the reality of the situation. If children are expected to tidy up their toys before going to sleep but one night is too tired (or we are), we will probably find ourselves accepting that, for this time, they might only pick up one of the forty Legos scattered on the floor. Freedom and limits are adapted to the needs of the moment and the actual abilities of the child.