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Let Them Help

"It is just as degrading to the young child as to an adult to have someone constantly doing everything for him."
—Elizabeth Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home

If you want to have strong, confident, and independent children, let them help! Recently we've heard from a variety of sources about the importance of teaching children to be responsible and independent. Books include one by a senator who laments our society's disappearing adult,* and another by an admiral who urges college graduates to just make their beds.**

A basic premise of Montessori philosophy is that every child is eager for real work, even when it might seem like a chore to us. Caring for the home environment is a natural expression of children's desires to participate in the world around them. "Let me do it myself" is the frequent request. With the right-size tools and instructions, children as young as two can help. As they sweep, set the table, or brush their teeth, they are becoming skillful, building independence, and gaining self-esteem.

Activities of Daily Living

So often the work that adults are obligated to do becomes a "chore." It is helpful that these "activities of daily living" not be given a negative connotation. Adults can lose interest in a seemingly mundane and repetitive household job, but young children love to help around the house. If left to themselves, they will repeat the task joyously, without becoming tired or bored.

The daily repetition of these tasks is what gives us stability - we sleep, eat, wake up, and work as the sun comes and goes on a predictable schedule, over and over. The security of knowing what to expect and what is expected of us is part of what allows us to be creative and expand our horizons. Let children help!

Routines Free Us

Knowing what to expect gives our children a sense of security - our biology has wired us to be on the alert if we don't know what's happening. Knowing what we can count on frees us to be spontaneous and even to make mistakes without fear.

In the Montessori philosophy, a "control of error" is built into the activities and materials. In concrete terms, a child learns that a mistake/accident is not a cause for alarm, but rather an opportunity to practice another skill. For example, if the water spills, there is a mop or sponge available to clean it up.

Coming from a firm base allows us to go into the world to experience and learn new things. There will be bumps and struggles along the way, but having that firm foundation gives us the strength to regroup, find solutions, and continue no matter how difficult the way.

Be Patient and Observe Your Child

Don't "fix" the child's work or take over when the child is struggling. Children may not complete a task to your satisfaction, but that's okay. You may simply need to loosen your expectations. A little help, without criticism, might be right for the young child. And for now, overlook the mistakes. As one mother said, "Even if it isn't perfect, it makes for a happier mom and proud kids."

If your child has not perfected her skill in completing a task, make a note of it. Try working side-by-side next time. Does she have the physical and mental capacity to do the job? You may need to give maturity a chance. If she just needs to be shown the finer points of the task, do so at another time to avoid any direct correction. Or is it simply a matter of experience? Improvement will come naturally with practice. Notice the pleasure on your child's face when she completes the task or when you express pleasure.

When you do "express pleasure," describe what you see or how it might have helped. The child does not need effusive praise and in fact, it might dampen your child's enthusiasm. Similarly, do not bribe or reward your children for doing what helps them or the household function. The pleasure is intrinsic and effort is its own reward.

Home and School

In many ways, home and school have the same goals for children, but home is not school and vice-versa. Each plays a role in teaching the child to become his own person, but the environments are different and should be regarded as such. Incorporating Montessori principles at home supports your child's growth and independence as well as your unique family community.

Consider for yourself how different you feel returning home after a busy day. Home is a place you can relax. Though tasks still need doing, the atmosphere is completely different. The jobs will always be there, and we know that the more we all contribute, the more time we will have to relax and enjoy our lives and one another.

If you take the time to teach your child to do things for himself, the rewards will be great for both of you."
—Elizabeth Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home

*Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

**Admiral William H. McRaven, Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life ... and Maybe the World

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

—Originally Published 2017

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