One of the most misunderstood principles of Montessori is the caveat by Maria Montessori to “follow the child.” This is not a directive to make the child the leader with the parents following behind. This kind of permissiveness would abandon children to their own whims and desires. Children do not know what is in their best interest and are not ready to take on the responsibilities of the adult world. Parents must lovingly guide and set firm boundaries - and an attitude of confidence is needed to get the full message across. When a child senses too often that the parent is timid, questioning or unsure, then that can create anxiety and even fear.
Parents make the main decisions in life and confidently express their choices for the child. It is the parent who decides what’s for dinner on a daily basis. It’s the parent’s decision what time to go to bed, what time to get up in the morning etc. The child cannot possibly know what is in his best interest in these types of matters. The child gets to make choices within limits set by the parents. So, it could be appropriate for a child to choose which book to read before bed, to choose between cooking carrots or green beans with dinner, to eat breakfast before getting dressed or after. But all of these options are presented by the parent to the child. The parent has made the decision of which options are acceptable.
So, what does it mean to “follow the child”? In the Montessori realm, it means to pay attention to the child’s interests and signs of readiness because these guide the adult in what and how to teach the child. It does not mean that we allow the child to totally steer their learning – but that we observe for ideas on how to potentially approach teaching them. For example, if a child is really interested in animals, when we teach the sounds with the Sandpaper Letters, we can utilize this interest and give lots of examples of animal names for each letter sound we introduce. The interests of the child can flavor our approach to the subject. Then, we observe the child for readiness before teaching any other new letters. We teach the child something when we observe that the child is ready.
Sometimes, it’s ok to let our observations guide us to step back and let the child pursue his current interests. In Montessori we pay attention to the Sensitive Periods for learning because children’s interests often closely follow the Sensitive Period they are in. For example, the Sensitive Period for Order often becomes very strong around age 2. It may be typical to see a child insist that everything must be lined up and put a certain way or they will not be satisfied. So, in “following the child” we understand that this a developmental phase, one that doesn’t last forever and we are not worried or upset by it. This is a case where we “indulge” the child’s desire because it is in alignment with proper and healthy developmental stages. We know it is best to step back and allow the child to line up all the toys or hang up the coat “just so.”
Another example includes when the child begins to insist on doing things by him/herself. This is also a developmental stage and we follow the signs of readiness by helping him/her learn how to do things by him/herself and then stepping back to allow that to happen. We stop doing for the child what he or she can successfully do for him/herself. If we interfere too much and put our own will/desire before the child’s in this area, then development does not proceed as smoothly as it can. Tantrums and power struggles can erupt.
So to “follow the child” means to learn how to be a good leader - to set limits and to let “signs of readiness” guide our approach. This allows kids to relax and just be kids, confident that Mom or Dad will handle the big stuff.
Marla Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, Georgia USA