Why Do We Care So Much About Independence?

“The only true freedom for an individual is to have the opportunity to act independently … there is no such thing as an individual until a person can act by himself.”
-Dr. Maria Montessori, Education and Peace

If you’re reading this article, you already know how much we Montessorians love to talk about independence. It’s enmeshed in everything we do, and for very good reasons. Here are our top three: 

1. It builds lasting confidence.

“We must help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself; this is the art of those who aspire to serve the spirit.” -Dr. Maria Montessori, Education for a New World

As parents and caregivers, our natural inclination is to help and support our children. Imagine a newborn baby, completely dependent on others to have its most basic needs met. Of course, we want to help! That instinct never really goes away, and it’s so strong that we need to actively remind ourselves to step back even as our children mature into adults.

Imagine, however, a toddler. It’s time to get out to the car so that everyone makes it to school and work on time. Their parents are feeling the rush of schedules, and feel a bit of frustration when, at the last moment, their little one insists on putting their own jacket on themselves. There are several ways to handle this situation, but what if we took two minutes out of our day to show the child how to stretch each arm into a sleeve and then gave them an opportunity to practice?

Imagine the feeling a small person must have when they are first able to do something for themselves that they previously relied on others to help them with?

Imagine the messages you are sending that child: that you believe they are capable, that you trust their judgement. That their work is important.

Each time a child learns to do something without the assistance of an adult, they build up their confidence, and it becomes exponentially easier to believe in themselves as time goes on.

What more could we want for our children? Of course, we all want our children to feel confident, but it’s easier to forget how to nurture that. It’s in the small things, the everyday things, and it starts early and never really ends.

2. It allows us to honor individuality.

“The child looks for his independence first, not because he does not desire to be dependent on the adult. But because he has in himself some fire, some urge, to do certain things and no other things.” -Dr. Maria Montessori, The Theosophist

While we raise our children, we make countless decisions while considering what will best prepare them for their futures. We envision their lives stretched out ahead and we want to do everything in our power to give them every possible advantage (including, perhaps, sending them to a Montessori school!).

It can feel counterintuitive, then, that we do all of this to allow for them to become whoever they actually are on the inside. A child’s true self may clash completely with what we think they are or should be. Even the most idealistic and accepting of parents may sometimes find themselves surprised when a child indicates they feel they ought to be something other than what we had imagined they would.

But individuality exists for a reason.

As human beings we are constantly evolving and discovering our personal journeys. What better gift might we give our children than our full support as they discover who they really are? Whether your child is expressing themselves through seemingly wacky clothing choices, surprising new hobbies, or talking about their identity in a deeper sense, just knowing that they are loved and supported regardless is what all kids need.

Our children may travel through various phases, but they will be so much stronger and secure if they are allowed the freedom to explore and discover themselves without judgment or interference.

3. It prepares children for life beyond childhood.

“The child who has never learned to work by himself, to set goals for his own acts, or to be the master of his own force of will is recognizable in the adult who lets others guide his will and feels a constant need for approval of others.” -Dr. Maria Montessori, Education and Peace  

We’ll just come out and remind you of the truth: children don’t remain children forever. There will come a day when they walk out the front door as adults who weave themselves into the fabric of our society.

Of course, it doesn’t happen quite so suddenly as all that. From the day they are born, it is our job to slowly, gradually, release boundaries and restrictions until they are able to make safe and healthy decisions for themselves and those around them.

Kids need their parents. Honestly, kids need their parents even when they’re not actually kids anymore. There is nothing wrong with remembering to lean on one another for support and guidance – throughout life. We still have a great responsibility of leading our children toward becoming independent adults.

There are obvious ways to support this work: teaching practical life skills, assigning chores, giving choices. But there are hundreds of thousands of tiny moments throughout a childhood in which parents can decide to let a child be independent. We learn when they are ready (often because they tell us so), and we take that deep breath and allow them to do things themselves.

There will be failures along the way (both on our part and our children’s), but that is a glorious part of learning. Even those tricky moments when we don’t feel successful are important. They help us become resilient, and eventually motivate us to keep trying.

We leave you with this final, simple thought, often stated but so worth the repetition:

Follow the child.

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