The woman at the next table snorted into her latte and squawked at her husband; “How ridiculous that girl just asked the baby what he wanted?”
This really got under my skin as it reflected the attitude we encounter again and again as Montessori parents – that children are not autonomous individuals capable of expressing their own desires and acting on them. (Side rant that I am NOT a girl, I’m 29!)
Offering an infant choice is a simple way to recognise and respect them as an individual separate from yourself. It is also a perfect way to prepare them for self-directed learning and play as a toddler and for the complicated, character defining moral decisions they will encounter as teenagers. Choosing a book as an infant becomes choosing NOT to take a swig from a friend’s bottle as a teenager.
Children do not learn to make appropriate decisions over night. They need to exercise their free will, practise weighing up consequences and build a strong foundation of confidence in their ability to know their own mind.
That takes time and patience and is lifelong endeavour. Read more here Montessori and Independence; The Self – Esteem Secret
Where to Start
With babies a lot is down to your attitude, offering them two toys and letting them grab one, waiting for them to finish watching a shadow before picking them up, speaking to them as if they understand every word. See my previous post; Baby Steps Towards Montessori. With infants and toddlers we need to be slightly more deliberate in our actions.
Areas where young children can make confident choices;
- Where they spend their time
- Who touches them
For the most part these are safe areas that a child can be relatively independent in without major consequences on family life. However even these areas need to be managed.
1. Language – chose your words wisely
I frequently found myself saying “Shall we go outside?” while already in the process of whisking Alfie towards the door! Asking a question is not the same as offering a choice! Be careful not to frame a statement as a choice, instead use;
- It’s time to…
- Now we need to…
- In 5 minutes we will…
- I would prefer you to…
I know lots of parents who don’t like to say please as they feel it turns their command into a request, not so! Think back on the people you’ve worked with, were you more inclined to go the extra mile for managers who respected you or who barked orders at you? Saying please and thank you just shows your child that you value their cooperation.
2. Boundaries – offer no more than two options
Some things are not open for negotiation and have to happen when the parent says, eg nappy changing, sitting in the car seat, wearing a coat when its cold. That doesn’t mean that the child can have no control over them. In situations like that it’s easy to offer choice within boundaries.
- It’s time to change your nappy. Would you like to hold the wipes or cream?
- In the car everyone has to wear a seatbelt. Do you want to climb in yourself or shall I help?
- Right now it’s cold. You’re going to need a coat. Would you like the red jacket or the yellow jumper?
Just remember that all the options have to be ones that you’re happy with! Decide on an outcome and only offer options that will lead to that outcome.
3. Stay in the moment – don’t threaten or offer a reward
There should be no reward for wearing or coat or sitting in a car seat without a tantrum! Avoid sketching out a future scenario which may or may not come true. Children are far more savvy than we give them credit for and if you promise they can ‘take their coat off in a minute’ or that they can ‘have a chocolate if you stay in your seat’ you’d better be ready to deliver, and ready to deliver every time you need them to do that task again!
- Use ‘Now, Next, Then‘. For example “Now we’re changing your nappy, next we’re putting on trousers, then we are going to play.” We find this really useful.
- Give a timed warning. Once a toddler has some concept of time you can say we are “leaving soon”, followed by “finish up your game we’re leaving the next time I come back” and lastly “We’re leaving now.” A goodbye routine is helpful here as it signals a departure.
- Be consistent. If you say ‘we can’t go unless you put on your coat’ then be ready to stay at home! Don’t explode when your child takes the option you didn’t say out loud but offered to them anyway!
By failing to honour your promise or by lying about an outcome you’re teaching your child from a young age that they cannot trust you. We all want teenagers who trust us and will be honest with us so must be prepared to show the same courtesy to them when they are children.
But they won’t choose?
“My child is screaming and won’t stick with the option they picked!” Yep we’ve all been there! In that case recognise their feelings and tell them you’re going to stop in,
- “You sound really upset/angry/like you’re having trouble deciding so I’m going pick for us,….”
- “Changing your mind like this shows me that you’re not ready for this choice so I’ll pick today…”
Firmly state what’s going to happen and act on it, you’re the parent after all!
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