“The aim of the children who persevere in their work with an object is certainly not to ‘learn’; they are drawn to it by the needs of their inner life, which must be recognized and developed by its own means.”
~ Maria Montessori
As a parent, one of our most important jobs is to nurture our child’s own innate and spontaneous development. According to Mary Ellen Maunz, director of Age of Montessori, to do this effectively we must first understand the child’s stages of development or “sensitive periods.” For example, it is instinctive for us parents (or caregivers) to jump in and help children with tasks that they need to do themselves. I use the word “need” here to point out that these children are experiencing a hard-wired, inborn drive to accomplish tasks on their own, a.k.a. the “help me to do it alone” stage. A feeling of self-accomplishment during this vital stage of development leads to an invaluable sense of confidence throughout life.
I recently observed my little niece demonstrating her own “help-me-to-do-it-alone” stage with brilliant clarity. M___ is a beautiful, bright toddler with a strong will and budding sense of her own abilities. While visiting at her Nana’s house, she discovered one of those classic toys with five brightly colored rings on a post. (You know the one–they’ve been around forever.) I watched as she quietly pulled the toy off the shelf and plopped down with it to investigate. She pulled the rings off the post, held and touched each one, lined them up on the carpet, changed the order of the lineup, put them back on the post in different orders, and on and on. She was completely engrossed and, as a nice perk, we adults enjoyed some peaceful time to cook dinner.
When dinner was ready, M___‘s daddy very kindly informed her that it was time to put the toy away. She attempted to put the toy back together. Obviously meaning to help, Dad knelt and picked up one of the rings. Innocent move, but big mistake as far as M___ was concerned. She frantically grabbed for the toy, letting out a long, high-pitched wail. Immediately, Dad released the toy and held up his hands in surrender. As soon as he let go, M___ stopped her howling, smiled sweetly, and said “Tank you!” in an angelic, little voice. She then returned to her task.
“I think she wants to do it herself,” said her bemused father.
Trying hard not to laugh (for it is SO much fun being the auntie,) I couldn’t help thinking of Mary Ellen Maunz’s lesson about the young child’s need for “self mastery.” Maunz tells us that “autonomy is a very powerful force for children, particularly at certain stages.” Children in this stage need us (adults) to help them do it themselves. M___ was making it very clear that, for her, it wasn’t about getting it done, it was about doing it.
As Maria Montessori famously said, “Never help a child with a task at which he [or she] feels he can succeed.”