It is easy to think of liberty as a lack of discipline — when you are free you can do whatever you want, right? However, when it comes to the true self of the child, Maria Montessori said: “Where there is a lack of self-discipline, there is also a lack of liberty.” And the most important kind of discipline within the Montessori method is that of the self — it’s something every child must master.
Self-discipline is a necessary skill that’s the source of all success in life. Adults who have self-discipline handle stress better. They are better at decision-making, simply because they listen to their inner voice instead of outside influences. Research shows that people who learn self-discipline at a young age are healthier, have more academic success and lower divorce rates, and are less likely to suffer addictions as an older adult.
Do you sometimes feel that your child does not listen, or does things that are not allowed? Are you struggling with tantrums? Does she scream, multiple times a day, for something she can’t have or do because it’s just too dangerous or actually impossible? Do you sometimes wonder why other children are so calm? What about the child who acts like a “tornado” and destroys his and your things? Or the child who is always testing limits, hitting other kids, and throwings fits? It’s true some kids are just more impulsive and spirited than others. But there are some things you can do, to help your child learn self-discipline.
Let’s say your older toddler throws all her toys and refuses to pick them up. Simply get down on her level, look her in the eyes, and report the facts of what you will do: “I’m going to read stories now. You can join me after you put away your work/toy.” This is her choice! Go and read the book, and she will want to join you right away (OK, it might take a minute or so). She might try to pull the book towards her so she can see it. Hold the book close to your chest and repeat in a friendly tone, “You can join me for this story after you put away your toys.” She might try to pull the book to her a couple more times, but each time, tell her the same thing. The tone must be friendly, but your stance firm.
Be consistent and you’ll find that the child will eventually know what is expected of her (also, she’ll learn to be organized and take care of her toys). If she forgets and you find yourself repeating this step, it will likely take you only one time to remind her, and she will know you mean it because you follow through with your words and actions.
You can apply this tip to anything! Here’s another example: If you are trying to leave the house and your child refuses to put on his shoes, you can say: “I am going to take a walk outside, so I will put my shoes on and then go out (put shoes on slowly). Will you come outside too? Then you need to put on your shoes, let me know if you need any help.” For older toddlers, don’t do it for them; just guide them through it. A younger toddler needs extra guidance with certain steps. If he doesn’t put on his shoes, he doesn’t get to go outside. If your partner or another caregiver is there, simply go for a short walk while the child stays in the house — he will learn from this experience. It may sound harsh, but this is what we call natural consequences — there is no punishment, and, at the same time, you are respectful to both yourself as a parent and to the child.
This, of course, takes practice! And you’ll want to practice when you don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time. Granted, there will be times when you just have to get up and go, but ideally, you are giving yourself enough time to put these practices into place.
The most useful way to foster self-discipline is to understand your child’s sensitive periods or developmental needs because then you can better prepare an environment to meet those needs. This is where observing your child carefully comes into play. For example, at a young age, many children are very interested in taking things out and putting them back. Or they are interested in anything that has to do with water. If given the chance, they will repeat these activities many times and, by doing so, develop concentration; we just have to step back and allow it to happen. But, what if the child keeps touching something they are not supposed to, and you keep telling her “no” or “that’s not for touching”? Welcome to struggle city. That’s exactly how they learn to test the limits or “push your buttons.”
If you constantly find yourself saying things like this, it is not the child's fault — you just need to change something in the environment to avoid so much negativity around him. So consider putting out some new objects he’s allowed to touch and explore, remove the ones he’s not — and let him play to his heart’s content.
The more the environment satisfies the child’s needs and the more independence the child has to choose activities, the more self-discipline he or she will acquire. Keep in mind that learning happens by repetition and trial-and-error. Self-discipline won’t happen overnight. Instead, it is the result of many years of development and consistency — it is a journey. Children will gain self-regulation slowly and through many sources and strategies. It’s up to us adults to do what we can to support them along the way.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child, and it is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”—Dr. Montessori