The tools to freedom

Maria Montessori said that the opportunity to act freely within limits is the key to normal development and opens the door to inner freedom. She said: “We cannot make a man good, we can only help him to make himself.” For many of us, limits are viewed as something negative, opposed to free will. However, Dr. Montessori often used freedom with the following words – nature, choice, responsibility and limit:

Nature “Based on the affirmation of the child’s dignity, we have to ensure the child’s right and freedom to grow and develop wholesomely, so that he can contribute to human progress with all his faculties, thus fulfilling the task assigned to him by nature.” – Citizen of the World

Choice“… we have learnt from him certain fundamental principles of psychology. One is that the child must learn by his own individual activity, being given a mental freedom to take what he needs, and not to be questioned in his choice.” – To Educate the Human Potential

Responsibility“How he is to use what he has learned is a task for his own conscience, an exercise of his own responsibility. He is thus freed from the greatest of all dangers, that of making an adult responsible for his actions, of condemning his own conscience to a kind of idle slumber.” – The Discovery of the Child

Limit“The liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest.” – The Discovery of the Child

For the purpose of this blog post, we will focus on setting limits and describing the what, why and how of limit setting.

What are limits?

All of life has limits. Limits are the rules that make living as a social being possible. Limits offer security, predictability and consistency to life. When children are left with no limits, they are abandoned and any self-construction that has been achieved is put in jeopardy. Movement patterns may become chaotic, voice may become loud and inappropriate for the situation. This is often seen as a normal stage of “terrible twos”. However, within a framework of limits, children who rebel against limits, use the very same limits to safeguard themselves.

Setting limits must begin as soon as an infant begins to move. If we acknowledge the child’s tendency to move and explore, we would have set up an environment where the child is free to move and explore safe objects. The limits would be in the form of this environment which lacks anything dangerous. It would be futile to leave a knife in the child’s environment and expect the child to understand the limit of not exploring it.

This leads us to ask the question of what behaviour would we like to see? What kind of exploration would we be comfortable with? We must also look at the present, the near future as well as the distant future. If our goal for the distant future is to raise an individual with the discipline to accept rules even if in not complete agreement with them, we must think about it now. If our goal is for a child to be responsible for his or her own homework in primary school, we must begin the process now.

Why have limits?

In every social group, each one’s freedom ends where another’s freedom begins.

“A child’s liberty should have at its limit the interests of the group to which he belongs…. We should therefore prevent a child from doing anything which may offend or hurt others, or which is impolite or unbecoming. But everything else, every act that can be useful in any way whatever, may be expressed. It should not only be permitted but it should be observed by the teacher.” – Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child

There are three simple limits that can be enforced at every instant of the child’s life without prejudice.

  1. The child is not allowed to hurt herself/himself. – This is simple and clear. We wouldn’t want our child to be hurt and we would stop this very instinctively.
  2. The child is not allowed to hurt another person. – This can be difficult to enforce at times especially when we think, our child has been hurt by another and thus has acquired the ‘right’ to do the same to others.
  3. The child is not allowed to harm material that is available to him or her for free exploration. – This is even more difficult because we may have excess of resources for them. For example, if a child is stacking glasses that he or she drinks water from, we may allow it simply because the glasses were cheap and we can wash them later or buy new ones later. However, the child may do the same with wine glasses when he is older; and then the limit will sound unfair to the child at that time because he or she was allowed to do it earlier.

How do we implement limits?

Step 1 – Acknowledge frustration/problem– “I see that you feel like shouting.”

Step 2 – Firmly stop the harmful action– “You can only shout outdoors while playing. You will need to stop now to be able to go outdoors later today.”

Step 3 – Move on– If the child has stopped shouting, do nothing. If the child shouted in spite of the firm limit, the child is not able to go outdoors or does not play outdoors for that day.

Before we reach the above stage of implementing limits effectively, we must do some soul searching. What did we experience as a child in terms of limits? Were we too free or too restricted or maybe just had the right amount of limits? Did we accept a child’s deep need for exploration and allow for these possibilities? When our child just learnt to walk, they needed to walk all the time. Did we want them to sit quietly and play instead of taking them outside to walk? Did we accept their abilities and way of playing or did we interfere with our way of thinking of how they should play?

Once we are aware of our own and our child’s past experiences, we can move on and correct ourselves. We begin by being clear in our limits and removing ambivalence. Instead of saying “Put away the blocks after playing, okay?”, we say “Put away the blocks after playing”.

There is no single way of setting limits. Limits are always unique to the situation. However, for them to be effective, we must believe in the necessity and benefits of enforcing them and think of the greater good (others at home, society and the world). Then all that is left is practice. We practice by letting go of some control that we don’t need, providing opportunities for our children to do the playing, thinking and decision-making, share consequences with empathy and understanding of our own mistakes, and allow our children to self-construct themselves to the best version of themselves.

Anjum is one of the founders of Lodestar Montessori School. She wishes that everyone discovers Montessori the way she did. She lives in Singapore with her husband and son.