In Montessori, “follow the child” often fuels the misconception that children are given free range of their environments – which can further lead families to assume that discipline is permissive in a Montessori context. However, child-led in a Montessori context is not free-range, nor is the concept of approaching discipline permissive. This is best clarified by zooming in on Montessori’s pillar of “freedom within limits,” with special emphasis on the inclusion of the latter – limits!
“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.” — Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
If we know that discipline is about teaching, and that part of teaching means proactively connecting our children to purposeful work, then it’s easy to see why freedom is grounding for our children. If we overlook the importance of structuring this freedom with clear and consistent expectations, limits and boundaries, then we haven’t truly treated the child as capable because we have stopped short of guiding them fully.
Ms. Krys, Lead Guide at Guidepost Montessori Craig Ranch, shares some concrete tips below for effectively setting limits and boundaries at home. She currently leads the Nido community for infants up to 18 months old, and she also has many years of experience leading Montessori Toddler communities for children up to age 3.
How should we think about limits?
Limits help to create a healthy balance. In our classrooms, children are free to choose between different works and activities, but it is our role as the adult to set limits – and we set these limits during neutral times. Limits frame expectations and help children be more successful in the work that they choose. We must give them space, freedom of movement and respect that they will progress at their own pace, trusting their own process while remaining present to guide them. They crave the structure that limits give them!
When should we begin thinking about limits?
From birth! Children are born curious about the world with their absorbent minds, and so it is our responsibility to expose them to the world and let them have different experiences through uninterrupted exploration – giving them that balanced environment of freedom within limits. The limits at this early stage will be more communicative. As an infant, it’s more, “This is what happens.” As the child grows, it is important to give more options. For toddlers, you can add in two to three choices of what they can do. For older preschoolers, communication on limits can grow to be more open-ended.
How should we communicate limits? Communication should be neutral and to the point, and we must remember to avoid over-use of the word "No." It's also important for us to slow down, understanding that children will not always immediately respond to what we've just stated because they need time to process the information.
"Freedom within limits” is a balance, and it is okay if you find your family too skewed towards freedom or too restricted by limits. This is a mindset that we must be willing to grow with as our children grow. Ms. Krys offers a few signs that could indicate an imbalance worth evaluating:
- Signs of too much freedom: Be on the lookout for what could be deemed as “attention-seeking behavior.” When a child has a need that is not getting met – for example, maybe they are climbing furniture or running around the house – they are trying to show us, even if undesirable, an underlying need that is not being met. This behavior is communication. With structure, guidance, and clear expectations, you can redirect them to a more appropriate outlet.
- Signs of too many limits: The child won’t necessarily be attention-seeking and may instead try to sneak around the limit. You would likely notice more frequent tantrums and power struggles because they do not feel like they have any control or autonomy if there are too many boundaries in place, and not enough freedom for them to meet their current developmental needs.
More wisdom from Ms. Krys: only set limits that you are prepared to enforce, which means avoid the grey area of giving warnings. It’s not, “If you run in the kitchen one more time, then I will guide you outside where you can run.” It’s, “I see you are running in the kitchen, so I will guide you outside where you can run.” When we communicate "one more time," we are essentially asking the child to make or enforce the limit, which can be unfair and lead to a power struggle.
Lastly, we should not underestimate how capable children are to be active participants in these moments. Limits don’t have to be enforced in a “top down” mentality, and in fact Ms. Krys prefers to communicate limits by framing them as questions. This gives power back to children and helps them to engage directly in problem solving skills. If a child throws an object that shouldn’t be thrown, for example, you can try defining the limit by asking the child directly, “Where does that object go? How do we place it back on the shelf?”
In This Series:
"A Montessori Framework for Discipline"
"Positive Discipline with Whole.Child.Home"
"How to Bridge Discipline from School to Home with Ms. Brittany"
"How to Approach a Disciplined Dinner with Ms. Jennifer"
"How to Avoid Punishment and What to do Instead with Ms. Bridgette"
Guidepost Montessori is a a global network of schools serving 3,500+ families with early education programs, including Emergency Care for Essential Workers (ECEW) during the COVID-19 crisis. Looking for more free content? Download Guidepost Parent from the App Store for personalized Montessori inspiration and activities.