Montessori Summer – Practice Giving Choices
This post is part of our summer podcast series about Montessori outside school. If you’re just joining in now, we encourage you to check out the previous posts in this series, and to check out podcast episodes 72-76.
Montessori is kind of known for “choices.” We’re that school where the children do “whatever they want,” but really that’s just a misunderstanding of the careful balance of Freedom and Discipline children practice. But, yes, in Montessori we do give children more choices than might be common for the typical three or four or even five-year-old.
Like Following the Child, or the Prepared Environment, giving choices is one of those marvelous Montessori classroom aspects that translates beautifully into the home environment. Like anything challenging and wonderful, it also requires a bit of practice. Fortunately, situations where choice could be presented are available nearly constantly, which means lots and LOTS of practice!
If you bristled at this idea of giving choices, you’re not alone. Maybe you think, I do that! Maybe you give Option A and Option B and your child, no matter what A and B were, requests or demands Option C. Maybe your child can’t come up with a response when you offer choices. Maybe you can’t imagine how juggling the needs of other children, chores, errands, and a full time job while still opening the door for choice. Yep, not alone.
Please keep in mind, this Montessori Summer series is intended to be helpful. If a suggestion doesn’t work for you, “no” is just as good an answer as “yes!” Sometimes we just need permission to say, “That’s not going to work for me.” and knowing your family and your child is all that’s required. However, there are ways to offer choices that could actually help in these situations. Let’s look at some examples.
“What do you want in your lunch?” is a lovely question, but it’s not a real choice, is it? I’d like a prosciutto and grilled nectarine salad. I’d like a cupcake. It’s only a choice, if it’s an option. Unless we’re willing to go make something happen, which actually might be possible for a special occasion such as a birthday, limiting choices can be a pathway to more “yes” and to fewer arguments. WHICH vegetable would you like for dipping — carrots, celery, or cucumbers? Would you prefer your protein in a tortilla or on sandwich bread? Would you like dairy or nut milk today?
This is not magic. Children are not computers where you put in the right code and get the anticipated result. The response might be “no” or “I don’t like dip.” or “WHY can’t we have cookies for breakfast?” or “I don’t want milk I want soda.” Not magic, and not alone, if you’ve ever heard any of these responses.
We get to choose how we respond. “These are the choices I have available. You can choose, or I can decide.” Then we must be true to our word, we must follow through. In the spirit of Following the Child, testing the limits of a choice, or an arbitrary disagreement, is a sign that this choice is too much responsibility, and a child needs a bit more support right now. That’s fine! Lunch needs to be packed every day, we can try again tomorrow.
Sometimes, a child will make a suggestion we haven’t thought of, and we don’t need to be rigid in sticking with our options. They’re not being argumentative, they’re not testing, they’re just asking, and that’s okay, too.
Could I have tomatoes for dipping instead? Do we have any leftovers from last night, rather than another sandwich? I really liked those fajitas. Could I just have water today?
This is when we, too, get to choose. Is this a suggestion I’m comfortable with? Each parent knows their own child best; is this alternative being requested genuinely or as a bit of a test? I get to choose how to respond.
On the other hand, we might default to too few choices, rather than too many. It’s sometimes hard to believe how much a child has grown, that now they have words and opinions of their own, and we have to shake ourselves and recognize how big they are now, and that this practice making choices while they’re safe and small decisions, helps strengthen this skill for when a child is making big decisions down the road, as well as extended our comfort with trusting a child. After all, trusting a child really comes down to trusting ourselves — I trust that I have given you the best skills I know how, I have set you up for success in the best way I can, and I will always be here to support you.
Start small. Which shoe do you want to put on first? Which two books would you like to read? Are you going to wear a sweater or a sweatshirt?
Again, there might be pushback. Again, we get to choose how to respond. Again, those not-quite-magic words, “These are the choices I have available. You can choose, or I can decide.”
And we practice, practice, practice. We find ourselves knowing our children more deeply, when “which type of apple would you like?” or “go pick three pieces of fruit.” is just the right balance of Freedom and Discipline for this child in this moment. And the children practice, practice, practice. Then, when there’s the choice of which university or major or career or country, they’re more than prepared, and so are we.
Why do we give choices? We feel more cooperative, even when choice isn’t an option, when we get to choose some of the time. We’re respected and seen. There are times when, as adults, we need to make big, life-altering choices, and we need a bit of practice before that. It’s okay to have opinions and preferences, and providing opportunities for choice helps a child to be more self-directed and independent. A child who practices choosing can become an adult who makes good decisions, who takes initiative, who understands and reflects on consequences. These are life skills, and we can start them when the child is small, when the stakes are small, and when the choices are small.
Written by:Charlotte Wood