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Follow the Child... Or Not?

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If there's one phrase that is acutely associated with the Montessori Method it's this one:
"Follow the child"
Often times it's one of the first concepts someone learns about when investigating Montessori.  It's commonly used as the answer when someone faces a struggle when employing the method at home.  But on occasion, I see it interpreted as letting the child do as he/she pleases.  Is that really what it means?

Let's see what Maria Montessori herself says on the topic:
"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."
So the short answer is.... no.

"Follow the Child" was never meant to be a blanket statement that allows children to do whatever they want.  While I understood this, I couldn't have given a good explanation as to what it did mean; that is until I attended a parent session at a local school.  The elementary director modified the statement ever so slightly.  His rendition went like this:
"Follow the NEEDS of the child"
I wanted to jump up and give him a high five. But that probably would have been strange for everyone in the room.

Following the child is about observing carefully to determine what is needed.  That may or may not correlate with what the child wants at the moment.  Let's face it, our children don't always make wise decisions.  We have to guide them in life, which includes the educational process.  We need to know what to look for, especially cues that align with the sensitive periods.  This will give us the information we need to provide the best guidance possible.

For those who are newer to Montessori, you may not have heard of a process called normalization.  This is where a child becomes adept at functioning in the environment and focusing well.  A well-normalized child is more likely to make better decisions.  But even then, they are still children.  I would even go a step further and argue that we cannot expect the same normalization process observed in a school setting at home.  But that's an entirely different discussion...

No matter how much we try to prepare the environment, sometimes the world looks like this to a child.  They need our loving guidance at points.

Also keep in mind that your child's needs may not correlate with your personal goals or expectations either.  We all develop ideas about what we want from our children.  Do we expect them to read by a certain age or progress at a certain pace?  What are our preconceived ideas surrounding what a child is incapable of?  Often times our preformed ideas become the biggest obstacle to focusing on the needs the child is trying to communicate.     

It's both an internal and external conflict I struggle with myself.  There are days my children don't feel like being in the school room.  Most of the time, we go anyway.  Now that I have a child entering the second plane of development (at age 6), I provide stricter standards as to what must be attended to in each work session.  And yes, I often find myself resisting the urge to go gang busters on an area where I feel they should be further ahead.

I want to encourage you to strive for a balance.  Observe your child often.  Figure out what he/she needs, which may be very different than your expectations or desires.  But yes, it's okay to provide guidance when you sense that something is off.  Following your child is not an indulgent blank check; it's an opportunity to connect and nurture.


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