Choice and the interrelated freedoms around it are a central part of Montessori environments and parenting. Over a series of posts we’ll look at the role of choice both in and out of the classroom. This post begins the journey by examining the importance of real, or authentic, choices.
Choice is integral to Montessori because it is a necessary component of respecting the child. Choice is empowering and important. Choice allows all of us, children included, to take ownership of ourselves and our environment. We often expect children to control themselves and make good choices, but we don’t give them the opportunity to practice either of these. If you want your child to learn to control their body, you must first allow them to move their body. If you want them to make good choices, you must give them practice making choices.
However, all choice is not equal. In order to reap the benefits of making a choice there are elements which must also be in play. One of these is the authenticity of the choice.
Often the “choices” we offer children are not real choices. Have you ever said something to the effect of, “If you don’t put on your shoes, you can’t go to school.” Let’s be honest, is that really what’s going to happen? If they do not put on their shoes are you all staying home for the day? Or are you going to just pop those shoes on their feet and scamper off to school? Perhaps you’re a negotiator,”I’ll tell you what, if you put your shoes on I’ll let you ….” Yes, we’ve all done this type of thing at some time or another. The point is simply to examine our language around the choices we offer our children and take time to think about whether or not we are offering real choices.
An authentic choice in the above situation would be, “Are you going to put on your shoes or would you like me to?” Or, “Are you going to put on your left shoe first or your right shoe?” (The second approach may require a follow up of, “I see you are not choosing which shoe to put on first. I will put your left shoe on first.”)
In order for your child to reap the vast benefits of offering choice-making practice, real choices are necessary. If a child is offered false choices, they learn that their choice is neither important nor valid. Furthermore, they do not learn the consequences (good or bad!) of making a choice.
Perhaps more profoundly in the parent-child relationship, false choices do not build trust. If we tell our children one thing but then do something else entirely, how do our children know what we mean? How do they know that the next time we really mean x or y?
When offering a choice try your best to mean what you say and say what you mean. Yes, this is a skill that takes practice! At times we avoid offering real choices in order to sidestep having to be firm with our children. Being perceived (or thinking we’ll be perceived) as “mean” can be difficult. However, the real kindness to our children is in honesty. The trust built on knowing that we mean what we say has a far-reaching effect for our children. It gives them a firm foundation on which to explore the world. It lets them see the power of their choices and actions. The boundaries and limitations which are inherent to real choices offer a security and consistency which nurture children’s growth.
Choice-making, specifically learning how to make good choices, is a learned skill. It takes practice which is why we seek to provide lots of opportunities for this practice. Offering authentic choices takes practice too. Go easy on yourself, reflect on what you’re saying and do your best to offer real choices.
With thanks to Melinda Smith and Rebecca Lev for the photographs.