Development of the Will: The Emergence of Self-Discipline


Dr. Montessori viewed the assertion of will as crucial to a child’s development. Will is the ability to demonstrate self-regulation, to control impulses, and ultimately to obtain the inner strength necessary to make the best decisions in any given circumstance. The development of the will is a stepping stone for a child to discover proper moral development as he or she becomes an adult, and is in constant practice within the Montessori classroom, from the Children’s House all the way up through the Sixth-years. Below, Lower Elementary Guide Anna Schwind shares her thoughts on the will, as well as a few ways you can support your child’s need to exert his or her will at home. 

We begin with a fantastic (and excruciating) example of a child exerting his will in an incredible effort to delay gratification; four-year-old Theo can choose to eat his candy (here, called a “sweetie”) now, or wait ten minutes and have TWO candies! Ten minutes, especially to a four-year-old, is an eternity; yet, he does it! All of the ways in which Theo distracts himself over those ten minutes is interesting and entertaining: he sings, he chants, he kicks the legs of the table, he plays with the candy, he reminds himself through self-talk about the reward at the end, he changes his physical position several times, he even places the candy (still in its wrapper) into this mouth and takes it back out over and over again – and yet, he does not eat it!

If you recognize this scenario, it’s likely because of your familiarity with Walter Mischel’s famous 1972 Stanford Marshmallow Experiment on delayed gratification. Years later, the study showed a positive correlation between children who were able to delay gratification by waiting for the second marshmallow, and general competence and higher SAT scores. Common sense tells us that learning to delay gratification is a good thing.

“Dr. Montessori would have framed the marshmallow test in relationship to the will. She thought that one of the most vital purposes of school should be to help children exert their will, and she recognized that the ability to exert will required constant practice. In The Advanced Montessori Method she wrote, ‘Our little children are constructing their own wills when, by a process of self-education, they put in motion complex internal activities of comparison and judgment, and in this wise make their intellectual acquisition with order and clarity; this is a kind of ‘knowledge’ capable of preparing children to form their own decisions… they can then decide in every act of their daily life.'” explains Anna Schwind, Lower Elementary Guide at Villa di Maria.

Anna goes on, “People often ask why there isn’t enough of every material for every child in a Montessori classroom, and while the reasons are numerous, one of them is to give the children opportunities to exert their will. It is a daily marshmallow test. They learn to wait until the material is available, to delay gratification, to practice patience. The mere act of choosing a material from what is available on the shelf is an exertion of the will: why hand washing instead of table washing? Why the large bead frame instead of the checkerboard? The children practice making choices, because choice is the outer reflection of the inner will. The will is akin to a muscle which can be strengthened with use. This is the vaunted character building aspect of Montessori education, the one that seems so elusive but is increasingly regarded by educators of all stripes as so critical to children’s development.”

The Montessori classroom, no matter what age or stage, is full of thoughtfully-created, conscious examples of situations and scenarios in which children may practice exerting their will. A Primary classroom encourages independent movement on the most basic level, from walking into the classroom on their own two legs, to hanging up their own coats, to choosing what work to begin with in the morning. Every movement encourages the control of the body through the exertion of the mind; the will is at work in the smallest and largest ways.

So, you may wonder, what can be done at home to encourage a child to develop his will? Anna shares some basic and approachable tips, below.

“Your child’s will is not something to be suppressed, or subsumed by your own, or broken. Give them opportunities to exert it safely. Allow them, for example, to choose what the whole family will eat on a certain week night, perhaps from a set of acceptable options. Then give them a part of the meal preparation to be responsible for. Allow them to choose the movie you will watch or the game you will be playing together or the book you will be reading aloud to them or which of two parks they’d prefer to visit (again, feel free to limit their options).

These activities have the side bonus of letting you get to know your child more deeply. What are their interests? What do they like? Your elementary child can easily make their own lunch every day (or perhaps the night before, if your mornings are too hectic). Would they prefer a hard-boiled egg or a cheese stick for their protein? Do they wish to prepare a quesadilla to include in their lunch?

Lastly, I will tell you a secret about the will. People’s will goes further when they do not know it is exhaustible. Yes, I know, I just ruined willpower for all of you, now you know you can run out of it at any time. But keep your child safe from this knowledge for now. Do not tell them ‘Oh I see you cannot make good choices because you are tired/cranky/hungry’. Expect them to make good choices always. Meet them with compassion when they don’t. Give them the nap/quiet unstructured time/snack they need without letting them know you’ve realized they’re at the end of their tether. And when their will is renewed and refreshed (because it always refreshes itself!) give them more opportunities to exert it.”

Thank you, Anna, for the idea and the input on this fascinating topic! 

“We must help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself; this is the art of those who aspire to serve the spirit.” (Dr. Maria Montessori, Education for a New World)