Just as people have a fundamental need to be with others , they also have a fundamental need to self-differentiate – to have a strong sense of self so they can differentiate their own thoughts and feelings from those of others and balance intimacy and autonomy in relationships .
Research shows that people who are more self-differentiated have less anxiety, better psychological adjustment  and physical health,  are more self-regulated , have better marriages, and lower levels of relationship violence  and substance abuse . Essentially, those who are highly self-differentiated are good at regulating their emotions, allowing them to experience greater overall well-being and healthier relationships.
Montessori environments provide children the physical, psychological, and emotional space to self-differentiate (see Montessori: Helping Me to Differentiate My Self, this volume) . And it’s the physical space in particular that sparks the beginning of the self-differentiation process, as it inspires the infant to move so that she can experience her sense of self.
But what can parents do to foster the self-differentiation process at home? And when does the process begin?
Montessori environments are specifically prepared to create the conditions that lead to a society by cohesion. They provide the right balance between individuality and togetherness.
At home, however, the balance between individuality and togetherness looks different. Because most households don’t have 24 children, and because the relationship between parent and child is different from that of teacher and student, a harmonious togetherness will not occur spontaneously as it does in Montessori classrooms. Rather, just like the Montessori classroom, family environments need to be prepared. Parents can do this by creating and maintaining structures that foster a harmonious togetherness, which prepares the child for social life.
At home, parents can begin fostering their children’s self-differentiation process by giving their infants the time and physical space to move on their own. While infants can’t yet know their own thoughts and feelings, they can begin to experience their sense of self and agency through self-initiated movement of their body and limbs . Providing time and space to move on their own (rather than being constantly held) also allows the infant’s central nervous system to create automaticity of complex, coordinated limb and trunk muscle movements necessary for later higher-level behaviors, including emotion regulation (see Fostering Self-Differentiation Through Movement, this volume).
But there is something else that parents can do to foster their children’s self-differentiation process – something that really good Montessori teachers intuitively do in the classroom (though Maria Montessori doesn’t discuss this in her writings): emotion coaching.
Dr. Montessori understood the need for children to self-differentiate, to become independent individuals whose behaviors and decisions are not based on a dependency of others. She said:
Education must concern itself with the development of individuality and allow the individual child to remain independent not only in the earliest years of childhood but through all stages of his development.
But she also understood the need for togetherness:
Two things are necessary: the development of individuality and the participation of the individual in a truly social life (p. 56) .
And so she created an environment in which children’s needs to self-differentiate and experience togetherness could be met.
In an effort to help their children self-differentiate, parents may choose to provide as much freedom as possible. Freedom, many believe, is what allows our children to develop their unique and independent selves. So they provide their children ample opportunity to make their own decisions (sometimes even decisions that determine the course of their lives, even at a very young age), thinking in terms of the quantity of freedom rather than quality . As one parent once said to me, “All I want is for my child to be free – absolutely free all the time.”
Many parents with this desire choose a Montessori education for their children because they assume their emphasis on the quantity of freedom aligns with Maria Montessori’s “follow the child” tenet . But this is not the case. “Follow the child” does not mean “let the child do as it pleases” (p. 4) .
To fully understand what Dr. Montessori asks of us when she tells us to follow the child, we need to understand what she meant by “freedom.”