What It Means To “Follow The Child”

What It Means To “Follow The Child”

By on Dec 1, 2016

This Montessori white paper is from volume 3: The Construction of the Self at School and at HomeOther white papers in this volume include:

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The adult has a mission to fulfill which has been so complicated and intensified that he finds it ever harder to suspend it as he must do if he is to follow the child, adapting himself to the child’s rhythm and the psychological needs of his growth.

Maria Montessori
The Secret of Childhood


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.1 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.2 But this is not the case. “Follow the child” does not mean “let the child do as it pleases” (p. 4).3

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.”


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Freedom in Montessori

In a Montessori environment, freedom involves enabling children to follow their inner drive and engage in work necessary for their self-development. Allowing this freedom, as Montessori trainer Dr. Silvia Dubovoy states, is “love with respect for the child’s own inner signals” (p. 25).4

This concept of freedom is based on what Dr. Montessori observed in children all around the world: when given a prepared environment wherein children can choose the hands-on, purposeful materials they want to work without disruption, they emerge from that state of deep concentration with “spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, [and] social sentiments of help and sympathy for others” (p. 207).5 Essentially, through the act of concentration, the body and mind become one, allowing the true personality of the child to unfold, as the child is no longer prone to ineffective behaviors that distract him from his self-construction.6

So when Dr. Montessori implores teachers to “follow the child” she means for them to systematically observe the child in order to “offer the child work, not just any kind, but that which at that particular moment is the only thing necessary for the development of his inner self” (p. 78).7

Guiding children towards self-construction through work in an environment of order, not chaos, is freedom in Montessori. This is far different from license, which just gives one permission to do whatever one wants whenever one wants.8 But the freedom Dr. Montessori proposes has limits.4,5,9 She writes in The Absorbent Mind:

If freedom is understood as letting the children do as they like…it is clear that only their ‘deviations’ are free to develop; their abnormalities will increase (p. 206).5

The “deviations” and “abnormalities” Dr. Montessori was talking about are due to an inability to regulate one’s own thoughts, emotions, and actions. They interfere with the child’s self-construction and also her academic learning.10

The critical issue is how these limits are implemented. That is what determines whether the child has the true freedom necessary for self-construction.

Implementing Freedom with Limits

The adult is responsible for preparing the environment for the children – an environment that provides freedom – and so it is the adult who is also responsible for establishing the limits within that environment. Those limits, however, should not be established with an authoritarian mind-set because then they are given, as Dr. Dubovoy points out, “for [the adult’s] benefit and not for the collective interest” (p. 26).4 Instead, they should be established with a mind-set where the adult intends to guide the children towards responsible citizenship:

The rules and limits are based on a collective interest and are given with an attitude that will invite the child to acquire responsibility. The child becomes the master of his own thoughts and actions and is able to control himself, conquering inner discipline and progressing into a self-confident, responsible individual (p. 26).4

One obvious limit of the Montessori environment is that no one may hurt another person’s body.9 If you’re a child in a Montessori classroom and you’re upset that someone is working with the material you want to work with, it’s not acceptable to just bonk the other child over the head and take that material. As Dr. Dubovoy states, the child’s “freedom is allowed until he infringes upon the freedom of another” (p. 26).4 So the teacher steps in to help the child (a) express his thoughts and feelings more effectively, (b) understand that there is only one of every material (another intentional limit of the environment) so he must wait until it is available (listening to 3-year-olds say “available” is one of my favorite things), and (c) choose another work (the guide may even offer a new presentation, depending on what she thinks the child needs at that moment).

The teacher wants both children in this scenario to exercise their freedom by choosing work and concentrating on that work so they can construct their selves. Without the limits, this would not happen. But, most important, without limits the children would not feel safe. The children would not only be fearful of being bonked over the head, they would also feel out of control, which can feel scary for them. As Montessori trainer Judi Orion states, children “who often rebel against limits, come to know that someone will control things when they are out of control” (p. 53),11 which helps them to feel emotionally safe.


At home, the child’s work involves things like practicing grasping objects (for an infant), practicing self-care (for a toddler), such as putting on and taking off one’s socks, or practicing caring for the environment, such as cleaning the windows (though they may not actually look clean once the child is finished).

For parents, when Dr. Montessori asks us to follow the child, she is asking us to do two things: (1) “respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and to try to understand them” (p. 54), and (2) that we “support as much as possible the child’s desires for activity; not wait on him, but educate him to be independent” (p. 57).12

So we observe, respect, and support, which means we don’t offer unnecessary help. Instead, we provide opportunities in which our children learn how to help themselves. This is why when I dress my toddler because he insists, though I know he can dress himself, I am actually not following the child. I’m doing for him that which he’s capable of doing on his own, which means I’m just waiting on him.

Similarly, if my child insists that I stay with him at bedtime until he falls asleep but I can see that my presence is actually keeping him awake, I shouldn’t stay – that is not following the child. What I need to follow is not what my child is telling me but what his behavior is showing me.

Ultimately, following the child is about respecting the work he needs to do to construct his unique self. But it’s also about helping the child construct his personality so he can be an effective citizen. We need to respect our children’s thoughts and feelings, but we also need to help them understand that those thoughts and feelings operate within a larger environmental social context that has limits.13 All of society has limits. And, as Judi Orion points out, those limits are necessary:

Limits are what make it possible for us to live together as social beings. Without limits we would live in chaos, with a fair amount of insecurity and with little or no predictability (p. 53).9

Limits offer not just children but everyone a sense of security as they provide a sense of structure and, hence, predictability. A lack of limits increases uncertainty, which increases anxiety.11

Additionally, years of research on parenting styles has shown that children whose parents are loving and caring and set clear limits demonstrate higher levels of personal competence, self-reliance, school engagement, and an orientation towards work than those of indulgent or permissive parents.14 They also show lower levels of later substance abuse.

The Paradox of Freedom

Here’s the ultimate paradox of freedom: when we as parents provide freedom without limits, our children are only free when they are with us. When they are in an environment with others – such as in their Montessori classroom – where processes must be followed so the environment runs smoothly (as is necessary in any society), they are not free. Instead, as early childhood researcher Huseyin Kotaman states, their “freedom is dependent upon their parents’ presence – and thus it is not real independence” (p. 42),1 which means they cannot truly be free. One is only truly free when one can successfully navigate the world beyond the walls of one’s home.

  1. Kotaman, H. (2013). Freedom and child rearing: Critic of parenting practices from a new perspective. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 82, 39-50. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.06.222
  2. Montessori, R. (2000, July). The intimacy of responsiblity. Paper presented at Freedom & Responsibility: A Glorious Counterpoint. AMI/USA Conference, Boston, MA.
  3. Montessori, R. (2005, July). Our essential mandate. Paper presented at the 25th International Montessori Congress, Sydney, Australia.
  4. Dubovoy, S. (2000, July). The importance of freedom in our world today. Paper presented at Freedom & Responsibility: A Glorious Counterpoint. AMI/USA Conference, Boston, MA.
  5. Montessori, M. (1967). The absorbent mind (1st ed.). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston
  6. Lloyd, K. M. (2008). An analysis of Maria Montessori’s theory of normalization in light of emerging research in self-regulation. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, LLC.
  7. Montessori, M. (2013). Freedom in the school environment, didactic material and teacher. In S. Feez, L. Quade, C. Montessori & J. Verheul (Eds.), The 1913 Rome lectures: First international training course (pp. 74-82). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
  8. Pendlebury, S. (1991). Community, liberty and the practice of teaching. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 10(4), 263-279.
  9. Orion, J. (2000, July). Setting limits – So little understood, so greatly needed. Paper presented at Freedom & Responsibility: A Glorious Counterpoint. AMI/USA Conference, Boston, MA.
  10. Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2003). Self-regulation and learning. In W. M. Reynolds, G. E. Miller & I. B. Weiner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Educational psychology (Vol. 7). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  11. Collins, W. A., Maccoby, E. E., Steinberg, L., Hetherington, E. M., & Bornstein, M. H. (2000). Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist, 55(2), 218-232. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.2.218
  12. Montessori, M. (2007). The child in the family (N. R. Cirillo, Trans.). Amersterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
  13. Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 487-496. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.113.3.487
  14. Lamborn, S. D., Mounts, N. S., Steinberg, L., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development, 62(5), 1049. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.ep9112161645; Steinberg, L., Blatt-Eisengart, I., & Cauffman, E. (2006). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful homes: A replication in a sample of serious juvenile offenders. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 16(1), 47-58

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