By Wanda Whitehead
Parenting can be considered the hardest job on the planet. How do we do it so that our children can become the successful, independent, responsible adults we so want them to become?
According to Madeline Levine, author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, “The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing: and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.” Doesn’t this sound like something we have read or quoted many times from Maria Montessori’s writings?
In sync with the decade of studies done on parental involvement, “Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley has found that the optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects the child’s autonomy.” They are a strong center on the pendulum between permissive and controlling.
Part of supporting our children’s development into independence is allowing them to learn how to make good decisions. They often acquire this skill by making poor decisions and figuring out, on their own, how to turn it around. We learn far more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.
“By allowing our children to get clear and accurate information—which may be learning the hard way that the stove is hot—about their interactions with their environment of people, tools, nature and ideas, we start them on the path of learning to decide independently how they will act.” This means that many times we need to let a child experience natural consequences instead of shielding them from the experience.
“With our young children we’ve removed many feedback loops for learning and, thus, to making decisions, good or bad. Preschool administrators comment on the growing number of three-year-olds who aren’t toilet trained. Comfortable diapers remove feedback to the child about their actions or lack of action. Plastic tip-proof covered cups prevent spills along with preventing feedback on the fine-motor control necessary to drink from a glass. A diet of finger foods prevents learning how to use a fork, knife, and spoon.
Within the limits of safety, learning to make good choices begins with clear and accurate information about personal interactions within one’s environment.” AND it means as parents we need to let the child get that feedback even if it is uncomfortable or slightly painful.
I recently experienced a parent who “did not have the heart” to remove the binkie from her toddler’s mouth for good. The child’s language development nearly stopped. When, at age 2 ½ years, the parent finally removed it, language skills shot up. As parents, we need to allow feedback. Learning to make good decisions is based on having good information. Our Montessori classrooms are designed to give children clear, accurate and timely information. Parents can set up homes this way, too.
Strong, centered parents are able to raise successful adults because they help cultivate motivation in their children. They do this by acknowledging quietly the child’s accomplishment, showing interest and noticing the focus, work, fun, or care that went into the task. They do not praise.
“As it turns out, children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult tasks. They exhibit higher levels of confidence. This may seem counterintuitive, but praising seems to rattle confidence.” Perhaps children are afraid that the next judgment by the parent might not be positive, so they freeze. Eventually this can become “judgment dependency” where the child looks for external judgments to define themselves. Reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy and limiting interference results in better academic and emotional outcomes.
“Hanging back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting. It’s easier when they’re young—tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a pre-teenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks.”
What kinds of risks should we tolerate? “Mastery of the world is an expanding geography for our kids; for our toddlers, it’s the backyard; for preteens, the neighborhood; for teens the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks—the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate—that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”
Beginning to learn good decision-making early will minimize the risks later in your child’s life. Beginning to let go to their process in this is essential. What’s the barrier? Our own fear. We are so driven to be sure that our child suffers no pain or disappointment or sadness. We are so driven to BE a best parent that we see our child’s suffering as a reflection on our skill as a parent. Be careful for this pitfall! Allowing your child their “bumps and bruises” to support learning can be an act of courage by a parent.
We must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and non-interfering. (The definition of a Montessori classroom and a secure home.) A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits, and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. “Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Likely, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way of his/her reasonable moves toward autonomy, independence.”
 Levine, Madeline. “Raising Successful Children” August 4, 2012
 Stark-Schmidt, Maren. “What Should We Teach Our Children? Tomorrow’s Child Magazine, September 2010.
 Levine,Madeline. “Raising Successful Children,” August 4, 2012
About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).