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Setting Boundaries and Limits The Montessori Way

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

Posted November 16, 2020

Article by The Budding Seed. Written by Samantha. Image by PIXELHEADPHOTO DIGITALSKILLET/SHUTTERSTOCK.

“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

Sometimes there is a little bit of confusion around Maria Montessori’s idea of “Follow the child” or “giving the child freedom.” She did not mean let your child do whatever they want, whenever they want and run wild. No. The element that is often left out is limits. What she really meant was “Freedom within Limits.” This is also probably the most difficult part of caring for a child the Montessori way. Montessori Parenting, mindful parenting, peaceful parenting, conscious parenting, respectful parenting, positive parenting – whatever you want to call it, is much different than the kind of parenting that we typically see. And it takes a lot of practice to make it an actual lifestyle.

Consistent Expectations and Clear Limits

Young children thrive off of order and predictable, consistent routines with reasonable expectations. When children are able to get adequate sleep, nutrition, and stimulation they are able to function and learn at the highest level. When this routine is altered (even in the slightest), naps are missed, overstimulation occurs, and meals are pushed back – it is not reasonable for us to expect their best behavior.

Holidays are a great example of this! Multiple family functions a day, abnormal mealtimes, an overabundance of people and activity, and brief naps in the car are all a recipe for disaster. We can’t possibly expect them to act like perfect little angels. This same idea applies to more common activities such as running errands, dinner at grandma’s, going to the zoo for the day, and the list could go on. So do the best you can to schedule your day around your child’s routine, and when that is not possible, be sure to adjust your expectations of their behavior without getting mad or frustrated.

Set ground rules. What are some rules that are really important to your family? Have these rules been clearly laid out? Are they known to all family members? Maybe even display them somewhere…If you don’t have ground rules, that basically means you’re probably winging it and making things up on the spot. This can be difficult to keep track of, for us and definitely for your toddler.

A few ideas from the book, The Montessori Toddler written by Simone Davies:

  • We are kind to each other – This basically means that even if we disagree, we will not hurt each other physically or tease each other; this teaches children to respect themselves and each other.

  • We sit at the table to eat – prevents food from going everywhere and reminds people that eating is a social occasion and that we don’t play and eat at the same time.

  • We contribute to the household – helping around the house and being a valued member of the family no matter what age.

  • Rough play by mutual consent – If someone ways “stop” they are saying they are not having fun anymore and we need to stop.

It’s ok to say “No”

You are the parent, and you should run your home. Your child should not be in charge! If they lack limits in their life and are given too much power, that will leave them feeling very unstable, not sure what to expect next or what is expected of them. And then how are those feelings then reflected in their behavior? This does not, however, mean that you need to be a dictator. It means that although you show authority, you also show warmth. This is called authoritative parenting.

Firm limits should be set by the parent, with the best interest of the child’s development in mind. Yes, this will mean that you will have to say, “no” to your child from time to time and that is ok! Saying “no” will not damage them forever, I promise. I tend to mostly use the word “no” when setting a limit for safety. In fact, by setting limits and staying true to your parenting style, your child will be given predictable expectations that will make them feel confident and secure. Young children need boundaries to keep them safe, to learn how to be respectful, to help guide them to make positive choices, and to grow into responsible humans.

Follow Through Calmly and Respectfully

Say what you mean and mean what you say. For example, if one of your rules is that everyone sits down at the table to eat. And one day at dinner your child isn’t listening to this rule and you say, “If I see you getting out of your chair, that will tell me you are all done and your dinner will be put away.” Well…If they get up and walk away, you need to actually put the dinner away and not bring it back out. Regardless of how much food is still left on their plate. This gives real meaning behind what you say.

No need to shame your child by raising your voice and scolding, which usually comes from some kind of emotional reaction to the situation. (Remember: if they are young toddlers, they have very very little self-control. And most likely, their behavior is occurring because of something that they need developmentally.) This just sends them mixed and unclear messages that leave them feeling guilty and ashamed of themselves. Instead, simply respond using a more effortless, yet still firm, tone of voice.

You can be as mad or as frustrated with them as it gets on the inside, but that is an emotion that we don’t want them to see on the outside. The child needs to feel like we are not nervous, worked up, or overly emotional about the situation and instead need to feel confident that the parent is in charge and these are the rules. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Also, remember that they are humans. Just because they are super tiny and lack most self-control doesn’t mean that they deserve any less respect than an adult.

Express the limit clearly. Get down to their level and say, “I can’t let you…” or tell them what you are going to do, “You`re hitting, so I’m going to hold your hand.”

Acknowledge negative feelings and let them get all the emotions out. Let them release a full range of emotions. Even the nasty ones. Show them that we will love them even at their worst. Guess what they are feeling if they can’t tell you:

  • It looks like you…

  • Are you telling me…?

  • Are you feeling…?

  • It seems like…

  • I’m guessing you might feel…?

Make Amends

Once you know that they are for sure calm and ready to talk we can make amends. We want them to learn to take responsibility for their actions, so this is a very important step. We can ask them, “How can we make this better?” If they are still really young this might mean that you may have to do some modeling. (Example: Saying sorry to who was hurt, asking if the friend is ok).

Dealing with Toddler Tantrums

Help them calm down. Once a tantrum has started no reasoning or explanation is going to get through to them. Let them know that it is ok for them to meltdown and that you are there to keep them safe. Let them let it all out. Trying to calm them down, speeding it up, or distracting them sometimes only makes it worse. You can offer them a hug or if they would rather not, you can stay nearby and let hem know you are there if they need you. Once they are calm, you can reconnect and make amends.

  • You don’t want to ignore a tantrum. “Ignoring the tantrum directs their feelings at us instead of at the problem that upset them. It creates conflict just when they are needing connection.” – Simone Davies, The Montessori Toddler

*Remember: Your child’s misbehavior doesn’t make you a bad parent. So many parents are ashamed, embarrassed and annoyed by their child’s behavior. But in reality, misbehavior is purely a cry for sleep, food, attention or firmer limits. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Toddlers have VERY little self-control – so it is up to you to do your best to set them up with a consistent schedule, a respectful environment, and firm limits. When things go south (which they will from time to time), stay calm and do your best to deal with the situation in a respectful manner.

“Adult’ role is to teach children limits with love or the world will teach them without it.” – Paula Polk Lillard

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