The Benefits of Montessori - When Children Take Responsibility

The most frequent questions I get asked from people outside of my Montessori circle are in some way related to why I chose Montessori when it has a reputation of being pretty loosey-goosey.  It surprises them when I start talking about the academic success my children have, but more importantly, they are more impressed with the character development beyond academics. I'm going to tell you a story about an experience one of my colleagues had recently that shows one of my favorite benefits of Montessori: children who take responsibility for themselves.

Last week I was talking to a colleague at another Montessori school that goes through middle school. She was sharing how her son had attended a Montessori school through sixth grade, then transitioned to his neighborhood middle school for seventh grade. Although there were aspects of the transition that were hard for her (most notably the realization that our public schools set a relatively low bar when it comes to our children’s learning), one of the things she’s realized is how responsible her son is compared to other kids his age. One example: she has never had to ask him if his homework is done. It always is. And it is because her son knows that it’s his responsibility to get it done.

Contrast this with another friend who has shared that the daily battles with her middle-school son over doing his homework, practicing his sax and completing his chores has turned their home into a place she would rather not be. Beyond just the stress of the ongoing arguments, her concern is that her son doesn’t seem to feel any sense of responsibility to get those things done. If he does them, it’s to avoid getting into trouble, not because of some internal drive to be responsible.

Being trained for responsibility is an indirect accomplishment of Montessori life. A Montessori environment provides multiple opportunities for a child to take responsibility. Expectations around the level of responsibility change with the child’s age and ability.

The first stages of responsibility start as children learn to take care of themselves. This is why in Montessori there is such significant emphasis on the exercises of practical life. Learning how to button, tie, snap, etc. allows the child the first success of independence and responsibility.

It’s important to realize that independence and responsibility go hand-in-hand. From a young age, kids are taught to do what they are told. But simply doing what you’re told – putting on your boots, cleaning up your room – is not necessarily being responsible. There is a significant difference between being given responsibility and taking responsibility. Being given responsibility is passive; taking responsibility is active and involves initiative. A challenge for parents is to allow your children to be independent, allowing them to take care of themselves (buckle, tie, snap, etc.) even though you can do it faster. Giving them this independence allows them to begin building an internal sense of responsibility, where they are doing something because it’s the right thing to do, not just because they are being told to do it

As a child gets older, he or she will begin moving through all the lessons of practical life while in the Children's House – washing dishes, cleaning up, sweeping, etc. These activities, which are a core component of a Montessori classroom, give children more opportunity to assume responsibility for themselves and then for their environment. The carrying of dishes and the clearing of tables enters the child into another dimension of taking responsibility. Children (especially young children) really like responsibility because it makes them feel older and more in control of part of their life.

By kindergarten or early elementary, Montessori students are planning out their activities for a week. They are taught research skills and by the upper elementary years they are conducting months-long independent research. By upper elementary or middle school Montessori students have been know to run small businesses (remember the lemonade stands of days past?)

The Montessori Method is not simply a teaching technique. It is a proven system for helping children develop independence and assume greater responsibilities. The small steps of taking responsibility demonstrated throughout a child’s Montessori career bear tremendous fruit when the child’s opportunities to take greater responsibility become available. Montessori students are given unlimited opportunities to exercise the active choice of taking responsibility. As they get older, these choices – and the learning that comes with either a positive or negative outcome – lead to kids who are very powerful and self-assured, and don’t sit around waiting for someone to tell them what to do

So does that mean that a child who attends Montessori will never complain about cleaning his room or finishing an assignment? Not necessarily. We all have our days, right? But I can tell you this: A child who attends a Montessori will have learned that responsibility is a powerful and rewarding value. They will have learned to be skeptical of messages from popular culture telling them that life should always be easy. And they will have learned that when they choose to be responsible and do the best they can, good things usually happen.

But don't just take my word for it, come and see for yourself. Even though your child might be a toddler or preschooler, come visit our Children's House or Elementary class where you can really see responsibility in action. As I've said before, Montessori is not for everyone. There are days when I have to stand on my own hands to keep them from zipping up my 3-yr-old's coat and that takes a level of commitment that is not common in most households. But when you see the joy on your child's face and hear them exclaim "I did it! All by myself!" you will remember to be more patient next time. If you would like to experience the joy of independence and responsibility and find out if Montessori is a good fit for your family, contact Marnie to schedule a visit during school hours. She would be happy to give you a tour and answer any of your questions. 

Danielle Cloe