After almost 20 years of observation and reasonably thorough study of children in Montessori environments I have two major observations about their ability to make decisions. These observations may seem contradictory, but they are not: they are part of the fabric of the brain of a child.
First, children don’t always know what is in their best interest. They may, for instance, insist that the best thing for dinner is Snickers bars. And who can blame them? We all want Snickers and, while they may know they shouldn’t eat candy for supper, they really want to test the adults in their lives. Second, they also have an internal compass that guides them—in ways we cannot know—because, while they are still children, they instinctively understand what they will need to know to engage with the world, what interests them, what frightens them, and what—if learned—would be of great use to them.
Our role as parents and educators is to be able to distinguish which of those instincts are dangerous (like Snickers for supper or skydiving, for instance) and help them avoid the experience them until they can manage it and which—however curious or astonishing to adults—are part of the process of experiencing the world.
We interrupt their exploration at our own peril and theirs. Children kept completely protected (a natural enough parental instinct), for instance, will inevitably be thrust into a world for which they are completely unprepared. They move home. Faced with adult life, they crumble. Sometime, falling out of a tree is an exercise in gravity, balance, and discovering well enough how much it hurts to be more careful next time. Sometimes, falling out of a tree can be fatal. Adults can generally judge the height of the metaphorical tree because they have experienced it. Children are far more likely to learn if they experience life, and only need to be protected from those parts of experience that the cost of the knowledge would exceed the value of the knowledge itself.
Montessori environments encourage exploration without fatally high limbs. Children find their own compass and learn exponentially more quickly than their traditionally-educated peers precisely because they are following their interests. The can concentrate, and in so doing master the art of concentration. We have all experienced the boredom of being forced to sit through a lecture (from a teacher, a parent, or a boss) when we have no interest in the subject. It brings to mind the axiom of the horse and the water. Consequently, Montessori children learn more deeply than those forced to learn whatever the teacher (or at least the state) wants them to learn. They are also more confident in their choices because they practice making choices. And they are more independent because they have learned confidence in themselves through the process of making choices—and reaping the consequences for good or ill of those choices.
Children need continuity of message as they negotiate what is real and what is not. The home environment and the school need to match and for Montessori children this means “freedom within limits” and respect from adults. If children are controlled, or if their instincts are unnecessarily overruled because of adult needs the children not only experience, they also realize the disconnect: “My teacher understands and trusts me; my mom (or dad) just tells me what to do.” Depending on the temperament of the child, of course, they will adapt either to a submissive, controlled environment or the liberating Montessori environment. If they submit to control their path through life will match their childhood experience: the will wait to be told what to do, when to do it, and probably how to do it. They will find that safe, because that behavior enabled them to survive childhood. They will become cogs in a wheel.
If parents have invested in a Montessori environment for their child, why would they put their child in such a quandary? Some parents grew up in overbearing households and simply follow the pattern of their own parents. Such parents may have invested in Montessori because it has a certain cachet, or because it has a reputation for good results (all true) with little understanding of how we get the results we do. To those moved by either reason I would say: you love your child and entrusted your child to a Montessori environment for some reason—perhaps only an instinct—and your child needs a seamless environment for the Method to achieve the results for which it is globally known. Invest, not only in the school, but also in the sublime reasoning that serves as its foundation.