Development of the Will

“Free choice involving the will, That is, decision-making with consequences attached, is one of the highest of all mental processes.”

Maria Montessori

What do you do with a strong-willed child? In just a few minutes searching the internet you’ll find advice and suggestions from all kinds of sources – parenting gurus, psychologists, and educational professionals – all claiming to have the solution to help parents dealing with those children who posses a ‘strong will’.

Reading some of those blogs and browsing through all sorts of content online, one quickly realises that the will of our children is a subject of considerable puzzle to parents hoping their offspring develops – preferably as quickly as possible – into an obedient and ‘good’ child. We accept that it’s not always immediate, and often try to rationalise their various behaviours as stages – like ‘the terrible twos’, or ‘he’s a three-nager’ – believing it’s an age thing, they’ll grow out of it, that things will sort themselves out.

All that frenzy and worry makes many a Montessorian smile.

When you look into a Montessori environment – of any age, but especially 0-6 years – visitors usually comment on how peaceful it is, and how happy the children seem. The children are engaged, in harmony with their environment and each other. And, the teachers don’t seem to be at all frazzled, even though they may have ten or more children with them who are supposed to be in the ‘terrible twos’ stage or early preschool years of development.

Why? Maria Montessori believed that the nature of the child is driven by a powerful energy and spirit. And, when placed in an environment that answers to their natural needs and tendencies, children respond with passion and curiosity, unlimited attention, and power of concentration – like little scientists on the mission for discovery.

On the flip side, if they’re not given the right conditions to feed that natural urge to develop, or they’re forced to obey the unfamiliar laws and restrictions of the adult world, they rebel – developing deviations and coping strategies – becoming those ‘terrible twos’ we fear. Just how much a child will demand their environment to be right, depends on how strong that natural energy of spirit is in them. It might be a strong spirit, but it is not a strong will.

Therefore, if we are looking for a golden solution that will make our child abandon their strong spirit and ‘fit in’ compliantly with our adult world – there isn’t one. There cannot be. Through the interrelation of the famous Montessori triangle (the child working with the prepared adult in a prepared environment) we provide the building blocks for the child to construct the person they will become.

So how does will develop?

It is, like with other aspects of a child’s development, a process. As we know, the human brain continues to develop until we are well into our twenties, and even then it continues to be changeable and plastic. A child isn’t able to possess the skills and emotional control we have as adults, because their brain is simply not yet there. They need space, time, support and a safe place in which they can comfortably explore and develop. So what does this environment need to be like?

Love and security gives the child the sense of belonging to create a pathway for trust of the world. The liberty to move in an unrestricted, purposeful way lets the child’s body create important neurological connections. Language – real and rich – gives the child information and names, which he or she will then classify and categorise into a powerful database about the world they live in. That also happens through trying things, manipulating materials and discovering their properties – simply getting to know their environment.

Children are expected to touch and try everything in their surroundings – how else can they learn what those things are and what they’re for? If objects aren’t suitable to be touched and explored, it’s best not to put them in the child’s environment. Simply expecting your child to not to touch, will more often than not, create a reaction. It’s then that you’ll often see a strong will at play. What it is, is a natural process (exploration) being disturbed…

Will is also developed through order in the child’s life. Order supports their understanding of the world and its rules – including your home. The more consistent the routines and rules you have, the more understandable they are for the child. They’ll be easily and naturally internalised and will provide a building ground for inner order. Order brings familiarity and comfort. And living within limits, according to guidelines and rules requires another skill – self-discipline.

We all want our children to become successful adults. When they’re loudly protesting, refusing to cooperate, throwing a real tantrum, or yelling and screaming – apart from being royally embarrassed (if you’re out and about), we worry about their future, don’t we? How will they manage at school? Is this just how they are? Will they ever master the ability to control themselves and their behaviour?

The good news is – disorder is NOT a natural state for a child. It is very hard for a child to be in a state of disorder, they don’t like it at all and respond almost immediately to an environment that fosters the development of inner order and self-discipline.

Family is the most important environment of all!

Modelling the skills we want our children to possess within your family is hugely important. It’s no surprise that children almost always do what we do, and rarely do what we say. They are sensorial, experiential beings that absorb much more from what we consistently do, than what we say we should be doing…

Do we model how to handle emotions and negotiate difficult situations? How do we deal with frustrations? Do we treat our children respectfully, as we would an equal partner, when discussing or working through challenges? We would be surprised how well children respond to information and how ready they are to implement strategies that would help them deal with the world.

Children generally want to understand and obey rules; they want to be able to be in sync and harmony with their environment. They want to be obedient. They are at their happiest, when they are in full possession of their spirit and able to follow their environment’s rules. The more they know about the world, the more they feel they belong. When they have liberty to explore, they develop awareness of their actions and their choices then become deliberate.  This is the emerging will at work.

Obedience develops in a child in much the same way as other aspects of character. Once the child is able to make deliberate choices, they come under control of the conscious will.

Interestingly though, in some more traditional views, obedience and will are treated as opposing ideas - with approaches to discipline that sought to break the child’s will in order to make them obey!

But actually, obedience is nothing more than a form of spiritual dexterity that creates and underpins the internal balance and harmony. It is a powerful strength in us and can be best expressed as the ability to happily adapt. Obedience is action ­– a conscious choice. Maria Montessori saw it as a natural phenomenon, a normal human characteristic that developed in stages.

Obedience is action.

Stage 1: The child obeys sometimes – but not always. It appears in early stages of the development and evolves together with child. The child is not a master of him/herself yet, so is not able to follow the will of others unless it is consistent with their own inner need, according to their spirit, human tendencies and the sensitive period the child is in.

Stage 2: At stage 2 the child can always obey because there is no developmental obstacle to their making a conscious choice. He/she can obey his/her own will and be directed by the will of another. The child is able to make a considered choice and to lower his impulses to abide by another’s wishes – interestingly; this stage is often regarded as the highest form of obedience in traditional education.

Stage 3: Is built on the foundation of stage 2. The child is joyful and obeys with enthusiasm, based on a trusting relationship with an individual. The child is cooperative, and ready and waiting to be guided to discover more about their world. This is the stage Montessori education aspires to for all our children.

How to help support developing obedience at home.

Limit scolding, it rarely helps. It comes naturally to many of us – we nag before we think – but it doesn’t generally encourage obedience, or teach a child anything but the feeling of disappointment in letting us down. Instead, try to be empathetic and encourage trying again.

Slow down your world. Time to practice, time for communication and time to model good behaviour are important. Have patience, and when you can, wait for children to finish when they need more time.

Have trust in the natural development of the child and in his/her growing capability but try not to give tasks that burden the child with unrealistic demands.

And finally, be aware of the great power imbalance that you can have and so easily impose over children – treat them respectfully in all interactions.