Development of the Will


We’ve all been there as parents. Suddenly your child refuses to do something she ordinarily loves to do, throws a fit at bedtime, or resists getting into the car seat, and you’re feeling frazzled, wondering how best to respond. While these behaviors can sometimes be challenging for adults, these normal protests are part of the process Montessori referred to as “development of the will.” In a recent parent education seminar, Primary guide Renee Smith—also a mother of two young boys—helped demystify this process and shared some helpful advice for families supporting their Primary and Infant Community children at home.

When Montessori discussed the development of the will, she was describing the child’s ability to develop the inner strength to control one’s impulses and make good decisions. Persistence over the course of a lifetime helps children, as well as adults, develop the will to follow the rules and expectations of life in a way that is deeply fulfilling. This process shouldn’t be punitive, Montessori observed, but it does require patience and support from others. Inner discipline is best learned through constructive interaction with the surrounding world.

At the Primary age, children have an intense drive to take ownership of their development and are absorbing everything in the surrounding environment. Constructive activities at home might include helping prepare meals, keeping a room tidy, building with Legos, gardening, or caring for pets and siblings—activities that allow the child to be an active contributor to the family or classroom, or creatively engaged with real materials, rather than a passive observer.

Freedom Within Limits
When helping children with these activities, it is good to provide a balance of freedom and limits, which are like two sides of the same coin, both necessary to the developing will. Freedoms empower children to make age-appropriate choices and contributions. Limits, on the other hand, provide children with the structure and stability needed for security and growth, as well as consideration for others. It is only by negotiating freedom and limits that children develop the kind of self-control necessary for peaceful behavior and meaningful contribution as adults. 

In the Primary classroom, the idea is to encourage freedoms with three basic kinds of limits: 1) the safety and wellbeing of the child, 2) the safety and wellbeing of other children (the community), and 3) the natural limits of time, scheduling, availability, and life itself that are beyond control. Here are a few examples of the ways freedoms and limits work together in the Primary classroom:

Freedom: Children may choose their own work. 
          • Knowledge to complete the work (a lesson from the guide)  
          • The work is available  
          • Materials are used appropriately
Freedom: Children may work on chosen activities to completion without interruption.
          • The child is purposefully engaged
          • The end of the school day
Freedom: Children have freedom of movement in the classroom.
          • The space of the classroom
          • The safety of others in the room
          • Classroom etiquette, such as walking indoors, holding lunchboxes safely, etc.
Freedom: Children may associate with others in the room, and often there is a lively buzz of activity, much as you’d expect to find in an office.
          • Conversation shouldn’t be disruptive
          • It is purposeful 
The list could include many more examples, as this basic structure is at the heart of the loving Primary environment in which children are free to do their work. As children become comfortable with the classroom, they make transitions more easily. Over time they progress from needing the guide’s direction to find purposeful activity and make good choices to being able to work independently with very little adult intervention.  

You may notice a similar evolution happening at home, despite the occasional setbacks. (We all have them!) Keep in mind that the home environment is different from the classroom, so it’s also not unusual for children to behave differently with parents and siblings than with guides and peers.

When granting freedoms and setting limits at home, it’s great to consider whose needs are being met. As adults we should check ourselves to make sure that limits aren’t being set only for our convenience. However, sometimes children will protest reasonable limits (like a firm bedtime, for example), and we can feel confident about enforcing them, knowing that we’re working for their wellbeing. The idea is to give your child the opportunity to develop self-mastery and self-control without discounting the needs of the rest of the family.
Here are a few specific at-home strategies that work well with children under the age of six:
  • Sometimes it can be tricky to find the right words when redirecting your children. However, our communication style will influence our children’s. Keeping your tone as neutral as possible can help defuse the situation when emotions run high. Leading with questions can also be helpful. 
  • One model for offering redirection is to 1) state what behavior you are observing, 2) express the reason for your concern (safety, health, responsibility), and then 3) offer a couple reasonable choices going forward. 
Example: “I noticed your toys are all over the floor. I’m worried someone is going to get hurt (stepping on a Lego) if they need to walk through here. Will you start with picking up Legos or picking up trains? I’m available to help.” If the task is overwhelming or recurring, you might suggest storing some toys elsewhere so that there is a more manageable number to work with.
Example: If children protest at bedtime, "One more book (toy, game, etc.)!!” you might say, "We are out of time for books, and it is important you get to bed on time.  Will you walk to your bed or skip to your bed?"  They might opt for one of those choices or say, "One more book!!!" You could respond, "You can move to bed on your own, or I can snuggle you all the way down the hall."  Again, children will opt for one of those choices, or you will scoop them up and snuggle and kiss them all the way down the hall to bed. They might then decide to skip or walk on their own with you accompanying them down the hall.  
  • Young children are still learning to communicate verbally. Sometimes when they’re struggling, it may be an indication that they need some extra affection.  
  • When possible, try not to interrupt or correct children in the midst of engagement, which can discourage them from developing their own awareness and capacity to complete work independently. 
  • Relatedly, instead of relying on praise as your main feedback for your children (for example, “Great job! Wonderful!”), try describing what you like about their work or asking questions about it. Or you might say, “You look so happy!” This encourages children to rely on their own sense of accomplishment rather than always relying on yours.  
  • Provide a few minutes’ notice to let children know that the limit of time for an activity is approaching. This helps children internally prepare for the transition. 
  • Sleep is key! Without adequate rest, self-control is much more difficult. Develop a really strong bedtime routine for young children. Consistency is key at this age.
  • Follow through with any and all limits you set. Try not to set limits that you won’t enforce. 
  • Parenting is challenging, and so is developing a young will! Don’t feel like you need to make a bunch of sweeping changes at home all at once or that you need to sound like a robot. Try little adjustments that make sense for your family, and continue as you feel comfortable with the adjustments. 
Additional reading: 
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk
By: Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish 
Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life
By: Marshall B. Rosenberg
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes
By: Alfie Kohn