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As the River Flows… (the Benefit of Limits)

April 08, 2016
toddler cryingWhat are the benefits of limits when it comes to your child?

Asking a child to stay still and be quiet is about as natural as asking a river to stop flowing. Furthermore, we don’t worry about a river flowing – we worry about it flooding.

So it is with children. They are constantly on the move as they learn and explore their world. The only time this natural behavior is a problem is when their activity is going to overrun the banks, and flood us with loud, out of control behavior. This applies to children at any age, whether infant, toddler, preschool or kindergartner and beyond.

Understanding Limits

Maria Montessori recognized that children must have freedom of movement in their education. But she also recognized that absolute freedom brings only chaos. She spoke of freedom within limits and here-in lies the challenge for many parents.

Limits are a natural part of life. Some are defined by society at-large as acceptable social behaviors. Others are less arbitrary; day and night, the need for nourishment, and physical limitations.

Our task is to let them experience the impact of limits on their lives and this is at the heart of discipline. Sadly, most people think of discipline only as punishment when limits are exceeded – they fail to understand that limits need to be set and taught proactively for the benefit of the child.

Maria Montessori spoke of the formation of the will in children. Again, many hear the word “will” and associate it negatively with willfulness, stubbornness, and misbehavior. The will is our power to choose. We can choose compliance with social expectations as easily as we can choose to ignore them. It’s interesting that the word “discipline” has the same root as disciple, or follower. Children will “follow” whatever behavioral example they experience.

What is our task as educators?

Our task as educators is to set that example. Parents are usually amazed at how well-behaved children are in a Montessori classroom. This is not the result of harsh discipline or punishments. It is, instead, the product of the environment. In the classroom certain behaviors are modeled and expected and others are not acceptable. Nearly every behavior is actively taught. For example, children greet their teacher with a handshake and a smile. They leave the same way. Why? Because this is the socially acceptable way to greet people. Chairs are pushed in so no one montessori kindergarten demonstrationwill trip over them. Hands are on knees so no one will step on one. We sit on the line so all can see and participate equally. Ankles are crossed under the table so no one is kicked by a swinging foot. Jackets are zipped on the hanger to keep them from falling onto the floor. The list goes on and on. These rituals are taught, expected, and applied consistently, and children comply willingly.

Rituals, schedules, and consistency are essential to children. They teach the child how to organize and structure his or her own life and activities. Children easily recognize that complying with these societal standards make everything go smoothly and they joyfully participate. To look at the opposite side, children who have no idea where to put their coats, or hands, or ankles, are anxious children. They lack the security that known expectations provide.

Many children who revel in obstinacy are just looking for someone to define the limits.

It’s never pleasant to have to be the “heavy,” the rule enforcer, or the disciplinarian. The first step to establishing order out of chaos is to decide what the limits are and then practice them consistently. Some examples might be found at the dinner table. First of all, is there a dinner table? Or do family members eat in front of the TV at different hours according to their own whims or schedules? Do you have rituals at your dinner table: are children taught to pass serving bowls around the table or does everyone just jump in and grab? How is one excused from the table? Do you linger for conversation? Do you talk about your day as well as quiz the children on their activities?

Think about your weekends. Most families are in a mad rush to get all the chores done but are overextended by the need to transport children from one activity to another. Children want to be a valued member of the family. They want to feel useful. If there are games or lessons to get to then all family members should make beds, carry laundry to the machine, take out the trash or maybe rake the leaves. You feel better when you take care of the “business” in your family and still have time for relaxation and fun – so will your children.

Of course, setting all of this up where it didn’t exist before may be a challenge but it is well worth the effort if it produces peace and consideration instead of battles and frustration. Happy home, happy family!

Learn more about our educational programs for ages 6 weeks to 12 years as well as our before and after school daycare program. Interested parents can also contact Apple Montessori Schools at 973-283-6400 or online at

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