Freedom & Discipline

October 6, 2015

Annabelle Lawrence

As a parent it is difficult to navigate your way through all the various approaches regarding freedom and discipline. You seek to do what is best for your child, but from books, relatives and friends, advice abounds from both ends of the child-rearing spectrum. Should you rule over your child in an authoritative manner? Should you allow your child to behave as she wishes? After all, she is still so young. In hopes of providing you with clarity, rather than just another point of view, I would like to expound on the theory behind the Montessori approach.

Maria Montessori believed that children would benefit from an educational approach that walked the middle road, between extreme opinions. After much time, research, experimentation and observation, she developed a method and created an environment where she saw spontaneous self-discipline bloom within the children under her guiding care. Sounds like a dream!

For some people freedom might mean that a person is completely free to do whatever they please. However, true freedom is when a person can accept existing rules, but is not hindered by them. For children and adults, when there is freedom, a person can look at the things around him, become interested in something, and remain focused and engaged. In the right environment this can lead to purposeful work, providing opportunity for the will to develop. If the person has this window to free, purposeful activity, we see how it creates physical and functional independence. He is able to do things by himself and practice the use of his will. In turn comes self-sufficiency, and the ability to think for oneself. When this independence is felt, freedom is actualized.

Isn’t that what everyone wants for their child--to see her be interested, engaged, and moving with purpose? To see her make the right choices and act independently? To say, ‘my child is truly free?’

The Oxford American Dictionary even defines “freedom” as: the power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.  

On the other side of the coin, we see discipline and all the many opinions about it. To take from the dictionary again, the word “disciplined,” means: to be showing a controlled form of behavior or way of working. This can be understood as being the master of oneself. Quite different from what we may have expected; it is the ability to regulate one's own conduct when it is necessary to follow the rules of life, or act in accordance to necessary constraints, by one's self-control, through use of the will.

We see a pattern form here--how freedom and discipline are two inseparable realities, two sides to the same coin. To be disciplined, freedom is required in order that a person’s will is developed. Freedom cannot be confused with the absence of discipline, but rather it means to function independently without the immediate help of others. Furthermore, to be disciplined does not mean to have another person guiding one’s every move but instead to be self-disciplined, and to master the regulation of one’s own conduct.

Understanding the importance and true meaning of these realities, the Montessori environment seeks to aid both freedom and discipline for each child and the group. Dr. Montessori saw that when a child is in the right environment, she is free to become self-disciplined, and harmony begins to exist among the whole community. Through this, the child is able to fulfill her human potential. Her negative actions dissipate, and new positive traits take their place. She becomes bright, kind, gentle, and joyful; peace integrates with her personality instead of conflict.

With this knowledge, Dr. Montessori sought to bring about self-discipline in all children. Aware that one gains discipline indirectly, she provided an environment prepared perfectly for the child with five main ingredients, to create this thriving environment where freedom can grow, through: 

1. Work. In a Montessori environment the child is able to choose her work based on her interests at the time. The guide entices the child to put forth effort into the activity, which will result in his joy, happiness, and eventually calmness. When the child has reached the ability to engage in concentrated work, he begins the journey to true freedom and peace.  

2. Movement. Dr. Montessori knew that movement of the hand feeds the intelligence, and the constructive movement of the body allows the will to develop. The guide therefore provides purposeful activities for the child--to focus her attention and practice moving her body in useful ways.  

3. Concentration. The guide looks for the first signs of interest and has faith that something will captivate the child completely--leading her to concentration. The guide then has the task of protecting the child’s concentration, which Dr. Montessori described as a fragile bud in bloom.  

4. Choice. A child’s will can grow in such a way that it will be strong, yet upright and useful. This can be achieved by allowing the child to make choices for himself. When guided by the will, eventually a fine balance between inhibitions and impulses is achieved.  

5. Independence. Providing the child with independence will lead to her freedom of movement. Allowing her to practice movement will develop her ability to control her actions. Here, the child discovers she has clarity to make decisions and direct herself. This independence is the basis on which freedom is built. The guide, of course, encourages this and supports autonomy with minimum help. Finally, when the child is allowed to choose her work, based on her knowledge, she begins to feel competent, and therefore confident, thus increasing her independence.

We can see how each of these elements, promoted in the environment, are interwoven. For the true and well-balanced development of both freedom and discipline to occur, each element must be understood by the adults guiding the child.

In the Montessori environment, we focus on your child’s success and well-being. To do that, as guides, we envisage the potential of each individual and the whole community. But this doesn’t have to be limited to the classroom experience. You can offer your child the same opportunity at home. The Montessori approach requires that we simply encourage the growth of self-discipline in children. This way, they will find harmony as a part of the family and the school community. What more could we want?

Establishing consistent guidelines for your child is a key component to his success. Why? Because guidelines ultimately exist for a child’s freedom. As the writer R. Tagore beautifully put it, “The river would never reach the sea if it wasn’t hemmed in by its banks.” And so it is with children.