Why We Educate for Independence

In Guidepost Montessori classrooms, there’s a dominant focus on independence. But why is cultivating independence in young children so important?

In Guidepost Montessori classrooms, there’s a dominant focus on independence. Young infants don’t use cribs, but crawl in and out of floor beds on their own. Toddlers aren’t waited on, but feed, dress, and clean up after themselves. Preschoolers and elementary students don’t sit quietly in rows and listen to lectures, but independently explore a prepared environment and choose the work that most interests them.

But why is this independence so important?

Why does it matter, for example, whether a toddler dresses himself or if an adult does it for him? After all, everyone learns to put on shirts, coats, and shoes eventually, and with little to no instruction. So, why do Montessorians go to the trouble of providing special materials like dressing frames, and teaching special methods like the Montessori coat flip technique?

1. The joy of facing meaningful, interesting challenges

Fostering a child’s independence makes their experience of life deeply rewarding, far more rewarding than it would otherwise be.

Have you ever noticed the concentration of a young child who is intent on accomplishing a task all by herself? And her glowing face of delight when she does, in fact, achieve her goal?

Montessori observed that children go through distinct periods of development where doing certain activities and learning particular things are inherently interesting. Babies, for example, are fascinated by learning how to coordinate their hands and bodies (among many other things). They want to stretch, twist, and crawl. They want to hold objects in their hands and release them. They want to push, roll, throw, and bring the objects to their mouth.

Similarly, toddlers and preschoolers are captivated by specific activities. Above all, they’re interested in the tasks of everyday living, the tasks they see their parents do daily—things like folding laundry, cutting vegetables, wiping spills, and zipping up their own jacket. Older children, too, have their own interests. They become curious about organizing their own time and evaluating ideas for themselves, in judging right and wrong, resolving conflicts on their own, and understanding the reasons and meaning behind things.

When we prepare the environment so a child can build independence and pursue these deep developmental interests, we foster an enduring kind of joy. Not something that’s fleeting or self-defeating, but the kind of enjoyment that flows out of setting ambitious goals, persisting through challenges, and achieving self-mastery. We empower the child to experience each new milestone in his life like the mountain climber who reaches the peak of Everest—as an aspirational goal that they prepare for, attempt, and eventually achieve—with all the earned satisfaction and celebration that results.

2. Building self-confidence

Not only does fostering independence bring the child this fulfilling sense of joy, but it also cultivates a profound sense of self-confidence. The toddler who applies tremendous effort and eventually succeeds at zipping her jacket, can’t help but experience herself as efficacious. She doesn’t need anyone to tell her that she is capable; she knows it. She lived through and achieved each part of the process—from focusing on the task at hand, to holding the zipper in just the right way, to applying just the right amount of force, to picking it up again when it slipped from her hands.

It is this self-confidence, which is built up over countless such instances, that then enables the child to courageously meet each succeeding challenge in her life. It’s what enables her to not be discouraged when she tries to read a new word for the first time, encounters a confusing math problem, or has a disagreement with a friend. She knows, from repeated experience, that she can figure things out, develop new skills, and achieve her goals. She has developed a rock-solid sense that she can achieve great things.

3. Rehearsing the skills and attitudes for a life fully lived

Ultimately, the reason to focus on empowering a child’s independence is that it allows him to gain the fundamental skills and attitudes he needs to live a full life, both now and as an adult. In a Montessori classroom, life and school are not kept apart. School is not preparation for life, but is life. The child is practicing—here, now, every day—what he needs to be good, successful, and happy always.

In building independence, he’s creating the ability to find work that he loves and learning how to commit to it. He’s forming an abiding respect for the truth—for figuring out why things work the way they do, for questioning, understanding and evaluating everything. He’s learning to connect and collaborate with others in this pursuit of truth, in his commitment to worthwhile work, and in celebrating his and others’ achievements. Above all, he’s practicing the art of building the character he needs to achieve his goals and direct his life.

The most basic purpose of all parenting and education, of course, is to help children grow up to be independent, capable adults. In a Montessori classroom, however, independence isn’t treated as a far-off goal, only or primarily relevant for college-prep courses in high school, or as something that must wait for a person's 18th birthday.

Instead, independence is something the child builds and enjoys little by little, starting from birth. He builds this capacity for independence little by little so that when he is 18 and looks out across the vast, uncharted expanse of his life, he isn’t paralyzed or apathetic at the prospect of leading his life. He knows, from repeated and gradually expanding experience, that he can set lofty goals, that he can achieve them, and that the rewards are worth it.

It’s been a common misconception, since the time of the first Montessori schools, that children in a Montessori environment are given freedom and independence to do whatever they want. That the pursuit of independence is a way of abandoning a child to their own devices and letting chaos reign. Montessori relates a story of just such a charge, and the important distinction between this common misconception and her singular focus on helping children build independence:

“A society lady once visited the school and, having the old frame of mind, said to a child: ‘So this is the school where you do as you like, is it not?’

“‘No, ma’am… It is not that we do as we like, but we like what we do.’

The child had grasped the difference between doing a thing because it gives one pleasure, and enjoying a piece of work one has decided to do."