Do you want to understand your child better, to find out why they behave as they do and how you can respond better to them?
I’ve written this post to help you gain a clearer understanding of what’s going on in your child’s mind, using Maria Montessori’s theories and observations. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear your thoughts.
Little children have a totally different mind to ours and this is often the cause of misunderstandings, arguments, anger and long tantrums. Maria Montessori discovered this special mind and named it the ‘Absorbent Mind‘. It lasts from birth to around 6 years and is the secret to your child creating themselves in their entirety.
The child possesses, in his unconscious, a power which is different from any we possess as conscious people. When we study the child we must realise that his form of mind is different from the form of mind we adults possess. This conclusion is different from the general one, which is that the child does not possess a mind because his mind is so different from our own. On the contrary, the child’s powers are superior to ours. He is endowed with possibilities we no longer possess. (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)
The Absorbent Mind functions at two levels: from 0-3 years it’s unconscious and children aren’t aware of what they are learning. From 3-6 years it becomes conscious and children realise that they are learning (although they still find it very easy). After 6 years, the mind develops into a reasoning mind like ours and everything changes.
How your child develops their will (there’s no need to break it)
The ‘Hormé‘ is a powerful life force; an energy that pushes humans to create ourselves during these fundamental years. It functions most strongly during the first three years. The Hormé is gradually replaced by the Will. When children are acting from the force of the Hormé they have no choice but to obey that force.
It’s so strong that it pushes them to interact with their environment constantly. Children under 3 years old who may be called ‘naughty’ are actually being obedient to the Hormé. They can’t deny that push to explore life and take what they need from their environment to construct their whole selves – personality, intelligence, understanding, perspectives, beliefs etc.
“Hormé belongs to life in general, to what might be called the divine urge, the source of all evolution. This vital force for growth stimulates the child to perform many actions and, if he is permitted to grow normally, without being hindered, it shows itself in what we call the ‘joy of life’. The child is always enthusiastic, always happy.” (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)
The ‘Will‘ develops as the Hormé fades, around 3 years +. You can help your child create a strong, positive will by encouraging lots and lots of independence in simple daily activities, e.g:
Parents often feel the need to help children past the point they actually need help and this ‘help’ then becomes a hindrance to natural development. Think how you’d feel if someone kindly kept insisting on feeding or dressing you? How would this sap away at your self-worth and confidence in your own abilities?
Tiny babies need lots of help but as your child grows older, the amount of help needed gets much less although it’s really difficult to decide when to step back at first. Mostly, parents help with all these daily routines until your child is around 2-3 years old and they start misbehaving.
Misbehaviour is our signal that something is not going according to the natural developmental plan. Either there is too much focus around something or too much help is being given that’s no longer necessary.
Take a moment to step back and watch your child to see what parts of an activity they can actually do. You can step in to help when something is obviously too difficult, then step away again and let your child continue independently.
By showing your child that you have faith in them, your child will create a strong sense of self-belief and happily push through challenges of their own choosing.
How does your child create the ‘human’ parts of themselves?
The most fundamental, unconscious type of our human memory is called the ‘Mneme’. We aren’t aware of having learned things like walking and talking during the first 0-3 years because these basic skills were created unconsciously and stored in a very special part of our brain.
“The developing child not only acquires the faculties of man: strength, intelligence, language; but at the same time, he adapts the being he is constructing to the conditions of the world about him. And this it is that gives virtue to his particular form of psychology, which is so different from that of adults… Adults admire their environment; they can remember it and think about it; but the child absorbs it. The things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul. He incarnates in himself all in the world about him that his eyes see and his ears hear… this vital memory, which does not consciously remember, but absorbs images into the individual’s very life, has been given a special name… the Mneme.” (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)
These special memories can be tapped into through hypnosis, for example to recall birth experiences down to the smallest details, but they are very different type to our conscious memories.
Your child is using their active life experiences to become a person of this culture, country, time and place. Whatever language(s) you speak, beliefs you hold, likes and dislikes you have, choices and decisions you make – all these are absorbed by your child to create a person who fits into your world.
It’s really important that you’re aware of the massive impact your words, thoughts, feelings and actions have on your child’s development during these first few years. You are their ultimate guide on how to be a human being.
When does your child create language, movement, sensory development and social skills?
There are certain periods of life when your child is able to create these important human characteristics. These windows of opportunity were observed by Dr Montessori and have been confirmed by modern neuroscientists. She called them the ‘Sensitive Periods’:
- Language: 7 months in utero – 5 years
- Coordinated Movements: birth – 5 years
- Sensory Development & Refinement: birth – 5 years
- Order (routine and predictability): birth – 5½ years
- Tiny details: 1 – 3 years
- Social development: 2½ – 5 years
These critical periods are narrow windows of time during which the child must have experiences relating to the characteristics he needs to create, otherwise this opportunity will be lost forever.
“With each sensitive period that we miss, we lose an opportunity of perfecting ourselves in some particular way – often for ever. To illustrate this point Montessori had recourse to a simple and homely simile: ‘Granny is sitting by the fireside knitting a stocking. She is very old, and her eyesight is failing; and every now and then she drops a stitch without noticing it. But she goes on knitting just the same, and in due course the stocking is finished. But, on account of the dropped stitches, it is not so strong or so perfect a garment as it might have been.” (E.M Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work)
Sensitive periods are universal, time-limited and often accompanied by great joy. They build gradually, peak and then end gradually, although some overlap each other. There are three phases: absorption, elaboration and acquisition. Once finished, they are gone forever.
“From her observations of children Montessori noticed that they seem to pass through phases when they keep repeating and activity time and time again – for no apparent reason. They become totally absorbed by what they are doing and, for the time being, this is the only thing in which they are interested.” (Lesley Britton, Montessori Play & Learn)
You can help your child by allowing them to spend time exploring and repeating when you can see they’re really interested in something. Please don’t worry that your young child has OCD because repetition is a fundamental part of creating strong brain connections.
Think about how you learned to walk: by trying again and again, falling and struggling up, repeating over and over until you could stand, take a step and eventually walk! The same process happens with your child when they are creating all aspects of themselves.
Now you have a better understanding of your child’s developmental path, you can use these simple techniques to support them:
- Allow time for your child to do things at their own pace
- Step back and watch their fascinating development as often as possible
- Help only when necessary, then leave them to continue trying / exploring independently
- Have faith in your child’s ability to develop according to the natural laws of human development
- Limit all screens – only allow TV / iPad / phone apps during those times when you truly need 20 minutes to yourself. Then put them away again and do something REAL together.
- Model the kind, considerate, grateful, positive, respectful behaviour you’d like your child to imitate
I’ve included some suggestions for interesting life experiences to boost your child’s holistic development.
- Singing songs and rhymes
- Having a variety of musical experiences (playing and listening)
- Conversations, asking questions and making up stories together
- Reading stories and poems
- Art and crafts
- Eating meals as a family
- Taking walks at your child’s pace
- Cooking together (breakfast, lunch or dinner, as well as baking)
- Taking care of your home together (using child-sized cloths and brushes alongside yours)
- Setting up and clearing away activities together (you’ll be surprised how much your child will enjoy this!)
- Visiting cultural attractions (e.g. museums, galleries, exhibitions, parks, farms, gardens, concerts)
- Taking older children to visit less fortunate people and volunteering to help out where possible
When visiting new places with young children I find it helps to plan for 1-2 hours, including time to sit and have a snack there. Invite your child to help get prepared for a trip out by making and packing food, a drink, spare clothes, books and a few toys. Older children (6 years +) can be in charge of planning the whole trip!
I would love to hear any other ideas you have to share with families. Feel free to post a comment below or email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.