Lacy’s brother was born in Texas a month after she turned three.  Mom, knowing she’d have her hands full with a newborn, asked her husband to take Lacy to visit cousins in L.A.  Although he was a great provider, Lacy’s dad was one of those hands-off fathers who never changed a diaper or warmed a bottle of milk.  Naturally, the thought of spending a week alone with a three-year old girl terrified him.

“How will I dress her?” he asked his wife nervously.

“She can dress herself,” she replied.

“Should I brush her hair?”

“She can brush her own hair.”

“Do I need to give her baths?”

“She knows how to take a shower by herself.”

He was amazed.  “Really?  She can do all those things?”

Lacy’s mom smiled. “She can do all those things and much more.  Why do you think I enrolled her in a Montessori school last year?”

Adults smiled when Lacy walked down the streets of L.A., for she fashionably paired a green striped shirt with a red plaid skirt, purple knee-high socks, and white sandals (among other similarly bold outfits).  Her lopsided pigtails peeped out from under a flowered hat, and she carried a faded yellow teddy bear everywhere she went.  Lacy’s off-the-wall fashion sense didn’t diminish her dad’s appreciation for Montessori; he was delighted to enjoy their trip without worrying about his young daughter’s upkeep.

By helping her develop the necessary skills to take care of herself, Lacy’s parents were setting her up for a lifetime of success (albeit not in the fashion world).  Research shows that parents and teachers who encourage children to accomplish tasks by themselves are helping them develop a strong self-identity, a resiliency to setbacks, and a higher level of creativity.

When a child is shown how to do something, and then she’s allowed to do it on her own (as the Montessori method encourages), she understands that she is viewed as capable and trustworthy in the eyes of adults.  This raises her self-esteem more than any amount of verbal praise ever will.  She also learns the value of perseverance; it is very likely that she will not execute the task perfectly the first time, but knowing that mom and dad think she’s capable will encourage her to keep trying.  Independence also invites the child to think of new ways of solving problems, which promotes the development of creativity.

Lacy’s parents will tell you that supporting their child’s autonomy is not always easy.  It requires patience and careful planning.  When a child is learning how to do something by herself, it might take her several tries before she gets it right.  Independence can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and downright messy endeavor!  Throughout this trial and error process, mom and dad have to take a deep breath and remember the long-term benefits that come from a child buttoning her own sweater or spreading her own jam (even when more jam ends up on the counter than on the toast).

Sometimes, Lacy’s mom is uncertain of her daughter’s abilities.  She doesn’t want to give her a task that would prove too overwhelming, so she applies a technique that she learned from Lacy’s Montessori teacher.  She breaks down a long activity into several shorter tasks, modeling each one slowly and then offering Lacy a turn.  Before beginning, mom reminds the little girl that she can ask for help if she needs it, but she is careful not to interfere even if Lacy seems to be struggling.  To her mom’s delight, most of the time her daughter finds a clever solution to the challenge at hand.  When she doesn’t, Lacy politely asks for help and mom offers only enough support to get her past the obstacle.

The look on Lacy’s face and her enthusiastic cry of “I did it by myself!” let mom know that she’s on the right track as a parent, and make the challenges of raising children seem a little less daunting and a little more rewarding.  Lacy, meanwhile, wanders off to find her yellow bear and her flowered hat, unaware that the buds of resiliency and self-reliance are beginning to bloom within.

Pilar Bewley is an AMI trained Primary teacher in Southern California.  This summer, she will start AMI Elementary training in Bergamo, Italy.