To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.

— Maria Montessori

We’ve heard it from staff and parents alike – the new normal of COVID where we are inherently spending more time with our kiddos (whether due to quarantines or challenges finding childcare) has been rough. While spending more time together naturally bonds us with our children and creates opportunities for deep connection and wonderful memories, it also puts us in constant contact with the natural ups and downs of whatever age-appropriate development our children are experiencing. Thankfully, Desert Montessori has been able to remain mostly open (and are hoping that we have a future of “test to stay” for our entire school to look forward to) and we are here to partner with our families to help offer suggestions, share our own techniques with challenging behaviors, and (sometimes most importantly) just listen.

The Montessori method has some “tricks to the trade” that can be applied just as easily at home as in the classroom. We’ve been sharing regularly how you can incorporate things from our Grace and Courtesy curriculum as well as Practical Life into your home life, but boundary-setting is something that can carry over as well with great success.

Authoritative Parenting and Why Boundaries are a Good Thing

There are several parenting “types” that we hear about – the most common being “permissive,” “authoritative” and “authoritarian.” The type of parenting that fits best with Montessori methodology is “authoritative.” This is the parenting style that sets firm but loving boundaries, that encourages emotional intelligence, and talks through challenges with their children. In the best case scenario, this style of parenting does what a Montessori classroom does: it creates a safe container for the child to grow, explore, and make mistakes. The key to all of this is appropriate boundaries.

Many parents hear the word “boundary” and automatically think of something negative or punitive. Many of us harken back to a painful experience we had with our parents, one that, consciously or not, has informed our own parenting with a “I will never recreate that trauma” response. A more helpful illustration is one offered by parenting coach, Kim John Payne in The Soul of Discipline. He describes the importance of boundaries in a natural landscape and how they help inform us and keep us safe. For example, cliffs, rivers, and lakes are natural boundaries that we see and interact with and generally make sense. They are not the random brick walls that follow an arbitrary property line, they have been formed and we can respond to them and stay safe around them by understanding the boundaries they make.

Boundaries for children are the same. They come from the natural boundaries that are formed within every scenario, relationship, and individual that children come in contact with. As parents, we can do our part by creating boundaries for our children that are clear, consistent, that make sense, and that come from something that is built into the family – be it for safety reasons or simply because of commonly held family values. These boundaries, when clearly stated and kindly, routinely reinforced, shape the landscape for our children that help keep them safe and help them know what’s around the bend so they can let go of anxiety over what’s expected and focus on doing the hard (and hopefully fun!) work of growing up.

Because this anxiety can manifest in as many unique ways as there are children (from tantrums, to unkind words, to expressions of fear) it can be hard to recognize that a child’s challenging behavior is due to a lack of clear boundaries. In the classroom, however, we find that the vast majority of the time, with clear and predictable boundaries and expectations, our students can settle down into the real work of the day – academic, social, and emotional learning.

Some keys to setting appropriate and consistent boundaries:

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Especially in a heightened situation, it can be easy to throw out all kinds of threats. Think of the classic example “I will turn this car around!” A statement that comes from frustration or anger will likely only make the situation worse because now you are faced with a choice –  you either have to show your child that you “say what you mean” and turn the car around, likely ending what could be a really nice and needed vacation OR you have to go back on your word and show your child that they cannot rely on you to set firm boundaries, creating opportunities for anxiety and more challenges ahead. If you are able, instead think about what you really mean in a particular situation, so you can proudly stand by your words.

Be understanding and consistent. If you have already set a kind, understandable boundary and it’s time to enforce it, there’s no need to be heavy handed, but there is a need to follow through with what you’ve set down. Sometimes this can look like simply and calmly observing your child’s behavior and making it clear that you understand the challenges they are facing. For example: “I see that you are crying and your body is telling me you feel really upset. I’m so sorry that this is hard for you.” Help them ride the wave of intense emotion, while still sticking with your boundary. In the end, it helps your child know they can rely on you and the container you’ve created.

Create boundaries that make sense for your family. For some, riding bikes inside the house is a serious offense while for others, parents don’t even blink an eye. What matters is that your child understands your family’s boundaries around a certain behavior and that they can expect that boundary to be reinforced consistently. A note about that particular example: it’s really important for children to understand that different spaces and people will have different boundaries. You being kind and clear about the boundaries you have in your home, will help them be resilient in the face of other boundaries they encounter. They will have a good understanding of how to respect others as well as an understanding that boundaries are not punishments to rebel against, but containers and landmarks that allow them to have fun and stay safe.

When your child outgrows a boundary, change it. You don’t need to keep the electrical outlet covers on the outlets forever, eventually they will be able to ride their bike to their friend’s house, and at some point you may not care as much if they eat a bite of their vegetables before dessert. Be flexible and responsive to your child. If you pay attention, you’ll know when to see that they are ready for a new set of boundaries.