“As a rule,” Maria Montessori wrote, “we do not respect our children.” She spent much of her life seeking to change that. Dr. Montessori advocated for parents and educators to respect children as whole individuals with work worthy of completing. A century later, the Montessori principle of respect remains one of Dr. Montessori’s greatest legacies.
In this article, we’ll explore what Dr. Montessori taught about respecting children and what it looks like to respect their work. Additionally, we’ll touch on how abiding by this principle can help parents form a positive, lifelong relationship with their children.
Respecting the Child as an Individual
Dr. Montessori taught that learning how to respect the child was “essential and fundamental, something we should learn from the first day.” Respecting children, she said, was more than respecting them just morally and theoretically.
“I mean it literally: children must be respected as social, human personalities of the first order,” she wrote. “We treat these children as objects, ordering them about, placing them here and there, and forcing them to fit into our world without the slightest consideration of the lives they live in a world of their own.”
If you’re a parent, you likely don’t need any reminders that children live in a different world than adults. Children have unique needs and perspectives that should be respected rather than scoffed at or disregarded. We shouldn’t force children to live in an adult world but change our adult world to be more accommodating to our children’s needs, if even just in the microcosm of our homes.
Dr. Montessori believed that children deserved as much respect as adults — if not more. “Children are human beings to whom respect is due,” she wrote, “superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.”
Respecting a child may be uncommon, but it is simple. “What we desire they desire also,” Dr. Montessori wrote. Just like adults, she wrote, children want companionship, equality, trust, and to be undisturbed in their work. Parents and educators show their respect by listening to children, wholly trusting them, and valuing their work.
Respecting the Child’s Work
Respecting the child means respecting their work, even if we don’t fully understand it, and never interrupting it. In Montessori, a child’s work refers to everything they do to learn, including exploring materials, engaging with practical life activities, and playing with toys.
“Children live in a world of their own interests, and the work they do there must be respected, for although many activities of children may seem pointless to grown-ups, nature is using them for her own ends,” Dr. Montessori wrote. “She is building mind and character as well as bone and muscle.”
As parents, it can be easy to dismiss a child’s work. We may feel annoyed when our children insist on completing tasks on their own (especially when we know it would be easier and faster if we did it ourselves.) It’s easy to lose our patience when our children need to play with a toy in the exact same way over and over. While our children thoughtfully observe or explore something outside, we may feel tempted to rush them.
But a recurrent theme in Montessori’s teachings is that children know exactly how to unfold and develop with minimal adult intervention. She called this a child’s “inborn powers for self-formation.” We may be older than our children, but we don’t know what they need to develop more than they themselves do.
When we respect our children, we trust in their work. Starting from infancy, we can show this trust by refraining from interrupting them when they’re concentrated.
The Fruits of the Montessori Principle of Respect
Dr. Montessori made it clear that children should be respected simply because they deserve it as whole, capable human beings. We shouldn’t respect our children just because we want to see certain results in their behavior or attitude. But when we do authentically respect our children, we can see amazing results.
For one, children who receive respect also give respect. Dr. Montessori observed that, when teachers treated children with kindness and respect, the children were kind and respectful in turn. Forming respectful relationships with children gives them a model of healthy relationships that they can follow as they grow.
Respecting children empowers them to be confident and independent. When we respect their work, we help them preserve their natural ability to concentrate. Arguably the most important benefit is that respecting children helps us build a mutually respectful relationship with them.
How the Montessori Principle of Respect Can Improve Your Family Relationships
Applying the Montessori principle of respect doesn’t just create children who can focus and respectfully engage with their peers. It creates adult-child relationships that are mutually joyful and beneficial.
When we’re respectful with our children, they feel our trust and love for them. They know that we listen to them, see them, and value their experiences. When life gets hard, they know they can come to us. This becomes especially invaluable as our children grow and face the challenges of adolescence and adulthood.
Magda Gerber, who spent her life teaching parents to respectfully engage with their children, wrote: “A respectful beginning is an investment in the future of the relationship between your child and you, your child and others, and in your child’s exploration of the world.”
What benefits have you seen from respecting your children? Let us know in the comments below!