This is the sixth in our series on communication, Speaking the Child’s Language.
Some years ago, I was debating Montessori theory with an outsider. He was critical of the method: somehow, he got the impression that Montessori education tends to produce children who are too stubborn, who talk back and argue often, who insist on being independent and doing things their own way. Well, yes, I allowed, a child growing up in a Montessori environment might be more likely to exhibit all of these tendencies, but why is that a bad thing?
I believe that as a culture, we need to rethink our view of “the stubborn child”. An obedient and submissive child is, of course, easier to “deal with” throughout the family’s daily life; pleasant to be around in society, impressive to friends and acquaintances. He is easy; he is often called good. Does this make the challenging, stubborn child bad?
We don’t think so. We believe that the same stubborn streak that may be so frustrating during a challenging parenting moment is actually a treasure and a gift. A tool that can serve your child incredibly well throughout life, provided they learn to wield it properly. Think of the words we use to describe strong-willed children – “stubborn, disobedient, obstinate” and contrast them with the ones we use to describe adults: “determined, high-achieving, steadfast, tenacious”.
Think of the tendency to dogged stubbornness as the child’s motor, or muscle. They don’t need to weaken it, to pretend it doesn’t exist; they do however badly need to learn to direct and control it. This ability, broadly, is what modern psychology likes to call “cognitive executive functioning”; its development is slowly, finally beginning to creep into mainstream educational goals and desired outcomes. Unsurprisingly, Montessori was far ahead of the curve with her notions of self-mastery and true obedience that form the spine of our educational work to this day.
All of this is to say: if you have a very stubborn child, one who is often oppositional, who argues and fights with you, take a deep breath. This is a great thing. Be proud of her. Be optimistic about her future. And read on for more thoughts on the challenge of parenting her, and finally practical tips on how to handle the not-so-great moments now, how to support her positive development, and how to help her get a handle on all of her strength.
The stubborn child exhibits a great need to assert herself. She wants to influence her environment, to have control over her own body and activities, to have her voice be heard. She wants to make choices and have those choices be respected.
We all want and need these things, obviously; they are universally human. We do differ in the intensity and urgency with which we need them, however; and in our ability to get those needs met. Children who are by nature more quiet or compliant might to be content with less of such self-expression, or they might value the affection and approval of their parents more than the ability to have their own way and are therefore more forgiving in this regard. What is important is to remember that the stubborn child is not unreasonable or unnatural in her drives and desires. She deserves to have them met.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean that she should be allowed to mistreat others, be domineering over her friends, or behave in ways that are rude, inappropriate and disrespectful towards others. But we cannot get her to stop acting as such by punishing her nature or controlling her. Parents and teachers are not masters or owners of children: our duty is to guide, show and encourage the positive.
Over and over, in Montessori we repeat the simple truth that the best way of learning is by doing; that the best way to teach is to create safe opportunities for trial and error, experiment and experience. And that the best way to encourage positive behaviour is to role-model it.