“You can do it all by yourself!”
“You’re a big girl (or boy)!”
These are phrases I commonly hear adults saying to children in the primary hallway of our Montessori school. I teach the older kids upstairs, but Gus is in the toddler program, so I spend a fair amount of time there.
I admit I take issue with phrases like these and sometimes cringe when I hear them. These phrases are often used to encourage a child to do something independently. Letting a child be independent and not interfering with their independence is at the heart of Montessori.
If a young child is not putting on their shoes when they’re suppose to, an adult might say, “You can do it, you’re a big boy!” But what if the child still struggles with their shoes? Or what if the child isn’t feeling up for putting their shoes on?
My belief is that general phrases like these are harmful because they end up undermining children’s feelings and how they might be experiencing a physical or emotional hurdle at any moment. I also don’t like the underlying message that when you’re big you handle things alone and you don’t need help. Also, what does it mean for the child who struggles? What does it mean not to be big?
I refuse to use this language with Gus. I will often say, “You need help with that” or “You don’t feel like putting your shoes on today. Let me help you get started.”
Gus often asks for me to carry him to his cubby in the morning. I have struggled with pushing him to walk on his own and honoring his request. Gus is shy and slow to warm up to the day. When he asks to be picked up, my feeling is that he truly needs the extra support because he is feeling anxious or overwhelmed. At the same time, I do want to urge him to walk on his own so that he sees he can work through it. Usually, Gus and I pick a halfway point like the water fountain where I set him down, and he walks the rest of the way. I can’t imagine saying, “Walk, you’re big!” I know that he’s not feeling big, but quite the opposite.
I feel the looks of disapproval from colleagues when they see me carry Gus day after day. But I refuse to push Gus to be big or to be anything before he is ready.
Last night Gus asked me to go to his room to retrieve a toy. I told him no and that he had to get the toy if he wanted it. Then he shouted angrily, “No Mommy! I want you to do it all by yourself!” He shouted this demand several times. It felt terrible.
I know that Gus learned this phrase at school. I didn’t like the anger in his voice. It makes me think that these words aren’t just hard for me, but for him, too.