Ever wonder why your toddler insists on carrying an oversized lawn chair across your backyard or meticulously scoops each individual pea onto her spoon? Your child is experiencing an inner drive to expend heightened mental or physical energy in order to reach her fullest potential, a moment coined by Dr. Montessori as maximum effort. These natural inner drives occur without any interference (and oh, how amazing they are to witness!), but as parents, we can also support our child’s maximum effort at home.
A cornerstone of Montessori, observation provides an invaluable amount of understanding of your child’s current passions and skills, to name just a couple. When it comes to supporting maximum effort, observation allows you to know where your child’s abilities currently lie in order to provide invitations of further challenge. Before my son Eli could walk, around eleven months old, he was an avid stair climber. Wanting to provide another opportunity for him to reach maximum effort with his climbing, we introduced a four-step step stool.
The new challenge of the step stool was the steepness as well as open risers. As we stood by and observed, Eli challenged himself day after day to climb higher and higher. At first, he’d ask for assistance on how to climb back down, but before long, he would independently climb to the top of the step stool and then make his way back down, grinning with pride before starting again. Nothing like watching an infant, still months away from walking, climb to a height above your head. Talk about maximum effort!
Waiting until your child asks for help when working on a task gives him space to reach maximum effort. Watching your child struggle is never easy. They may even grunt or fuss or stomp in frustration, and in those moments, biting your tongue or observing instead of acting seem impossible, but giving your child the space and time to struggle gifts him so much more than your offer to help. He is learning perseverance, gaining confidence, and discovering the height of his capabilities.
Recently, Eli, just over two years old, is on a mission to independently put on his t-shirt, and it’s definitely a maximum effort task. To say there are moments when he gets frustrated is an understatement: at times, his face turns bright red in his focused struggle. However, until he asks for help, we simply stand by or offer simple words of encouragement (“almost,” “you did it,” “one more sleeve to go”). If he does ask for help, we try to provide the least amount of assistance to once again provide him the space to obtain his goal independently. For example, when he struggles and asks for help with his shirt sleeves, we may simply say, “let’s look in the mirror to find the sleeve hole.” Our role is to be present to guide, not to step in to complete the task.
I saved the trickiest one for last, and it’s the most challenging because it seems to be the farthest outside of the “social norm” box: we have to stop making assumptions regarding a young child’s capabilities. Thoughts such as “that slide is too high,” “this object is too fragile,” and “this box is too heavy,” only limit opportunities of maximum effort. I have also witnessed well-meaning adults say to Eli, “if you don’t hold the stair rail, you will fall” or “if you use the table knife, you will cut yourself, “ and in these moments, it’s not just maximum effort opportunities that are affected, but his confidence in his own abilities.
There’s a lot of observation and trust of the child that must happen to keep an open mind, for sure, and if you are fearful by nature (like me), it’s not easy; observation and trust take practice. When Eli is pushing my own level of comfort, I give him facts, not assumptions: “here is the edge of the slide’s platform,” “the floor is wet and may be slippery,” “the stairs are steep,” “the blade of the table knife is sharp,” etc. He receives information about his environment, and I trust him to make any necessary changes as he works through his self-initiated challenge.
Fostering maximum effort in even the youngest of children is laying the foundation for self-awareness, perseverance, confidence, and focus, characteristics which will guide the child throughout her adult life. We may simply see a young child carrying a full pitcher of water carefully across a room, but in that moment of maximum effort, she feels capable, powerful, and trusted. And oh, there is no limit to what an individual could accomplish with that inner voice on repeat.
About the Author
A once-upon-a-time high school English teacher, Lindsay fell in love with the Montessori method, her husband, and her sons, Eli (2 yrs old) and baby boy due in June, in that order. She loves this beautiful beast of a job called motherhood. Her days are now filled with songs and silliness, playdates and nap times, library trips and pool dips, walks around the block and crawls around the house, a lot of firsts and even more number twos. And she wouldn’t trade a moment for anything. Find her at This Merry Montessori.
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