How to offer your elementary children as little help as they really need.

Last week we talked about supporting children between the ages of 2.5-5 in growing their independent skills. This week, we're focusing on the next stage, children between ages 6-9.

There's a remarkable thing that happens right around age 6. Children begin to loose their baby teeth, gain a logical abstract thinking mind, and throw everything you say right out the window.

In Montessori, this transition is the change from the first plane (ages 0-6) to the second plane (6-12). There is such a huge shift in the way this human now sees the world, communicates, and learns, that she needs a whole new environment to support her. As a result, elementary classrooms are more peer and group focused than Primary classrooms, have way more information and resources available to the children, and have a much higher expectation of self-directed work.

This plane is called the age of reason. Your child will be testing her new logical thinking powers, and will not take your advice at face value (or at all). She needs to reach that conclusion herself. Your job is to minimize the long-term serious consequences, NOT protect her from mistakes. Ex: Let her fall down if she miscalculated a jump, but not so far she breaks her legs. Your child now needs less help with physical independence, and is hungry for intellectual and emotional independence. Elementary age children are developing a conscience, and establishing a value and belief system through every social interaction. They need lots of unstructured time with their peers, opportunities for increased responsibility at home and in the community, and autonomy. Be sure you are offering many opportunities for responsibility of themselves, in the family, and in your community.

How to offer you elementary children as little help as they really need.

Continue to enforce environmental controls, limits, and expectations, but put the responsibility back on your older children for their actions, behavior, and choices. No nagging, reminders, guilt trips, bribes, or empty punishments. Use real life examples like issuing “warning” tickets, or organizing a town hall style family meeting to discuss infractions. Allow your child to feel the full weight of consequences for their actions (within reason). Restrict freedoms as needed (like temporarily revoking a license if you prove you aren’t fit to drive), and clearly state what your child needs to do for the freedom to return.

Stop interfering. This is hard! Your job is not to fix anything, or offer solutions. Instead, guide your children HOW to solve and fix problems by walking them through logical problem solving steps if they are stuck, and offering possible solutions only when they can’t come to them on their own.

At no point do you say “Here’s how you solve that.” Offer questions, not answers. The elementary age child needs to practice her reasoning skills and learn how to work through a problem. Ask guiding questions like: Where could you find out more about that? Have you checked the dictionary? The goal is to teach your children how to handle future problems in a confident, responsible way. Providing answers and solutions undermines this process.

Ex: I can’t find my socks. “Where did you have them last? Where have you looked?” Don’t “rescue” your children from the consequences of their actions, especially the small ones. (don’t go find their socks for them or immediately buy new socks).

Do offer honest, real answers to questions your child can’t easily look up or answer, ex: death, sexuality, human culture, ethics, etc.

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Model values and behavior. The six year old is very sensitive to values and highly impressionable. Be sure you are walking your talk and provide a clear model of behavior. You better believe your child is watching your every move and will call you out for being a hypocrite! The work of this age is all about understanding social structures, “how do I fit in with other around me?” including communication, power, cooperation, persuasion, fairness, and right/wrong. Guide your child to express negative emotions in an appropriate, healthy way (ie: excusing yourself when you are upset, apologizing, expressing anger without hurting others or things, etc) This is best explained after the fact, when both of you are calm. I highly recommend using needs and feelings to express your emotions.

Encourage empathy, critical thinking, and respectful arguing by playing devil’s advocate to challenge your child's current conclusions—whether you agree or not. Ask a lot of questions, or present conflicting facts or points of view. Beware of your own judgments and assumptions.

Stress the difference between facts and opinions. Facts are non-negotiable, and can be proven. Opinions must be respected, and good opinions have reasoning behind them (from facts).

Ex: You can't tell a person who says they don't like peas that they are wrong. That's an opinion, not a fact. You can, however, persuade them that peas are indeed delicious.

Teach your children any missing skills or tools that they need to solve their problems or meet a goal. This could be using a index, how to fold a shirt, how to phrase your emotions, etc. Follow these problem solving steps to break down a big idea together:

Problem solving steps:

  • Identify what you want to do, and why.

  • Consider what a successful outcome looks like. (These steps might be intuitive and quick.)

  • Brainstorm the steps to get there (I like the little card method for big projects)

  • Organize the steps into a logical order.

  • Decide on what you need to do, any materials, and do it.

See how I guided a six year old to design, plan, and implement his garden project here. 

Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. You can always contact her for personalized support and answers to your questions.  Schedule a free 20 minute info session here.