Isabelle’s Independence

by Tatiana Luna

I recently posted on Facebook that Isabelle got dressed all by herself one day without our urging.  She has been able to put clothes on by herself for a while, but it was the first time that she went through the whole process on her own initiative.  For only 2 years and 1 month old, I thought that was pretty good.  Besides getting dressed, she has had several other successes recently: she can go through the process of going to the bathroom by herself, and she can wash her hands and face in the sink by herself.

Isabelle picked out this outfit by herself

Inspired by my readings on Montessori, these capabilities came about after Christopher and I changed the set up of our apartment so that she can access more things by herself and do them unaided and even unsupervised now that she’s good at them.  I have rethought many of the spaces that she regularly uses and spends time in, trying to bring more order and create processes around each activity.  I have been thinking a lot about the importance of process–teaching Isabelle an activity is about teaching her a process that has a start and a finish.  Going through the process, such as the process of washing her hands, is what interests her and engages her.  I think it will also teach her to concentrate on one task at a time and complete it before moving on to something else.

Most importantly, I have seen that beautiful look on her face of pride and confidence from completing these tasks by herself, and in general I’ve noticed a visible change in her confidence level, cheerfulness, and willingness to try other things.  She’s always had these qualities, but recently they’ve been pronounced.  It makes me feel really excited too about the possibilities ahead.

We are in a difficult period with Isabelle in which she has been trying to exercise her will with more and more strength — “the terrible two’s” as they say, although I don’t think it’s so terrible– and we have often felt we have to say “no” too much and we have to force her to do things that she used to do willingly and with excitement.  For example, putting her clothes on.  She learned to put her clothes on from her own desire to do it herself, and the first time she got dressed totally by herself she was so proud of it.  But soon after that, this activity lost it’s novelty and suddenly became a chore.  We had to persuade her, urge her, and finally become quite stern (“put your clothes on!”) to get her to get dressed by herself when she needed to have clothes on.  Finally it became clear to me that there was a problem.  I didn’t believe it had to be this way.  Why had this activity lost its fun and interest for her?  Was it because now we were telling her to do it by herself, instead of her initiating the process?  Were we being too rigid about what we expected of her right after she learned this skill, and at such a young age?

I have been inspired before by the Montessori philosophy, especially as I have learned it through my mother-in-law Diane.  I have read snippets of inspiring stuff before, and every time it puts my head on straight about how to interact with Isabelle in a way that helps both of us.  So in response to this feeling of a problem developing between us that was causing bad behavior in Isabelle, last week I perused a few blogs and websites that got my mind turning again. As before, reading about Montessori always makes me think, “that makes so much sense.”  I realized I needed to adapt both my outlook and our specific home to Isabelle’s needs; And I am, in a sense, part of her environment.  Here are a few snippets from a very clear summary of the importance of environment in the Montessori philosophy:

By allowing your child to choose, you are directly supporting their will development, and helping to give them a sense of control and mastery of themselves. This is so important for the development of a healthy self-image and sense of worth. If you have put love and thought into preparing an environment filled with “motives for activity”, then you can sit back and observe your young child making reasoned and deliberate choices, and engaging with their chosen activity to a high degree. This is rarely possible when you are busy orchestrating their day and when the main activities are chosen by you.


A good rule of thumb is to ask these questions: Is my child acting of their own will? Is this activity safe? Is this activity respectful of other people? Is this activity appropriate for this place? Is my child able to do this independently or can I be available to offer assistance if needed? If the answer is yes, then let them be…If the answer is no, then don’t dismiss the activity out of hand. Find a way to make it happen for them so that your answer can be yes! Adapt the environment so that you can allow this freedom for your child.

~At Home with Montessori

With these ideas in mind, I reorganized Isabelle’s toy area, I threw or gave away some things that she doesn’t really play with anymore or that don’t have much value, and I made more Practical Life activities that she can do by herself totally available to her, so that she has the freedom to initiate them herself.

Isabelle's Toy Area

Looks sparse, but each of these activities are ones that she comes back to over and over and they can be adapted to different activities.  This area took some creativity and ingenuity to put together here in China, since some resources readily available in the States are much harder if not impossible to find here, unless we want to shell out a lot of money to buy imported products or just import them ourselves.  As it is, we often settle for low quality stuff, since we know that it is temporary.  Since we’re leaving in a few months, I’ve been trying to improvise with what we have.

This is information on toilet training I wish I’d known much earlier:  But we discovered many of these lessons the hard way, and we finally worked out a system for Isabelle to take more control of the process of going to the bathroom.

Isabelle's toilet

She can put the toilet seat and the stool in place by herself, climb up, turn around and sit down.  Awesome.  Now she just needs to learn to listen to her body and go pee when the feeling calls.  We’re still working on that one.

She can also wash her hands and face by herself in the sink when she stands on a chair, so now we leave that chair there all the time.  I realized I had to teach her to fill up the sink instead of letting the water run, because otherwise she will play with the running water forever.

Now that Isabelle can do all these things by herself, we cannot go backwards.  My largest struggle with her at the moment is to get her to do these things everyday when she needs to do them, not just when she wants to do it as play.  But we are making progress, and it has been very interesting to see how giving her more freedom and responsibility with these activities has changed her attitude towards them for the better.