"The greatest gifts we can give our children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence." Dr. Maria Montessori
You bring your own biases as a parent
If you’ve ever come across confident kids, not just outwardly vocal, attention seeking kids, but deeply confident kids, it’s because they’ve been raised with roots and wings hand-in-hand.
Whatever your background, as a child you’ll have experienced parents who you believe either erred towards being too controlling or too light touch. We all have a natural tendency, partly born from our individual characters and partly from our upbringing that will bend us towards raising kids in one way or another . But the secret to parenting successfully and raising confident kids is getting the balance of both of these right.
Your kids need you to bring a balance
This is why that Maria Montessori quote is so helpful. Her reference to roots of responsibility reminds me of kids’ need for security, for unconditional love and support, and yes, responsibilities. It’s what keeps them anchored, free of peer pressure, sure of their own principles when times get tough, and the comfort of your embrace as a place of safety when the storm comes.
In contrast, wings are vital if you want to raise kids that are bold and adventurous, willing to step out of their own comfort zone, take risks and defend those who are marginalised. There’s no amount of telling your kids how good they are or will be, if they’re never put in a position where they might fail. It’s easy to mistake self-esteem for confidence, believing that we’ve equipped our kids for flying because they’ve got strong roots and we’ve told them how wonderful their wings are compared to all the other children.
But self-esteem doesn’t tell us what to do when those first flaps falter, when we’re falling rather than soaring or when we don’t immediately become experts in something. There’s only so much encouragement that can take place in the nest, before kids need to be challenged out in the real world, confronting failure and learning how to handle it.
The beauty of these two strains of great parenting is that while they appear to be opposites, you can’t raise great kids without both. There’s no point giving your kids a sense of security to launch from if you’re never going to let them launch. There’s no point giving them strong principles that anchor them if they’ll never experience a storm to put those principles to the test. Likewise, the wings of independence will only cause your child harm if they exist without the confidence that they are loved unconditionally and have the security of a place to return to when they fail.
Don't be an over controlling parent
Living with this knowledge that roots must come with wings reminds me not to be controlling for control’s sake. It’s all too easy to get caught laying down boundaries because I’m fed up, tired or just want some space.
A lot of the wing clipping happens because I don’t want to deal with the consequences when things go wrong. “You’re not doing drawing right now.” is something I might say not because I have some other responsibility for them, or because I want them to discover how to use their time in some other way, it’s because I don’t want to tidy up in five minutes time when they’re bored. Or I don’t want to be cleaning pen off the wall when I’m busy doing other things. In short, I catch myself not wanting them to fly, because I don’t want to pick up the pieces that come with the fall. It’s often easier to just say no and so as not to have to deal with the root-deepening that must come afterwards i.e. disciplining them for drawing on the walls, or getting them to come back and draw under my watchful eye for another 10 minutes to teach them about contentment.
That’s not to say that being tired or needing space are bad reasons for saying “no” to our kids - there are important lessons for kids to learn about not meeting their every whim and demand and you can read about the importance of saying 'no' here.
But why we say ‘no’ should be an important check on the heart of any parent: am I saying no because I’m using this to develop my child’s roots (their responsibilities or their principles), or am I saying no because I don’t want to spend the time deepening their roots when things come crashing down afterwards?
Don't be a passive parent
In contrast, the reminder that wings must come with roots is an important check on passively saying yes to my kids because they’ve ground me down.
As easy as it can feel to say ‘no’, it can also feel easy to just ‘give in’ and say yes. That’s because building roots constructively and going to the effort of explaining ‘why not’ is hard work. Releasing your kids to do the thing they’ve asked you to do can feel like you’re unburdening yourself, like you’re temporarily outsourcing their learning to the world and taking a breather. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s part of the grace of this whole process. That desire for space ourselves will naturally encourage us to push our kids outward into the world.
But while it may be true that there’s a blessing in giving your kids wings to explore because your total focus on them is no longer needed, giving your kids independence doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Independence should only be given with a deliberate ‘yes’ that not only gives license for freedom and adventure but is underpinned by the conviction that if your child returns to you with a grazed knee your first words won’t be “I told you to…”.
Giving my child license to roam and explore with deliberateness, means making sure they know that whatever happens, they can come back to me afterwards for love and support. And that whatever happens I’ve prepared myself for loving them unconditionally when they return to share with me their thrills and their failures.
Challenge your natural tendencies as a parent
And that’s what I think Montessori is getting at. It’s easy to adopt a parenting stance (there is after all a theory and an ‘approach’ to anything you like) that embraces our natural tendencies (controlling / passive) and afford ourselves the excuse that what we’re doing is best for our kids. But wherever you are on this particular spectrum, it’s important to be honest with yourself, to challenge your natural tendencies and afford your children the balance of roots and wings that will truly help them thrive.