Freedom with Responsibility: Setting Limits

Freedom with responsibility is defined as a person’s ability to make responsible societal choices and then to have the discipline to carry those choices out. This ability to live in a responsible manner doesn’t just naturally spring up at a magical age. Instead, it is a learned behavior.

There are times when we as adults feel defeated for the day. Our minds are too tired and to foggy (not even coffee will help) to come up with the ‘right’ answers. We might think to ourselves, “If only my child was capable of taking on more.” This is your lucky day! Because your children (and your students) are capable of so much more than you give them credit for.

In times like this, I often refer to a retired Montessori teacher named “Mr. Mark.” I had the privilege of working with and learning from him for over the last 15 years. When addressing moments of defeat in my classroom, I often ask myself, what does Mr. Mark say?

Mr. Mark once told me, “Children are an infinite resource.” What exactly does this mean? As a teacher, I have reflected on this idea often. I have also learned from it through my classroom experience. During times of feeling defeated – when my mind was too tired or too foggy to find an answer – I would hand it over to my students to find a solution for us. I am happy to report, my students have yet to let me down. When I have expected them to do more, or to take on more responsibility, they have freely proven up to the challenge.

The Absorbent Mind

The Absorbent Mind takes its title from the phrase coined by Dr. Maria Montessori to characterize the child’s most crucial developmental stage: Years one through six. Montessori has become synonymous with child development theory worldwide. Thousands of public and private schools across the nation have adopted the Montessori Method of teaching in response to our crisis in American education.

The absorbent mind is the sponge-like capacity to absorb from the environment what is necessary to create an individual from their specific culture. Dr. Montessori believed the mind developed like this up to the age of about six, when there is a transition to the reasoning mind we have as adults. Dr. Montessori explored the idea of freedom within this crucial text. She wrote:

“Free choice is one of the highest of all the mental processes. Only the child deeply aware of his need for practice and for the development of his spiritual life can really be said to choose freely. It is not possible to speak of free choice with all kinds of external stimuli, attract a child at the same time and having no will power he responds to every call, passing restlessly from one thing to another.”

Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Our Knowledge and Reason

In a social context, freedom requires an autonomous person to act out of knowledge and reason rather than out of impulse. A responsible member of society understands the consequences of their actions before the choice is made and will use this to inform their decisions.

Freedom with Responsibility

The realization of freedom and the understanding of responsibility are what Dr. Montessori referred to as ‘points of arrival.’ These are very difficult ideas for children to understand. When given freedom, children need to be assisted by adults to develop responsibility.

The task of helping a child recognize and take on responsibility belongs to both caregivers and educators. It begins first within the environment of their home, then into the classroom and finally it should continue toward our wider society.

Setting Limits As Adults

During the later elementary years, children will begin to explore their place as members of society. Ideally, children will know their family will act as a safety net to them as they venture into wider society.

Adults need to be very clear about the limits they are setting. They cannot just say to the child go out and explore the world. They have to be clear about how far children can explore.
At the same time, friendships will seem to become more important than their relationships at home. Children need to continue to understand they have a social obligation to their family.

Limits are set for safety. Nature is pushing children to assert themselves. For instance, a child might become untidy and messy or even slovenly. They may even dislike washing. It is important to be aware of these things and to set limits through reason and compromise.
To give a child freedom means trusting the child. Children have within them both the potential and the directives necessary for their own unique development.

Encourage them to practice the humility of which Dr. Montessori spoke of throughout her writings. In my classroom I remind my students,

“Practice humility, not humiliation.”


If we provide freedoms and put in place tools for developing responsibility, then children will become aware of their responsibility for their own thoughts, judgments and actions. When the next time comes, your child will pause before impulsively blurting out. And they will think twice about saying unkind words.

Remember, you’ve got this!

Read More:

Values Matter: Using your Values to Raise Caring Responsible Resilient Children 
by The Center for Parenting Education

Divide and Conquer Household Chores
by Annie Stuart

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Language Educational Game:
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