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Do you say "good boy", "well done" or "good job" to your children? Do you remember your parents and teachers praising you? Is there a Montessori way to praise? In this blog post, we will talk about the issues with praise and the Montessori alternative to praise.
"Eventually we gave up either punishing or rewarding the children."
—Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood.
Praising is something that is commonly recommended to parents. Praise the good behaviour to encourage your child to keep that good behaviour.
It seems a good advice but is it? Is it the best way to encourage our children?
Praise is simply a "verbal reward". A reward is something that you give to your child when he has been good or has done something that you wanted him to do. We also promise a reward if our child complies and even praise, for example, some might say "mummy will be so happy if...". We also threaten to remove that reward and praise "daddy will be mad at you if...".
When we praise our children, we encourage them to do an action to please us.
The more we praise them, the less they act on their own accord, guiding by their inner guide and the more they behave "just to receive our approval".
Rewards and punishments are ... the worst enemies of the natural development of the child. The jockey gives sugar to his horse before the race, but applies spurs and the whip when there is lagging. Still, do any of these methods induce the animal to run as swiftly and as superbly as the horse of the plains?" Maria Montessori, 1915
Obviously, when we praise, we have good intentions. At least, it's positive and we want to show our children that we value their efforts.
But the truth is that our children have an inner drive. They want to learn, they want to explore, they want to figure things out. Maria Montessori observed that some children were even upset when the adults were congratulating them after they had completed a piece of materials.
A child doesn't learn to walk to please us, he will walk because he is meant to move! He will learn to read because he wants to read books. He will dress up because he wants to become independent.
Montessori encouraged us to nurture that intrinsic or internal motivation. We provide self-correcting materials for that reason. If the child can check his work, then he doesn't need the adult's approval to keep learning. Praising does the opposite, it reinforces "external motivation".
“Those actions came to be seen as not as something valuable in their own right
but as something the children had to get that reaction again from an adult”.
- Alfie Kohn
Maybe you have observed that praise works with your children! You see your child looking at you with a big smile when you say "good girl". She even waits for you to say something or asks "am I a good girl, mummy?"
The reason praise work in the short term is that young children are hungry for our approval. After all, our mammal brain is wired to make our children bond with us, and approval is one way to be recognized by peers or parents. We are social beings and our children need to be attached to us for their own survival.
But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience.
Praising your child also reinforces the idea of “conditional love”.
“Good job” is a judgement of your child’s work. Good Boy or Good girl a judgement of your child’s worth. What praise may communicate is “I love you because you’ve done well”.
Note that being proud of your child or celebrating with your child is not the same as praising your child in order to obtain good behaviour.
Also, the more we praise our children, the more they rely on us to judge if they have done well.
Many studies have shown that praising hinders "spontaneous generous behaviours". Children, even young toddlers, don't need us to point out each of their good behaviours. When they comfort a friend who has hurt himself, they will have a direct feed-back from that friend and that will be enough. We are pre-wired to display empathy and if our children have good role-model, aka us their parents, they will display good behaviours.
Another famous study (M. Budd. Rowe - 1982) has demonstrated that the children who are praised often hesitated to answer the questions, by fear of getting it wrong and therefore not to be praised.
People who are praised are also less likely to carry on challenging tasks, preferring the easy tasks to make sure they receive praise.
The more you praise children, the more they seem to need praise to function.
If we use blanket praise, we risk raising a praise junkie child who will become a praise junkie adult, needing constant approval from superiors and relatives.
Children are well able to make their own judgement if given the tools. For example, if you offer Montessori material and toys and activities that are self-correcting then your child will be able to learn from his mistakes and corrects them himself without an adult input. He will develop his ability to judge any situation. He will have a better self-esteem and grows his own confidence.
Unfortunately, many of us have been raising by parents who were praising us for every opportunity. It is better than punishing us but we can still do better.
Praising might be so ingrained in us that the words will come out of our mouth before we had time to think about it!
So how to move from praising to something more purposeful?
Let me reassure, you can still value your child's efforts and show her how much you are proud. But there are way to do this in a way that is purposeful and doesn't impact their inner motivation. Descriptive praise is key! Try one of the following Montessori inspired alternatives to praise.
• Notice what your child is doing and describe what you see:
Instead of “what a beautiful colouring! Well done!” say, “You are colouring with lots of colour”. Instead of “Good girl” while your daughter is playing quietly with her tea set, say “I can see that you have make tea for you and your dolly”.
• Ask questions if they seem to expect a praise:
While your child shows you her drawing, expecting a “well done”, comment with “I see that you did a colouring, tell me more about it? What did you draw? And what is it there in green?”
• Smile genuinely without the need to comment or to talk:
Montessori teachers are notorious for being discreet in the classroom. When you introduce your child to a new activity, just show it to your child. There is no need to talk. Children under the age of 6 are so much in a sensitive period for language that, if you talk, they will focus on what you say and not what you show them. When they practice the activity, smile at them. It is enough of an approval.
• Ask your child how he feels about his own achievement:
If your child has completed a task, or comes back from nursery with a sticker and let you know what he did, ask him “how did it feel when you were first in the race?” “how does it make you feel to have built a gigantic tower?”.
• When your child has been helpful, and you want him to know this:
Let him know of the effects of his “generous or good” behaviour. “thank you for setting the table, it makes my life so much easier while I was cooking”. “thank you for cutting the vegetables, it really helps me to make the sauce quicker”, “thank you for choosing a quiet
activity while I was feeding your sister. Now she is asleep, we have time to play together”.
• Model self-praise:
Say to yourself out loud when you are proud of yourself! “wow, I made a big effort today and I cooked a yummy dinner!”. “I have finished this work on time, I was super organized today”. “I feel good today as I ticked most of the things of my to do list”.
• Never mix praise with a put down and don’t use praise to compare siblings
I’m proud of you dressing up by yourself “for once”. “You have tidied up your bedroom, are you feeling good about it? You are not like your brother who is so messy!”
• Provide activities that are self-correcting and encourage your child to check his work. If the material is self-correcting, the child will not need your approval. If your child is not sure he has done well, for example with his homework, encourage him to double check his answers, to use a dictionary to verify his spelling and so on.
• Transition from Good job to “you did it”
In the beginning, when you are used to say “good job”, “good boy”, “good girl”, you can use “You did it” when you child is seeking for your approval for doing something. The emphasis is on the action, there is no judgement (as if the table is still wet or dirty, you don’t judge, you
just say a statement).
• Praise the effort not the outcome
“I see that you work very hard to clean the window” instead of “thanks for cleaning the windows”.
• Join in his joy to achieve:
“I am so happy for you!” “You must be proud of yourself” “let’s celebrate”
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Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.
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