“Remember no one
can make you feel inferior
without your consent.”
Praising your child won’t get you what you want. Praise and rewards create temporary results.
A baby responds to its mother’s or father’s praise. The baby gets excited tries to keep going seeing how pleased the parents are. The parent’s expression relays an excitement that is motivating to the baby taking its first steps. Around 24 months, the relationship between the parent and child becomes more complex. Praise and rewards can become confusing to the child. That’s because children at this age become sensitive to manipulation and inadvertent patronizing, and begin to question their parent’s motivation for praising them. When a parent continues to praise and offer rewards to a child after 24 months, they can potentially damage their relationship with their child as well as tarnish their child’s self esteem without even realizing it.
In the Montessori classroom, we do not praise the children. Rather, we celebrate their growth and accomplishments with them. We also don’t believe in rewards or punishment, only the consequences of one’s own actions. Dr. Montessori teaches us four important elements that work in place of praise and rewards:
- Self correction
- Emphasis on effort
When my son was two, one of the things he said the most was, “My do it, Mama! No, My do it!” Children want to do things by themselves. They want to do what we do, and deep down they want to please us by being successful. In the Montessori classroom, we watch the children all the time to see what skills they are developing. We present them with activities that appeal to their interests as well as to their capabilities and developmental needs. Then we get out of the way to let them practice.
Pay attention to your child’s developmental level. Allow her to do what she is capable of doing. And be patient. A child’s process is soooo much slower than ours. Letting your child do things by herself, at their own pace, will help build self confidence, and your child will trust that you have her back without taking over. Help without getting in the way. “Help” by supporting rather that doing it for her.
A three and a half year old girl in my class, I’ll call her Maria asked me to show her how to do a complex, 4-layer puzzle depicting the life-cycle of a frog. I showed her how to turn over all the pieces so that she could sort the pieces by number first, stacking up the ones, the twos, etc. I sorted one or two until I could see that she understood the concept, and then I sat quietly while she sorted. When she was ready, I turned over the ones and told her to do those first. There was only 2 pieces so it was easy for her. I pointed to the twos and told her to do those next, the rest come later. She pulled the pile of twos pieces toward her but she only turned one over. She didn’t even look at the image on the puzzle piece. She asked,”Where does this one go?” She wanted me to tell her. I suggested she turn over the rest of the twos. I suggested looking at the image, maybe start with the face of the frog. Maria started to lurch out of her chair, flopping back into it with a grunt, her eyes welling up. I turned over the pieces of the twos and pointed to the face of the frog and pointed to where I thought it went. Maria was still grunting and flopping, ready to throw the puzzle. I suggested she take a break and get a tissue and come back when she was calm. This scenario went on and on. We took deep breaths, I pointed, she worked the puzzle. She cried, she flopped and grunted, she would get a piece in and it was calm for a second as she looked at me. I would nod and smile. The cycle continued! I have no idea how long we were there together in her struggle. She did it. We high-fived and I said, “Phew! That was tricky! You struggled, and you did it.”
That WHOLE thing happened with Maria for the next two days in a row. Each time, I celebrated her effort and her perseverance. Now she does the layer puzzles without my support.
Dr. Montessori designed didactic materials that were self-correcting. The materials have a built in control of error. That means that after the initial lesson, the child teaches himself. The Montessori materials “tell” the child when he has succeeded. Failure is inevitable. The child works alone, doing and re-doing the activity until he gets it right. Failure is part of the lesson. Each time he repeats the activity, he is lengthening his attention span, improving coordination and independence which leads to improved self confidence.
Montessori philosophy emphasizes process over product. Philip, a four and a half year old in my class, struggled and toiled day after day to push through and complete a booklet of addition equations In the Montessori classroom we focus on celebrating or acknowledging only the traits they have the ability to change like strategy or level of effort rather that intelligence.
Phillip took FOREVER to stay focused to work the addition strip board to manage the 15 equations. He worked at staying organized (my version of encouragement sounded like “ooo, look how organized you are today. Yesterday, your strips were all over. Not today!”) He worked on staying on task (My assistant and I would intercept the best friend who would often come over to distract Phillip). He worked so hard for several days, a bit at a time on that booklet. And yet the actual booklet was abandoned. The little stack of papers, stapled together was less important than working the addition strip board and experiencing addition.
Studies show that if you over-praise a child, they actually LOSE motivation. It makes sense when you dig into it: if you get praised for lots of little things, or things that are easy for you, the praise loses its power. An alternative outcome of a child that is over-praised may result in a child that seeks excessive amounts of verbal commendations. Zach is three and a half and he loves to draw “pictures for my mom” every day. When he was ready, I showed him how to make the shapes of some letters with chalk on a green chalkboard. I did a few examples of an “e” and said, “eh eh, like elephant”. He did one lumpy “e” and looked at me. I smiled, raising my eyebrows, “keep practicing.” The next one he did was perfect. “I did it!” I told him he could practice “eh” for a while and then switch to another letter, and that I was moving on to help another friend. Zach did another “e” and another and another and after each time he came over to me seeking my approval. To add a little context, Zach does this for all kinds of activities, not just this one cool thing he’s done for the first time. He expects praise after every accomplishment. He doesn’t look to himself for validation, he looks to the adults, and to his best friend and truthfully to anyone passing by.
If a child perceives your words of praise to be insincere, he will likely dismiss the praise altogether. And if the praise is perceived as manipulative, the child can begin to question if you’re trustworthy which may cause a rift in your relationship. A child is more likely to behave in the way that you request or suggest if he trusts you and if he thinks you trust him. I like this article from Parenting Science about the effects of praise.
In Nurture Shock, the authors relay the study done by Carol Dweck in which she studied groups of 5th graders and the effects of performance when their intelligence is praised and alternatively when their effort was praised. The children who were praised for their intelligence didn’t work as hard on the second test. The children who were praised for their effort tried just as hard, or harder on the second test.
When you celebrate with your child
- Be specific
- State the facts, rather than opinion
- Focus on their effort and their strategy
- Set them up for success
- Don’t compare them to anyone else
- Focus on the process and not the final product
The Self-esteem of a child is a delicate thing. We want our children to grow up to be self-confident adults, therefore we need to celebrate with them in ways that have long lasting results.