Praise won’t get you what you want

“Remember no one

can make you feel inferior

without your consent.”

—Eleanor Roosevelt


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:

  • Independence
  • Self correction
  • Encouragement
  • 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.

I point when helping a boy work a four-layer life cycle of a butterfly puzzle.

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.


The addition strip board

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.

how to keep your cool part 2: at work

Sometimes all I really want to feel is love.

Sometimes I’m angry that I feel so angry.

Sometimes my feelings get in the way

of what I really feel I needed to say.

Modest Mouse-The Sad Parts.


Part 2: keeping calm at work

(to read part 1: keeping calm at home, please follow this link)


As I started to feel more centered at home, naturally I was able to feel more calm in the classroom. Although, yelling wasn’t really an issue at school, staying calm and centered was.

I observed myself through the day.  

I watched for triggers. What was happening when my jaw would tighten or my voice would change tone? When my shoulders would tighten? Here’s the short list:

  • When a child doesn’t get what he wants and so he throws a loud, emotional “tantrum.”
  • When a child chooses to ignore or disrespect either an adult, or another child.
  • When a child interrupts me when I am speaking to either an adult, or another child.

Analyzing the emotional triggers allows me to look at the whole picture.  Once I have identified the trigger within myself, I am often able to let it go before it comes up.

Let’s break it down.

How do I stay calm when a little kid throws a tantrum when she doesn’t get what she wants?

The first thing that is important to understand about tantrums:

All of the child’s feelings are important.

All of the child’s feelings are ok. (even if we don’t like how they are reacting)


Here’s a  list of a child’s fundamental needs from the lobby at work.

I don’t know if it’s new, or if I just noticed it for the first time while waiting for my lunch to warm up in the microwave.  I like it because the list describes what every human wants.  

I think people sometimes forget that children are just tiny humans trying to navigate the world just like we adults.

If a child is expressing his or her feelings loudly and disruptively, as adults, we often get triggered.  We feel embarrassed, frustrated or angry, maybe out of control. Typically the child wants something and we want something different.


Here’s a mental checklist that guides me:

  1. Check in with myself
  2. Remember that today is a NEW day
  3. Listen and acknowledge the child’s feelings
  4. State the expectations
  5. Allow the feelings
  6. It’s not personal
  7. It will pass


When you check in with yourself, it’s helpful to have a mantra or maybe a visualization to help you stay calm. What children need when they’re feeling out of sorts is a calm, confident leader.  Children don’t know what to do with all of those big feelings, and so you need to be the calm and confident one.  Believe me,  children can smell doubt, so be strong.  My mantra comes from one of my favorite child care authors, Janet Lansbury: 

She’s awesome. She has a helpful website and several books like No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and  Elevating Childcare, a Guide to Respectful Parenting; however, I am a huge fan of the podcast.

In fact, the title of her podcast is my go-to mantra: Unruffled.  I recommend the podcast to assistants in my classroom. When attempting to help or redirect a child who is freaking out about something (usually because the child is wanting to do something that he’s not supposed to and needs to be redirected) I imagine myself wearing a pretty white cotton sundress.  I take a deep breath and as I exhale and put my shoulders back, I imagine all of the wrinkles falling out of the dress. I try to relax into a calm and confident place before approaching the child.


I added today is a new day to my checklist a few months ago, when I saw this video from the Association Montessori International (AMI) website.  In it, the woman suggests that, as parents and teachers, if we hold on to yesterday’s drama and conflict, not only is it a disservice to the child, it may also cause the conflict to continue.  So saying “ugh, here we go again! He always does this…” could be making it more likely to continue.  Holding on to something—some behavior a child did yesterday—could potentially perpetuate the undesired behavior. So let yesterday go and treat the moment as the first time.

When a child disagrees with you (aka throws a tantrum) you must remember that all his feelings are ok. His feelings are normal.

Now, what the child does with his or her feelings, that’s another thing.

In the photo series above, I told Helen, “It looks like you’re done with this map. Your pencils are all over the place and you keep walking away.”

Helen threw herself on the floor and yelled at me, telling me “no.” I held the line, reminding her that she could put the work away and do the rest in the afternoon or tomorrow.  When she’d finished expressing her displeasure with me and she had  purged her “emotional backpack,”aka tantrum,  and she was calm enough to hear me, I calmly and confidently asked how I could help to put part of the map away.  She’s so fiercely  independent, which I love, that she said I could help by just watching.


When a child interrupts me I feel, what? Annoyed. Rushed. Disrespected. The strategies I use in the classroom for interrupting are the same ones, basically, that I use at home.

If I can, I start with a proactive approach.  I tell my assistants that I will be giving a lesson to someone and therefore I will not be available for a bit. (Likewise, if I am at home, I tell my two sons that I will be on a phone call, for an example, and won’t be available for however long.) My assistant knows to protect my lesson presentation by intercepting any children who appear to need help from me.

Next, I have some hand signals that I use to let people know the status of my availability. If I am working with a child and someone comes over, saying, “Ms. Natalie, Ms. Natalie!” (or rather, “Miss Nat-O-lee!”) without taking my eyes off my work,   I will put up one finger near the child about to interrupt. One finger up lets the child know that I will be with them in a moment if they are able to wait a minute. Alternatively, if I put my whole hand up, that indicates that I am gonna be a while and the child should find another adult for help if possible. My assistants also watch for these signals and intervene when necessary.

If I feel myself being interrupted a lot/more than usual, it is a red flag that I need to re-teach the  children what my hand signals mean and why they are important.  If I focus on it for a week, it usually improves dramatically.


If two children are having an argument in which one or both of them are feeling dismissed or disrespected that appears to be escalating, I step in and act as a mediator. Let’s say Helen and Connie are in a disagreement over who had the red pencil first. 

Both girls have their hand on the pencil and neither one is willing to give in. I would step in and ask what’s going on or some such thing, at which point both girls would start to explain that “I had it first, no, I had it first!” I would remind the girls that we have to take turns to talk. I would ask one girl her side of the story and reflect back what she said, then do the same thing with the other girl. Then I would state the facts without judgment.

“So what I hear is that Helen was using the red pencil and she wasn’t done. Connie saw the red pencil on the table beside Helen and no one was touching it, so Connie thought it was available. Is that what happened?”

After both girls feel heard, the next part is the tricky part. Helen, would you be willing to tell Connie when you’re done with the red pencil? She REALLY wants to use it next.” Usually the child complies at this point.  (The tricky part comes when Helen says,”NO! I’m never going to be done with the red pencil!” At which point I would offer to help find Connie an alternative that is available, hoping she goes along with the suggestion).

Here’s the key: If a child is disrespecting me or another adult, it doesn’t feel good.  Respect is a foundation I firmly believe in. If the adult treats the child with respect, the child will typically reciprocate. If a particular child is not responding to my requests or instructions, often it means I need to take the time to rebuild a connection with that child.  Sometimes the child is being such a turkey that the last thing I feel like doing is sitting down and spend extra time with him or her. I know from experience, though, that it works like magic to just be there, listening to a child who has recently been acting out of sorts talk about how many snails or rolly pollys he counted on the way to school or whatever. When the child feels heard and respected, he will feel more calm and will act more respectful during tense times.


I always try to remember, it’s not personal. This moment will pass.


Next time I want to post about an ongoing struggle of mine: taking time for me.


Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

"They are much to be pitied who have not been given a taste for nature early in life." —Jane Austen:

I had the most wonderful garden outside my kitchen door when I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  H, who was four at the time,  was a painfully early riser (still is).  He and I would make our way to the kitchen super early in the morning, open the sliding glass door and let in the cool mountain air.

Image result for kitchen garden public domain
I would brew my coffee as H would go in and out the back door, eating green beans he’d just picked.

We grew many things in our sweet little garden, including several varieties of peppers. I remember once, we had a houseguest who was so concerned that A, a toddler at the time, was clumsily tromping between the tomato plants and touching the jalapeños. She hovered over A, following closely behind him, uttering a constant stream of warnings and words of caution:

“Don’t step on the watermelon vine…”

“Don’t touch the peppers…”

“They will burn your hands and mouth…”

“Put that spade down, it’s sharp …”

“Don’t pick that tomato, it’s not ripe yet…”


Our well-meaning houseguest wanted to prevent A from injury. I know her heart was in the right place. However, it seemed to me that most of her interactions outside in our garden were  peppered with fear and negativity.

That’s when I realized that I am a believer in natural consequences. I don’t think we should rescue our child every time they are uncomfortable.


I know what it feels like to eat a jalapeño. They’re really spicy. When I worked at a Mexican restaurant in college, I experienced a capsaicin burn from a jar of pickled jalapeños that went all the way up to my wrist. Now that hurt!

moments before she missed the nail and hit her thumb

As I watched A explore the fruits of our garden, I knew that he may try to pick something under-ripe, taste or touch something spicy, or bring me something sharp. I knew that if he did, he might cry or be uncomfortable.


I also knew that if he did, he would survive the whole ordeal and come away with the new knowledge of what he should avoid in the garden.  


A few years later, I learned that I was parenting in a way that seemed to be aligned with with the Montessori philosophy.

H with his Grandfather and a tiny goat

Montessori is a
way of being that is respectful and collaborative. Dr. Montessori taught us that children are scientists collecting data with their five senses. Children need to collect experiences and feel feelings with a minimum of interference.  


It is naturally important to guide a child to prevent any real harm.  But we do not need to rescue children from all things.

We can support them through a hard or uncomfortable moment by listening, and with words of understanding, allow the child to feel his or her feelings without judgment. This way, adults can “help” a child who is struggling without actually doing anything!


That is what we do in the Montessori classroom.  We do not help children with things they are capable of doing themselves.


Here is a glimpse into a Montessori work period. Watch as the boy in this video struggles to put away The Bead Chain. Notice the adult is nearby the whole time. Take note how the adult helps.

He had a few tears when told, “You got this! Take your time and count every bead” and left to try on his own. He was able to count the last chain alone.

The video reminds me of a boy who joined my class at age 3 (I’ll call him Frankie). He had a very strong sense of order. Frankie had to have his clothes just so. He called all athletic shorts, no matter the color or style, “my favorite shorts.” It took me forever to realize it was a type of shorts Frankie preferred, rather than an individual pair of favorite shorts.


This guy struggled daily with his socks. You know the seam across the toe of the socks? He wanted that seam to sit perfectly across his toe in a certain way. He would sit and struggle, taking his sock off and on again, over and over until he was satisfied that it was right.

Image result for a boy putting on socks

If it was wrong, he would throw up his hands, cry out and start again. So here’s how I used a minimum of interference with him:

  • The first week he was in my class, I would go to him and say, “I see you are struggling with your sock.” And he would tell me he just couldn’t do it.
  • I would offer to show him “how” on one foot and let him try with the other.
  • After showing him how to put his sock on a few times, I would let him work at it on his own, let him struggle.
  • If his cries of frustration seemed like they were escalating, I might’ve gone over and said a word of encouragement like, “I know you can do it. I saw you do it yesterday.”
  • I would sit nearby.
  • I might offer open-ended alternatives like, “I wonder if the blue socks in your cubby are easier,” or “I wonder what it feels like to put shoes on WITHOUT socks.”

and the bottom line:

  • I would only help if he actually said the words, “Can you help me? I tried and I still can’t get it.”


Frankie struggled with putting on his socks for the better part of a year.

He pushed through the feelings of frustration, feelings of failure, and feelings of disappointment.


If I had rescued Frankie, I would have robbed him of his work. He needed to have those feelings. When he learned his new skills, he learned what success can feel like.


If we come upon a hurdle in life that is barely out of our reach, rather than having someone swoop in and rescue us, isn’t it better to struggle and get that sense of accomplishment when we succeed?
Using a minimum of interference means offering your child support when they need it. Listening. Acknowledging feelings without judgment. Staying positive.

In this way, struggles become more about perseverance, and how to deal with frustration or anxiety.



Just after I posted this, Marie Aragon, a sweet woman with whom I did Montessori training, shared a well-written article from the Huffington Post titled “The Most Valuable Thing You Can Do For Your Kids”, that supports what I have expressed here in this post. Click here to read it.

Also, I want you to check out a podcast called Unruffled by Janet Landsbury. She is Awesome! She often reassures parents that all of the feelings that children express are okay.  Even the loud, expressive, unpleasant feelings. She gives specific tips about how understand children and their behaviors. The episodes are short and packed full of helpful information.

Grace and Courtesy here, there & everywhere

Some people forget that love is
tucking you in and kissing you
“Good night”
no matter how young or old you are

Some people don’t remember that
love is
listening and laughing and asking
no matter what your age

Few recognize that love is
commitment, responsibility
no fun at all

Love is
You and me


Love Is by Nikki Giovanni


There is a room in my house in which I rarely set foot—for fear I may puncture my foot on a Lego.

I think the room was designed to be a formal dining room, but formal anything is just not my style.  So instead, the room has always been a playroom, as well as a place where our guests stay.

Image result for public domain legos on the floor

Cubbies and shelves hold bins, boxes and baskets for toys and supplies.  Although everything (okay, okay, most things) have a place, I allow my boys to spread out books, toys and projects in that one room, and leave them there, untouched.

And in contrast to my classroom, where the children are required to restore each work before choosing another, I don’t require that the boys even tidy up the playroom every day. The exception is when guests come to stay.  

When H was a toddler, we tidied the playroom each evening together.  I would remind him what belonged together and where things went. He would help while he sang “What’s Gonna Work? Teamwork!” at top volume.

Around age four, I knew H could tackle cleaning the playroom solo, so I  decided to modify our schedule a bit. I told H to clean the playroom while I finished dinner.  

But just ten minutes later, when  I went in to check on him,  he was playing!

Through trial and error, I discovered if I sent him to clean the playroom alone, he still didn’t really understand what I meant, so he’d either put everything into one big, tangled mess in the biggest basket he could find or he’s get distracted and start to play.  

By telling him to “go clean the playroom,” I was being too vague. He still needed my guidance.

I still had to show him that when I said,”Clean your room,” it meant something specific, like:
*Put the blocks back in the green basket and then restore the basket on that shelf.  
*The books go on the shelf with the binding facing outward.  
*Trash needed to go in the trashcan, and abandoned socks needed to go to the hamper.

Even now that the boys are 8 and 11, I still have to guide the clean-up a bit.  I still model for them what my expectation of a clean room looks like by doing it with them.

Today, my help looks different.  I take a supporting role. I make an observation, and then ask which part should I do, like, “ I see lots of Legos, books, and stuffed animals around.  Which one do you want me to do and which ones do you guys want to do?”

If one of the boys stops cleaning, I make another observation. “It looks like you’ve stopped cleaning. Do you want to play with Legos when we’re done cleaning? Yes? Ok, that sounds fine. Which Legos do you need to leave out and which can you put away?” Then we clean up everything else with the promise that they can play a bit later.


Although they work well for some families, I don’t do chore charts of any kind.  When the boys were one and four, I had a chart that had
daily tasks for which each boy was responsible.  The chart was not for chores, but for self-care things that needed to happen each day. In fact, the responsibility chart was put into play because I felt like a nag. It worked well for the tasks that each child needed to remember to do each day, such as clearing his own place at the table, putting his own laundry in the hamper, brushing his teeth, etc. The boys had a feeling of accomplishment when they could see all they’d done, and—bonus—I did a minimal of reminding.  

The best part: when  the patterns of responsibility were intrinsic, the chart hung unused.

Today in our family, when some chores need to be done, we tell each other and it happens.  There are  no stickers, there are no rewards, and there’s no allowance associated with personal and family responsibility. We have a “we’re all in this together” thing going on.

That’s grace and courtesy: care of self, care of others, and care of environment.




As I said in my last post, when Dr. Maria Montessori began work in her first classroom back in the early 1900s, she developed a teaching style using the practical applications that prepared children to normalize, allowing the mind and body to work together. Dr. Montessori’s aim was “to allow the child to do, in a more perfect and orderly manner, what he strives to do in any case by his own natural impulses.” (Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work)

When I mention the phrase, Grace and Courtesy, you may automatically think of manners. Saying please and thank you, or holding the door for someone coming out of a shop. When I brought up Grace and Courtesy to a group of well-seasoned Montessorians over lunch this past weekend, my colleague Patti said, “Grace and Courtesy isn’t what you do, it’s who you are.”  It’s a bit of both what you do and how you do it and it comes from the heart.

carry one thing with two hands



In the classroom, we teach Grace and Courtesy lessons and we support  the children as they practice both with each other and with the adults. Montessori Publications has a great collection of the lessons given in the classroom. The skills learned in these lessons happen inside, outside, and at all times of the day. Just like I had to show my toddler what I meant when I ordered him to clean his room, I show the children:

  • How to greet the teacher
  • How to use a quiet voice
  • How we hold things with two hands
  • How to wait their turn to talk
  • How to have polite conversation
  • How to ask permission to walk past
  • How to walk closer to talk to each other
  • How to resolve conflict
watching respectfully

To name a just a few! I even show a child who is running how to stop and look around to see if it’s a good time and place to run, and then confirm his declaration, “We can run later when we’re outside.”

staying organized

There’s lots of other things that go along with using grace and courtesy in a community.  Things that  are more tangible and more  concrete, such as the lessons that I mentioned in my Practical Life post:cleaning up a wet spill with a rag or a sponge, sweeping the floor, restocking when you used the last of something, restoring your work where it belongs, and keeping your work space organized.

The Peace Rose

A lovely book called The Peace Rose by Alicia Jewel uses something tangible, like a rose or other artificial flower, that two children can hold when handling something invisible: feelings and conflict resolution. It is a lesson that helps when the children take turns to say how they feel using “I” statements and coming up with a solution together.

using the peace rose to say, “you hurt my feelings when you said…”

Modeling is key when it comes to Grace and Courtesy. Your walk has to match your talk.  Act like you want your kids to act.

If your spouse is in the living room and you’re having a conversation from the kitchen as you finish the dinner dishes, your child will imitate by trying to chat with you from the next room, too.

Two sisters made their way through my classroom. Both girls struggled with this issue. They would call my name, or just start telling me whatever it was that they needed to say from across the room.  I would gesture an exaggerated beckoning hand gesture until the blue-eyed girl came closer.  Then, before she said anything, I would exaggeratedly say, “Thank you so much for waiting until you were close to talk to me.  You were so far away, I couldn’t hear you.” When in fact EVERYONE in the room had heard her.

Image result for public domain kitchen pass through

I remember asking the little sister about her house, wondering if she had a big house with maybe a great room or something. I just knew it was their family culture to have conversations through a kitchen pass-through or some such thing. If those kinds of long-distance  conversations are part of their family culture, and the whole family is on board, that’s ok.  It’s really  a matter of teaching the child to observe and adapt to the culture of different environments. We’re quiet in a library, in a museum during a flag ceremony, or in a place of worship, for example.




Please and thank you are only one tiny part of Grace and Courtesy. Social manners encompass so much more. Understanding emotional needs of yourself and others is an important life skill. Being a part of a community, whether it is a family community or a school community has its own skills  set and expectations.  

Grace and Courtesy is a very BIG important thing that we sometimes forget is even there.
Children need us to support them as they learn, how to be gracious, how to be thoughtful, how to wait, how to be helpful, how to stay organized, and how to be aware of their own needs. We can show our children these aspects of life without nagging, rewarding, punishing or shaming. If we can guide them with respect, with modeling, with observing and offering a helping hand in a supporting role, the qualities we desire to see will start to become our child’s natural impulses.

Purpose in Practical Life

Isn’t it interesting how children imitate the grown-ups in their lives?  We can’t deny that our kids pick up words and phrases that we say (keep it clean, folks!). When cracking pecans in the front yard some years ago, my two-and-a-half year old hit his thumb and dropped an f-bomb. The phrase sounded a lot like something from Papa’s work buddies. I asked him to repeat what he had just said, and so he did. Yep. That’s what I thought….

Our babies smile when we do, laugh when we do, and copy us all the time. And they do it with such purpose.

Young children are drawn to do the chores and activities that their parents do around the house.  We’re told that we should read and also
write in front of children so that they will understand the value of these skills. Entire marketing campaigns monopolize on the fact that children desire to imitate their parents.  

Like when mowing the lawn … as a toddler, my son H had a bubble-blowing toy lawnmower that we were constantly filling with bubble solution so that he could help his Papa mow the lawn.

And in maintaining a home … H and his toddler buddy spent hours “fixing things”with a set of plastic construction tools. They hammered and twisted and sanded, even if there was nothing but air beneath their little fingers.

And while cooking … When my younger son, A, was three, he had an extensive collection of dishes and pots and pans with which he would make me imaginary gourmet toddler meals, including blueberry pizza, whipped cream sandwiches,  and peanut butter salad.

One area of the Montessori foundation is called “practical life.”

It relates to a child’s natural desire to imitate adults and fit into this world with purpose. Initially,
Dr. Maria Montessori and her assistant taught the children in her first classroom to take care themselves and their environment out of necessity.  There were simply too many students for the two adults to attend to. The children had to learn to tie their aprons and wash their own dishes, among other things.

What Dr. Montessori discovered from this was  interesting. She discovered that many chores used in everyday life helped the children to “normalize.”  These  life skills, such as sweeping up a spill, sorting forks and spoons, and folding laundry, all allow the child’s mind and body to align.  

Life skills that Dr. Montessori included in the “practical life” curriculum are lessons in:

  • grace and courtesy (making eye contact, saying thank you, waiting for a turn to speak, etc.)
  • care of self (toileting, blowing nose, zipping a jacket, etc.)
  • care of the environment (watering the plants, sweeping the leaves off the back porch, clearing the lunch dishes, feeding the pets, etc.)
  • control of movement (control and strength of the hand, fine  and gross motor skills, impulse control, etc.).

The Montessori philosophy of Practical Life is really simple when you break it down.  

First, the number one way to create successful behavior in children (or if you’re more of a glass half empty type: the number one deterrent of undesirable behavior in children) is: Purpose. When a child has purposeful work, when a child feels helpful, when a child is proud of his accomplishments, he is his best self (That’s what Dr. Montessori called a normalized child.).

In a Montessori classroom, we prepare activities that allow children to practice a specific skill.  The children practice scooping beans from one bowl to the next, for example.  They practice buttoning and unbuttoning fabric on a frame.  They practice pouring water from one container to another. The skill is isolated so that it’s simply one skill. There are only one or two steps. At home, the skills your kid needs to practice will not be isolated.  The skills he will need to learn and to practice will come up naturally and might contain many steps.

So many parents are scared of messes. I love messes! Messes are an opportunity for your child to practice body control, hand/eye coordination, attention to detail, and  concentration. Last week, my student, “Tommy” chose to do a science work with which the child explores how water moves and flows. There’s a big container and some foam shapes that float and stack.  The child basically builds a waterslide, and then scoops water and pours it to see how it flows on the structure.
“Tommy” used this work for a very long time, using it as it was designed to be used, and when he was done, he experimented by pouring the water back into the narrow pitcher rather than the larger, easier bucket provided for the work.

Naturally the majority of the water spilled onto the floor.

I just watched.  I even protected him from friends (and adults, too) who were ready to correct him and to point out his large spill.  Next, “Tommy” sat on the floor with one of the foam shapes in his hand, carefully dunking it in and out of the half-filled pitcher, watching as the water level rose and fell. When he was done with that, he stood up and started to walk away.  

This is when I spoke to him, saying,”That’s quite a lot of water on the floor.  Are you going to get another towel or do you want to get the mop?”

I didn’t hear his response, although he returned in a few minutes with the mop. “Tommy’s” whole experience, including the cleaning up, took 50 minutes.  This four-year-old boy was deep in concentration for a very long time and he was experiencing many important things including order, sequence, gravity, water displacement, flotation, surface tension, volume, to name a few. If I had interrupted him to prevent a mess, he would have missed the whole  opportunity!

Have a whisk broom and dust pan available for your child for when he makes a little mess (or a BIG mess!) Here’s a whisk broom my boys use at home. Get down with him and talk him through the process of cleaning up step-by- step together. He’s seen you use the broom. Now let him do it while you watch. As his body becomes more coordinated, you will help less and less.  

When your child has a sniffly nose, show her, standing side by side in front of a mirror, how you blow you your nose and let her blow her own nose.

When your child has a shirt with buttons in front, show her how to button it and let her practice.  If you see that your child really tries to fasten the buttons, and she cannot, only supply her with knit shirts she can don by herself. Try again a few months later with buttons. The same goes for blue jeans or overalls.  You should not have a button frame like we do in the classroom that isolates the skill of buttoning.  You can offer your child a real shirt of her very own to practice buttoning (while it is OFF her body, is easier at first).

An important side note here.  A child may show an interest in something that he is not yet ready to do. Children often show an interest in reading and writing before they are ready to tackle those skills. My Montessori colleague Beth Phillips, at Academy Montessori Preschool in Albuquerque, NM wrote, “In Montessori, I am trained to observe the child for indications of both needs and readiness.” In her blog, Montessori Publications, which you can read here, she talks about how a child can only understand academic material once they have normalized. Observing your child without engaging is important.  See what he is interested in and at the same time, see what he is capable of.

Watch your child.  Show him how…then get out of the way and let him try. Let him struggle a bit. Let him persevere.

I hope you found my explanation of Practical Life helpful.  I welcome your questions and comments. Next time I plan to post about Grace and Courtesy.

how i found montessori


“We are made of our smallest thoughts

We are breathing and letting go

We will take the best parts of ourselves

And make them gold”
–Chvrches ‘Make Them Gold’


Just like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz,  it turns out, I had Montessori inside me all along.  I had to take those parts of myself and let them grow.

In August of 2007, I was immensely pregnant and expecting my second child. I knew I would need to spend some time bonding with the new baby so I set off to tour preschools. I wanted a school that was a just-right fit for my bright and articulate son, who would soon be three years old.

I know every mom thinks her kid is the smartest kid on the planet. I am no exception. But no, really —  my kid was so clever and so articulate. It was crazy how much more  verbal he was than his two year-old peers. He started to talk exclusively to his teachers. He even began to take on the profound stutter of the teacher at his twice-a-week Mother’s Day Out program. His peers couldn’t have a full-on conversation with him, so he decided he would chat up the teacher instead.  The stutter passed, thankfully, but what lingered for me was a nagging feeling that a play-based program wasn’t the right learning environment for my little man. I thought he needed something more.

Several people (including my mom and my mother-in-law, both of whom often offer sound advice) suggested that I look at Montessori schools, so I decided to start there.  

During my first tour, I felt overwhelmed. The director walked me through a mixed age, mixed-skilled classroom, telling me that Montessori was about “experiential learning and supporting independence and autonomy.”  


Come again?

My 8-months-pregnant brain became cloudy and overwhelmed by what she was saying to me, so instead, I  focused on the children working in the classroom.  I was impressed.  Rather than zipping wildly from one bleeping toy to another, the children were calm. The room was quiet and peaceful. There were activities rather than plastic toys. Instead of an alphabet of animal-shaped letters and distracting cartoony posters littering the walls, the room was decorated like a home with lamps and plants and framed art.  I saw children sitting at little tables, deep in concentration.  I saw two children on the floor poring over a map of the world together. It was clear at a glance that the children were independent and had purpose. I was surprised that it took me several moments to locate the teacher in the room.  She was practically invisible, quietly assisting a child with a box of letters spread out on a table.

As I hoisted my huge, round belly into my car after the tour, tears of joy and relief fell. I knew that some of the tears were hormone induced. Fine. Pregnant women cry at the drop of a hat.  But I was also crying because I knew this kind of school was perfect for my curious and clever kid. 


I enrolled my guy into a Montessori school shortly before his third birthday. The classroom was small, warm and inviting. It felt like home.  As I began to learn more about the way Montessori teaching works, I realized something: I was already incorporating many of the foundations of the Montessori philosophy into my parenting style, and I didn’t even know it.

  • I used real language and didn’t use baby talk.  (To this day it bugs me when a parent says “horsey” or “doggie” to their child!)
  • I followed my child’s curiosity and stayed out of the way as he experienced new things. (I offer open-ended questions to lead him to find his own answers and I “help” without doing it for my kid.)
  • I set clear expectations and I allowed appropriate choice. (My husband and I have firm boundaries with our boys and we respect them as much as we expect them to respect us.)

A few years later, I enrolled my second son into the toddler program at a Montessori school.

That’s when I found myself lingering in the coatroom  just after I dropped the boys off.  Parents weren’t allowed in the classroom, so I hung around and asked questions. I wanted to see what was going on in that school! I was jealous that my boys got to go there every day and I had to go to the grocery store, run errands, clean house, and all that boring mom stuff.  I took on any and every task that teachers gave me. I volunteered to Xerox copies, cut paper into booklets, sharpen pencils, organize office supplies, and whatever else they would let me do, just to get an  idea of what Montessori was all about.  The director of the school was so patient with me for several months. She must have thought I was crazy! One day, she handed me a business card for the Montessori training center.

I completed my Montessori certification from the New Mexico Center for Montessori Education in 2012.  I have worked at Hawthorne Montessori school, here in Austin, Texas since I got my certificate.  Both my boys attended Montessori through their kindergarten year.

The parts that are ingrained in me — my parenting style, my core beliefs, my inner voice — are what drew me to that Montessori school building. I found the building. But I think parts of the Montessori way of life had me all along. I just never knew it.  

Please join me on my blog journey next time as I explain what Montessori calls “Practical Life” activities and why they are essential in a child’s development.