“You’re such a good boy!” “Here’s a gold star for you.” “What fantastic job!”
A child won’t hear any of these in a Montessori classroom. Should they hear praise like this at home?

This is the second in our series on communication, Speaking the Child’s Language.

The Montessori system eschews reward and punishment in its method of education. The concept behind is simple: a child ought to learn, and is uniquely equipped to learn, at the exact pace and in the exact way that is developmentally and individually appropriate to her. Such study brings deep inner satisfaction to the child and aids her in the construction of her very self; she needs no other motivation. The adult’s role is to set up a learning environment and enable the child to work in it, not to insert ourselves in the process and try to direct it through our intervention, whether negative (punishment) or positive (reward, and praise as a particular type of reward).

It works. For over a century now, it has worked, helping children grow up into confident, self-directed and self-motivated adults. And it need not be limited to the Montessori classroom.

Praise is often touted and recommended as a valuable parenting tool. Instead of punishing bad behaviour and fracturing our relationship with the child through negative discipline, we are told, we can just lavish praise on the behaviours we want to see; eager to be praised, the child will continue to do as we like. However, psychological and behavioural research confirms what we already knew: this is a shortsighted, and ultimately harmful way to influence the child’s behaviour.

The Problem with Praise

In its essence, when we are praised it means we look to someone else to assess and judge our actions. If we do something only for the praise or other reward it will elicit, we are giving up our own motivations and judgements. We are handing control over ourselves to someone else, someone in a position of power over us.

That may sound alright when we’re talking about a toddler under the control of a loving parent. However, childhood is a time to learn how to function as a human being, a time to create behavioural structures and strategies that will serve us throughout our lifetimes. We know how important it is that children today develop critical thinking, discipline, a strong sense of self-worth and inner motivation. Praise-motivated behaviour teaches us none of that, and instead sets a foundation of unhealthy reliance, potentially leaving children vulnerable to manipulation and abuse.

Think of it this way: do you want your child to always look for you to find whether something is right or wrong, or to be able to tell the difference by herself?

However, children naturally want to gain their parents’ and loved ones’ approval. They want to please us and constantly look to us for cues on how to act. Instead of offering praise, let’s take advantage of this natural drive to promote healthy and positive development.

The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement

Instead of praise, Montessori guides are taught to offer acknowledgement, encouragement, and guide the child towards assessing his own actions through thoughtful questions. There’s no reason for parents not to use this same tool. In the long run, such statements and conversations become much more valuable – and meaningful – to the child than any lavish praise; unlike praise, they do not get tired of them. Praise does feel good in the moment, but ultimately it is nothing to the great pleasure of being seen and acknowledged, with care but without judgement.

Study after study agrees that this approach not only feels better and promotes better relationship, but directly contributes to development of crucial executive skills. So how do you make the switch?

  • Speak about actions and behaviours, not the child himself. Praise like “You’re such a good boy for mama” focuses on his worth as a person, but gives him no useful information, and may even cause the more anxiety-prone child worry about living up to it in the future. Try “Thank you for putting away the laundry, that was really helpful” instead.
  • Focus on the effort that the child exerted. “Your science project was fantastic!” is much less valuable than “I know you worked really hard on this project, and it’s obvious that you put a lot of time into these details”.
  • Describe why you appreciate the child’s actions. “It was much easier for me to cook dinner because you washed all the dirty dishes. I liked that.”
  • Ask questions. “I see that you spent a long time building this Lego structure. What do you like about it?” Likewise, if a child asks your opinion, try and turn it back to them: “I know you worked very hard on this assignment. How do you feel about it?”

Just like with discipline, you can also focus on the natural consequence of your child’s behaviour and actions. “Since you were so quick to clean up, we have time for an extra game or story before bed”.

To stop praising your child might be a tough habit to break; it may have been ingrained in you and your family for generations. However, try to employ these tactics to shift the focus away from your judgements and opinions, and see if it changes the interactions with your child. Bit by bit, these and similar statements can become just as easy and natural to you as “good job” may be now.

When to Step Away Completely

There are some instances where a child needs no encouragement, and it is best just to step away and not offer anything.

Among them is any kind of artistic expression. These kind of activities – movement play, painting, singing and dancing – can and absolutely should be enjoyed together as a family at times, but also by the child herself whenever she wants; she should have space to explore and experiment freely, without intervention. As we wrote before, assigning value to the product of the child’s self-expression, such as her drawings, interferes harmfully with the activity itself. If a small child brings us a picture to show, instead of proclaiming it good or pretty we can simply say, “I see you made a picture! It is very red,” or simar such casual comment. You may be surprised by how easily this will satisfy them and return them back to their work.

Similarly, eating and elimination requires little adult comment. Unfortunately, it is very common to praise small children lavishly for both eating and defecating – two things that are quite natural and the child would do without any encouragement. We wrote more on toilet training previously and will address eating in a future article, but suffice to say: children should eat when they’re hungry, and eliminate when similarly they feel the need, not when they wish to please the parent. Interfering with the body’s natural functioning through praise, rewards (or even worse, through punishment and reprisals) is quite harmful and may contribute to poor eating habits or gastric distress in the future.