Why I Stopped Praising My Child

The Montessori approach to educating and raising children does not use rewards or punishments. We didn’t have sticker charts for toilet learning and we don’t give money for household chores (which are chores to us, but enjoyable to them). This is because such external factors undermine children’s intrinsic motivation, shifting them from doing something for pure joy or satisfaction, to doing something for validation by others. In Montessori, we seek to develop the child’s will rather than substitute it with the adult will. For the child may encounter loving adults (parents and caregivers) now, but if one day he does not, he can only rely on his inner compass and his will to make the right decisions. It is easy to see why parents would avoid criticising their child for this same reason of not dampening internal motivation, but what about praise? Where does praise fit in with Montessori?

I may get alot of flak for this but I think praise should only be rarely given, because it is all too easy for praise to shift children into a mode of wanting to please adults. (This article lists 10 points on how rewards and praise affect one’s relationship with one’s child.)

I am aware of the research that promotes effort praise over generic praise. For instance, saying “you tried so hard”  (or specifically pointing out what was done well/ improved/ personal traits exhibited) instead of the more general “good job” or “good boy”. (On generic praise, I remember once when Dylan came back after forest summer school, he said “good job” several times to his train for just running along the track as usual.) Effort praise is considered more beneficial to promoting what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”, the belief that one’s skills can be cultivated through effort and perseverance. However, recently Dweck observed a “false growth mindset“, where teachers and parents heap effort praise on any attempt, failed or not, without actually examining if the effort led to learning. This kind of praise, however well-intentioned, is just as empty as other kinds of praise.

Praise is a very adult concept. Children don’t actually need praise but have been conditioned into it by adults. And effort praise does have its benefits, but what if children could be so self-directed that they wouldn’t need praise… or any form of external reward or punishment, for that matter?

I have had the pleasure of observing at four AMI/ AMI-accredited Children’s Houses here in London, and what strikes me is that when almost all children complete their task, they do not go looking for approval, but find the satisfaction within themselves. They become calm and serene, even helpful. And for an example for the home, my friend Deborah related this incident with her 18mo: “Yesterday, Chloe picked up a strawberry stem which she saw lying on the sofa. She picked it up on her own and just went to the dustbin to throw it and walked out of the kitchen. I was so stunned. I didn’t comment tho. Cos she was actually just doing her own thing”. If we were to at this point praise the child, we would end up interrupting them or trivialising the entire task as something that was done for us! 

What then of the child who does look around, as if seeking approval for a job well done? 

1. Discern whether the child seeks approval, or connection.

Many times, it is good enough for the child to know that you saw it. During our AMI Assistants training, we learnt that we could ask the child to tell us more about what he did, and give him our fullest and most rapt attention for as long as needed.

2. Say “thank you!” 

This was another tip given during the AMI training. There is no need to praise the child for participating in groups or for completing work. Also, teachers who praise different children differently also run the risk of sounding like they approve of those who performed the task “better”. If you must say something at all, let it be brief but warm: “thank you” is the best, it demonstrates grace and courtesy and every child in the group gets the same reply/ acknowledgement of their efforts.

Of course, no 2 is far easier said than done for emotionally involved parents, myself included. How can I help but be awestruck by my child’s first steps? Or first words? I know these are milestones every child will reach, yet it makes it no less amazing to me and my strongest instinct is to praise and applaud my child. If you must praise, share your praise of the child with another adult, when the child is out of earshot. Be as effusive as you like. That being said, I remember being wowed when Dylan exploded into writing. I forgot all the pointers I mentioned above. I said “wow” emphatically. Multiple times. I spoke about Dylan’s number-filled paper in his presence, excitedly waving it around to show my cousin. Haha. A bit of praise won’t harm a child, but I do think we have a culture of excessive praise –and also excessive criticism/ hovering, but that’s another story– and it’s something I have to tamp down everyday, so that my children learn to find the joy in working instead of in receiving praise for working.

And to see their favourite kinds of work, please visit our Practical Life album on our Facebook page.

I couldn’t find a praise-specific quote so I am leaving you with one on rewards (is praise a form of reward?) from Dr Montessori in The Discovery of the Child: 

Like others I had believed that it was necessary to encourage a child by means of some exterior reward… in order to foster in him a spirit of work and of peace. And I was astonished when I learned that a child who is permitted to educate himself really gives up these lower instincts. I then urged the teachers to cease handing out the ordinary prizes and punishments. But nothing is more difficult for a teacher or parent than to give up her old habits and prejudices. 


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