Grace and Courtesy in Montessori

The Montessori Method is well known for encouraging independence, self-reliance and self-directed learning. But, there is a less obvious, though equally important concept central to the pedagogy. Grace and courtesy is critical to the success of the Montessori method, and it all starts with you, homeschooler.

We know that kids may not always do what we say, but they definitely do what we do. That's why modeling is the first and most basic step toward helping young children learn to respect both themselves and others. Your child will emulate your behavior, whether it’s manners, personal responsibility, or tidiness and then self-govern in an agreeable way. By modeling grace and courtesy, we help our children learn to act with other people politely.

This process isn’t without difficulties - younger children in particular have big emotions and fewer tools to deal with those emotions. That’s where Montessori principles can help you and your children develop the ability to handle emotions and how to appropriately communicate feelings. Part of this process is developing good manners, something that is critically important to social growth.

What is Grace and Courtesy in Montessori?

Grace and Courtesy is the term used to refer to teaching children how to be polite members of society and how to conduct themselves properly in social situations. Grace and Courtesy is one of the foundations of the Montessori Method and is applicable both when homeschooling and in everyday life.

By demonstrating social and culturally appropriate behavior and then acknowledging when your child practices the good manners you modeled, you will find that they develop fantastic social skills. Let’s take a look at how the Montessori Method can help your children flourish in their social interactions, become polite humans and develop good manners.

We must help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself; this is the art of those who aspire to serve the spirit.

Remember that you are their guide

Montessori teaching doesn’t punish (or praise) - rather, the goal is to demonstrate good behavior and acknowledge when they perform well. For instance, if your child says “please” and “thank you” in an interaction with another person, instead of saying:

“Great job having good manners!”

You might say:

“I noticed you said ‘please and thank you’ to Ms. Wilson, just like we talked about”.

In this way, they’re not getting external validation, and will not seek it out. Instead, they are learning to behave as you taught them and being recognized as a capable and independent person. Too often we treat children as less than whole humans or dumb-down concepts for them. Maria Montessori saw this behavior as unfair to the child, because children are constantly absorbing information, and even if they cannot fully grasp it at their age, it forms the basis of future learning.

Montessori Principle #1: Respect the Child

One of the core concepts of Montessori is that children are complete people, something we tend not to buy into (and something people definitely didn’t believe back in 1907). Whether it’s through baby talk, not letting kids help with chores or the myriad of other ways we disrespect young people, we do them a disservice when we treat them like, well, kids.

If you see your child as a person rather than a “little kid”, you will see your attitude toward them change. This will, in turn, change how you behave around them. The Montessori Method helps adults recognize that children are not helpless. Instead, they are people who can be taught (and truly want to learn!) how to be independent, even from an early age.

When your child sees you cleaning up your environment, taking care of your possessions, and being polite in daily discourse, they will see this as simply the way to be. It will take some direct guidance from you; for instance, giving them step-by-step instructions on how to greet people, but children are very capable and their abilities may surprise you.

Montessori Principle #2: Young Children Have an Absorbent Mind

Maria Montessori espoused that from birth, children are constantly absorbing information from the world around them. The old adage of “watch what you say because a child is always listening” is absolutely spot-on. Kids’ senses are in overdrive during their first few years of life, constantly processing the world around them. This is why it’s so critical for you to model good manners and behavior - they’re always watching and repeating what you do, what you say, and yes, even the way you do and say things.

Let them practice their manners

Once you have keyed in on specific manners or behavior you want your child to work on, give them plenty of opportunities to practice. You can start at home within your family, working on polite phrases like “please” and “thank you”. Once they start to get the hang of it, you can have them practice with friends, family, or even at the grocery store or a restaurant.

As soon as they are able to understand the concept of picking up after themselves, you should start expecting it. This connects to the behavior modeling concept from earlier - if your child sees you keeping the house tidy and picking up after yourself, it will become second nature to them. You’ll find that when they take care of their belongings and space at home, they’re more likely to be helpful and tidy up when elsewhere, like at a friend’s house.

By allowing for repetition, you give them plenty of chances to get their manners correct without the pressure of doing it “for real” in public. Feeling confident in their abilities will help them be more capable in practice.

Avoid punishment and vague praise

When helping a child make good choices - in manners and everything else - it’s important to avoid both punishment and vague praise. When it comes to discipline, the Montessori Method isn't punitive. If a child has trouble with patience or remembering their manners, don’t scold, embarrass or otherwise call them out, especially not in public. This only undermines their confidence and will set back the adoption of good behavior.

Rather, you should gently remind them of proper etiquette and if they’re still not quite getting it, you can practice at home some more.

What to say instead of good job - praise alternatives in Montessori

It’s also important to avoid vague praising statements like “good job”. Instead, give your child specific feedback on their behavior, as we talked about before. For instance, emphasizing why something was good manners after verbalizing your recognition of their behavior:

“I noticed you offered to share your snack with Johnny - that was very thoughtful of you”.

In this way, your kids can understand the positive aspects of their behavior and why their actions are being reinforced because of the inherent value of the actions themselves. While children like to be praised by their parents, the Montessori Method focuses on building self-reliance and intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.

Expect setbacks

While we should respect children as people and not dismiss their feelings, it’s very important to understand that they simply have less capacity for frustration than adults. Waiting ten minutes for lunch is one thing, but waiting ten minutes for lunch when you’re very hungry and little is an entirely different thing. If you know that there will be trials of patience, you can anticipate these situations and help your child practice good behavior.

As a parent, we’ve all seen tantrums and frustration boil up, but if you treat your child with respect, you can explain that lunch might take longer than expected and that it’s okay. Talk about their feelings:

“I know you might be frustrated - you’re pretty hungry, right?”

But then you can redirect their frustration, or simply help them talk their way through it. Being dismissive often causes the worst tantrums and points of frustration, so this is another reason to treat your child with dignity and respect.

Be consistent and practice different scenarios

Children want stability and structure and so certain aspects of manners can seem strange if they’re not applied consistently. For instance, how many times do you ring a doorbell or knock before you wait for the person to answer? How do you ask for help from a grownup? How do you respond to adversity or disappointment?

Grace and Courtesy is about more than just “please” and “thank you”. It’s about having grace as you move through social situations, dealing with setbacks, and having your patience tested on a daily basis. This is even more profound when you think of the fact that little kids feel so strongly and often lack the mental capacity that adults do to deal with frustration.

Practice various social interactions, and be prepared with answers when your child faces a challenge. For instance, some of the most common concepts to practice are:

  • Mealtime etiquette - chewing with their mouths closed, politely asking for things, being neat and using napkins, asking to be excused and helping to clear dishes are all important aspects of mealtime behavior
  • Dealing with other people being rude - your children will encounter rude people, and they can learn to not be bothered by it. Understanding that other people have their own lives and behave in certain ways is a part of growing up as a social being.
  • Asking to play - just approaching other people can be daunting, let alone asking to play with them! Help your child understand how to politely ask and be understanding if they’re told no.
  • Being in a shop - part of the Montessori Method is understanding that children explore with their hands and eyes, and will want to grab anything that interests them. It’s important tjst they understand that in certain spaces, they have to mind their bodies and respect the property of other people.
  • Hygiene - teaching kids to sneeze or cough into their elbow, use tissues, and wash their hands well is polite and essential.

Montessori and manners

The Montessori Method focuses on helping your child develop into an independent, responsible, confident person. An essential component of that is having good manners. Self-governance is best taught hands-on, and allowing them to role play with you first is essential to successfully demonstrate good manners in the real world.

Remember first and foremost that you are their guide - you need to demonstrate tidiness, cleanliness, and politeness as much as possible. Directly give them manners tips and indirectly show them by your interactions with other people. Allow for ample practice at home - having them use polite words even with you will help make the practice automatic when they’re around other people.

Do not tell them how to do it. Show them how to do it... If you show them, they will want to do it themselves. - Maria Montessori quote

Remember to avoid punishment and vague praise. While it’s great to commend your child, make sure you’re applauding their choices and actions specifically. Make it clear that they should feel good because they did something, not simply because you said they did a good job. Likewise, avoid punishment because it simply doesn’t work in the long term. Instead, reiterate proper manners and, if necessary, wait until you’re at home to do it. Never embarrass or scold your child in public, as this only diminishes their confidence.

Be prepared to have setbacks - kids simply don’t have the capacity for adversity that adults do. Instead, talk to them about how they’re feeling and listen to them carefully; in essence, treat your kids with respect as whole humans.

Practice good manners in as many scenarios as make sense to your family:

  • Meal time
  • School
  • Public places like libraries, churches, etc where quietness is appreciated
  • Adversity on the playground (being told “no” when asking to play, etc)
  • When asking for help, or being asked questions

Children have an enormous capacity to learn and grow - the absorbent mind, as Maria Montessori put it - and you will be amazed at what they can do if you demonstrate good manners and behavior to them.

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