Montessori: Motivating Children Without Praise

Does Montessori discourage praise? It’s a question we see quite often because at face value, it can seem like a negative aspect of Montessori. In fact, the idea that parents don’t celebrate their children’s accomplishments is one of the biggest Montessori myths we hear!

Chances are good that if you went through traditional schooling, you received ample praise and gold star stickers throughout your educational career. Teachers and parents alike love to praise good behavior and academic success with words of encouragement and prizes. While this system of motivation is common, there are better ways to deeply instill good values and behavior in your children.

The problem with this type of motivation is it teaches children that minimal effort is okay. It also teaches them to seek validation from other people; that, in order for a behavior or a job to be “good”, they need to hear that from someone else - and that they should always be rewarded for it. Montessori seeks to instill internal validation and motivation in children - to be kind for the sake of kindness, and to constantly strive to be “good,” regardless of the reward..

Thankfully, Montessori motivation works to create resilient, self-motivated children that don’t require external validation. Though it may take some getting used to, the rewards of Montessori motivation are worth the effort.

The problem with praise

As parents, we want to show our affection and our pride in our children. And, our sweet kiddos make it easy to do, with questions like “Are you proud of me, Mommy?” Proponents of positive reinforcement suggest that pairing a desirable behavior with positive words or a reward increases the likelihood that a child will repeat that behavior. While this does work to a degree, this brings us to one of our first problems with positive validation:

Rewards are (too) easy

Promising a treat if a child cleans their room or saying “good job” are easy ways to secure compliance or to make your child feel good. Eventually, however, this reinforcement will lose its strength as they get used to it and you’ll either need to ramp up your praise/reward system or you’ll simply see diminishing returns.

So even though rewarding your child for good behavior works in the short term, in the long term it fails to create lasting, positive action or change. For one, the more you use simple praise, the less impactful it is, and it teaches children that anything they do will be met with the same reaction. They also might suspect that you don’t actually care when everything they do is praised mildly.

Montessori motivation seeks to make your child interested in self-improvement because it makes them feel good personally - on the inside - when they accomplish a goal or learn something new. For instance, when your baby started crawling or talking, it wasn’t because you said “good job!” - it was because they wanted to travel or communicate. There are even studies that suggest that praise for altruistic activities like sharing actually hinders their impulse to be kind and generous on their own. They will start to second-guess behaviors because it may not result in praise (or it could result in punishment, something else that Montessori avoids in regards to discipline).

Montessori praise quote - There is one thing [the teacher] must never do and that is, to interfere by praising a child's work, or punishing him if it is wrong, or even by correcting his mistakes.

Humans are hard-wired to help each other and seek collaboration. So, the need to reinforce such behavior is actually pretty limited. Moreover, by turning your child’s pursuits and actions into a reward system, we dull that biological impulse to help or achieve simply because it feels good inside.

So, with all of this in mind, what is the alternative to praise and rewards?

The Montessori approach to motivation

As we mentioned above, your child will start to realize that the simple praise you give them for a drawing that took 2 minutes and the painting they took a week to complete feels disingenuous. You need to start with yourself, being mindful of the outcomes you want to see in  your children, and what you’re really saying to them. Is the quick drawing they did really worth praise, let alone the same praise you’d give to a truly great piece of art they made?

Alternatives to Saying Good Job

Thinking about how you react to desirable behavior can help you and your children because it teaches you both to be intentional with your words. For instance, when your child shows you something they’re proud of, instead of just ratting off “nice job”, you can say something like:

“I can really tell that you worked hard on that drawing! I can tell you love doing art!”

It’s also good to ask them to describe what they’ve done:

“That’s a big drawing - can you tell me more about it? What colors did you use?”

Asking questions and reinforcing their effort is far more meaningful than simple praise. It conveys genuine interest but it also puts them in a position to be confident and expressive by telling you about what they’ve done.

Help them understand the benefits of their positive actions

If you want to reinforce the behavior of cleaning, for instance, you might be inclined to thank your child for helping. “Thank you for cleaning up your room” is an easy and truly genuine piece of praise, but it’s reinforcing the fact that they’re cleaning for you rather than for themselves. This makes it all the more difficult to establish routines, especially when homeschooling.

A better choice would be linking their helping to a positive benefit of cleaning the room:

“Since you helped clean up your room, that gives us more time to spend outside!”

This shows them that there are real, positive benefits to this behavior that don’t come from you, the parent. Because they cleaned up and you didn’t have to, now there is more time to spend on something they love. You didn’t “reward” them with extra nature time, they created it by doing their part to help. The difference might seem subtle, but it’s quite profound, and will affect their confidence and sense of responsibility.

You can do the same thing for desirable social behavior, like sharing or inviting another child to play.

“Look at how happy she is that you invited her to play” is so much more powerful than “thank you for inviting her to play with you”. They see how their actions impact another person and since that person isn’t an immediate family member, it’s a more powerful reinforcer of good behavior.

Montessori quote on praise - The education of a very small child does not aim at preparing him for school but for life.

Model self-praise

Since a large part of Montessori learning stems from you modeling good behavior, self-praise is very important to model to your children. For instance, if you worked hard cleaning, you can say:

“I really worked hard cleaning the house today and it looks so nice!”

You can do similar things for work or cooking, demonstrating to your child that you worked hard and you’re proud of it. This will get them thinking about how they feel about their accomplishments, which is crucial. 

Praise the effort, but not the results

If you still look for a quick bit of reaction when your child presents an accomplishment, you can simply smile sometimes. This shows approval but they’re not going to have to focus on your words, which they would otherwise analyze.

Additionally, you can say something like “you did it” or “you worked hard”. In this way, you acknowledge the effort they put in but you’re giving neutral feedback. They see that you recognize the work they put in, and your reaction is neither positive or negative. In this way, they will feel good about their effort and success on their own, without your input on the results.

Praise isn’t necessary

It’s important to realize that occasionally complimenting or praising your child will not hurt them, either in the short term or in the long run. It’s natural to want to tell our children how well they did, and to compliment their art or efforts. But it is important to understand that giving the same mild praise to everything isn’t helpful. Not only does it teach them to seek praise for everything they do, it loses its effect over time, and you’ll either need to ramp up the reward or the behavior will cease.

Montessori motivation focuses on linking how their good behavior affects other people positively or causes a positive benefit to accrue to them personally. When they help you pick up a room, for instance, it’s helpful to tell them how it benefits you or your whole family. This gives them an example of how they can affect the world around them and makes them feel powerful and confident.

Why does Montessori discourage praise?

Praise isn’t necessary because it’s honestly a weaker, less useful alternative to helping your child build up intrinsic motivation. When they’re motivated to do something because it makes them feel good, or because they know it truly helps other people, it becomes an automatic impulse. If they’re kind to other kids on the playground because they know it makes those kids feel happy, that’s significantly more powerful than doing it because you praise them for it.

Mindfulness when responding to your kids is important as well. Giving them specific feedback or asking for them to explain what they did is a great way to boost their confidence and improve intrinsic motivation as well. When you ask about the colors they used in art, or why they shared with another child, it makes them think about the reasons for their actions as well.

Many people think Montessori philosophy frowns upon praising the child at all, but that’s not true. Instead, its focus is on being specific and mindful in your responses to your children, and helping them feel motivated to act because it feels good, or helps others, rather than to seek praise or rewards. The transition from a praise/reward-based philosophy can be tough at first, but in the long run, it will be so good for you and your children. Children who are intrinsically motivated turn into confident, responsible, capable adults. And, isn’t that what we all want for our kids?

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