Punished by rewards – Short term praise, long term consequences.

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“I had been subject to the delusion of one of the most absurd procedures of ordinary education. Like others I had believed that it was necessary to encourage a child by means of some exterior reward that would flatter his baser sentiments…And I was astonished when I learned that a child who is permitted to educate himself really gives up these lower instincts”.

Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, pg 59

As parents we tend to use expressions such as “good boy” or “good girl” naturally. And why not? Our children deserve to know that they are valued.


I know that before embracing the world of Montessori I was keen to use praise whenever I could. Surely that is what positive parenting is all about? A day rarely went by without me telling my child that he was the next Einstein… ( He was far more concerned with being an authentic T-rex).


Maybe you are not one to over praise. How about using rewards to encourage your child? I know I have been guilty of offering pudding if one more bite of carrot is consumed (actually when it comes to the battle of the carrot in our house I would practically offer my son anything he wanted, but that’s a post for another time!)


Praising our children whenever possible to build their self-confidence and focusing them to achieve their full potential comes as second nature to most parents and educators alike.


Maria Montessori did not agree with any of the above. In fact she went one step further by debunking the myth that rewards lead to progress and achievement. She believed that by rewarding children for ‘good behaviour’, we are actually doing more harm than good.


So for example, using a reward system in a school setting is fairly commonplace today. Children from as young as 4 years of age are given gold stars for ‘good work’. Some schools even go as far as to offer colour coding system.


A public wall of shame, if you like.


Red being reserved for a child who has been in trouble, green for a good child and amber for a child who is somewhere in between.


Can you imagine if we had such a system for adults? In your working day how often would you be on red and how would this make you feel about yourself?


But I digress.


This system of reward according to the Montessori philosophy is fundamentally flawed for a few key reasons.


The main one being that children should gain a sense of satisfaction from the learning experience rather than via the lure of an external reward. Imagine, if a child learnt to appreciate history simply because it was intriguing, would he or she not do far better than someone who is simply vying for accolades? Would the knowledge of the bygone era not prove more useful to the child who is learning about it because he wants to? Surely we want our children to get an education that touches their very souls. Difficult to achieve if we are using golden stars to measure their self-worth.


Do not get me wrong. Praise and encouragement in Montessori is important. But it always is specific, has a context and is never used as a competitive measure. You are likely to see reward in a Montessori classroom in the subtle smile of a teacher. Or you may hear verbal praise such as “You really worked hard on that activity”. Praise tends to be for encouragement and is not used to entice children to behave in a certain way.


A golden star or sticker may make a child feel good momentarily. However equipping them with the ability to achieve their potential, is a skill that will serve them for the rest of their lives.


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