Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What do I do when my child...? by Jill Wilson

I am not sure where I found this, but it is wonderful. Jill Wilson is a friend and Montessorian from Cincinnati and I wanted to share her very wise words.

“What do I do when my child_________?”
By: Jill Wilson

Whenever I have questions regarding my child-rearing practices, I turn to the writings of Dr. Montessori. I am always amazed that when I search her writings with a specific question, the answer appears as if  I’ve never read that passage before and then I see how it all so beautifully fits.

This month, my search was about discipline in the home. A topic amongst a group of parents was “What do I do when my child...” It seemed many parents were looking for that magical consequence/punishment/ action that they could take that would change that child’s actions and attain immediate obedience. In my research, I came across a short passage that Dr. Montessori wrote titled “Rewards and Punishments.” (The Secret of Childhood, p. 122-23) And, as usual, the simplicity and brilliancy of it blew me away. The passage, only 3 paragraphs long, ends with, “Eventually we gave up either punishing or rewarding the children.” That one sentence holds such a profound meaning in today’s culture where thousands of books are published on how to use punishments and rewards to discipline children. And for those of you who attended the Cincinnati Montessori Society Spring 2011 Conference, you heard Alfie Kohn’s keynote and/or breakout sessions regarding the current research about punishments and rewards. Yet another example of how Dr. Montessori had it all figured out over 100 years ago and we are just now catching up!

How do we answer the question, “What do I do when my child...?” There isn’t a steadfast rule that can apply to all children in all situations all of the time. The question, I believe, that first must be asked is: “what is the relationship like between the adult and the child?” A deep respect for the child, his needs and processes, must be present for an adult to begin to work together with the child to solve the conflict at hand. A child’s needs and processes in that moment must always be taken into consideration. Many adults tend to get off track through their verbal communications with the child.

Respectful communication starts at birth. Promptly attend to the child that has something to say – even a “goo-goo-gaa” from a newborn deserves to be answered. Acknowledge what the child has said, “Oh, you’d like me to put on your shoes?” Or sometimes there is an emotion that needs to be acknowledged, too, “You sound very frustrated that you can’t get your shoe on.” Then respond in an appropriate manner, “Would you like some help tying your shoes?” Or “Yes, I am happy to help you with that.” These are all parts of a conversation with a child where the child can trust that he is being heard, understood and feel safe about it – a key to a strong relationship.

For example, when a child falls down, bumps a knee and starts to cry, many adults tend to pick them up and soothe them by saying “Oh, you’re okay. You’re okay.” But that quite contradicts the child’s experience. From his perspective, he fell down, he is hurt, and he is not okay. Instead, the adult can promptly attend to the child, kneel down next to him with a hand on his back, and establish a connection so the child knows the adult is there. The adult could then acknowledge what has happened, “Oh, you fell down. It sounds like you are hurt!” And then respond appropriately, “How can I help you? Would you like me to pick you up? Can I rub your knee?

Praise is another form of communication that can actually inhibit a relationship between an adult and child. It may be surprising to know that Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for NonViolent Communication, considers “praise and compliments violent forms of communication. Because they are part of the language of domination, it is one passing judgment on another.” (www.cnvc.org) Even something as simple as “good job,” is praise and is detrimental to the adult/child relationship – and the development of the child himself! (see Alfie Kohn’s article Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job,” http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm)

Instead of praise, focus on encouragement. This chart by Taylor (1979) describes the difference.


stimulates rivalry and competition
focuses on quality of performance
evaluative and judgmental; person feels “judged”
fosters selfishness at the expense of others
emphasis on global evaluation of the person-”You are better than others.”
creates quitters
fosters fear of failure
fosters dependence


stimulates cooperation and contribution for the good of all
focuses on amount of effort and joy
little or no evaluation of person or act; person feels “accepted”
fosters self-interest, which does not hurt others
emphasis on specific contributions -”You have helped in this way.”
creates triers
fosters acceptance of being imperfect
fosters self-sufficiency and independence

Encouraging statements sound more like observations:

“Look at how you put the blue and yellow paint in circles on your paper.”
“You look very proud that you were able to do that puzzle.”
“They way you put the blocks away helped me clean up the room faster.”
“You did it!”

Initiate a conversation/ask questions:

“What part of your drawing do you like best?
“How did you figure out how to put that puzzle piece in?”
“How did you feel when you gave your friend part of your snack?”
“Tell me more.”

Sometimes even just repeating what the child says can be encouraging:

“Yes, that is a hard puzzle.”
“I know that hurts when you fall down.”
“You found the basket.”

Remember that many times NOTHING is the best response. Allow the child to bask in his own enjoyment and pride of his accomplishment - with no interruptions.

Often, adults tend to “over-talk.” This consists of any kind of communication that is, in fact, unnecessary. For instance, being over-directive: “Put the plate in the dishwasher,” as the child is already on the way to the dishwasher (as a mother, I catch myself being over-directive without even realizing it). Or it could even be giving too much detail or directions when the child does not need it: “Go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, get your pajamas on and go to your bedroom.” In fact, an older child only needs to hear, “It is time to get ready for bed.” Another example is intervening with a child when they haven’t asked for help. When my son struggles with a task and I hear him making those frustrating sounds, I resist the urge to offer my help. I may position myself a bit closer so he knows I’m there, but I wait for him to ask for what he needs – and most of the time he doesn’t need help at all. He works through the problem, through his frustration and solves it on his own. What valuable lessons are learned for us both in those moments!

Back to the original question, “What do I do when my child {jumps on the couch, for example}?” The conversation can follow the same pattern as mentioned earlier. Attend to the child. Go to where the child is, go to his level to make eye contact and establish a connection with the child. Acknowledge the action. “I see you have a lot of energy today and want to do some jumping.” Then respond. “This couch is not designed to be jumped on. It would be easy for you to fall off and get hurt and it could damage the couch by breaking the springs inside. Let’s take a walk around our house and find a safer place to jump. Do you have any ideas?” Work together with the child to find a solution, building an even stronger and more cooperative relationship.

When the relationship between the adult and child is based upon mutual respect, together the two will be naturally guided to the true meaning of discipline…

Discipline is from the Latin word disciplinare, which means to teach –
without any need for rewards or punishments.

Again, we thank you, Dr. Maria Montessori!

Suggested Reading list for establishing strong adult/child relationships:
 Coloroso, Barbara. Kids are Worth It. New York: HarperCollins, 2002
 Gerber, Magda. Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. LA: Resources for Infant Educarers, 2002
 Ginott, Dr. Haim G. Between Parent and Child. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003
 Ginott, Dr. Haim G. Teacher and Child. New York: Macmillan, 1972
 Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting. New York: Atria Books, 2005
 Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993
 Montanaro, Silvana Quattrocchi. Understanding the Human Being. Mountain View: Nienhuis Montessori, 1991
 Montessori, Dr. Maria. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine, 1981
 Montessori, Dr. Maria. The Child in the Family. Oxford: Clio Press, 2004

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