Ronin, age four, was working intently on the metal inset pencil work, his head down and his eyes never wavering from the paper. He did this for some time, then looked up with a mile-wide smile and said, “I’m good! I’m good!” I said, “How do you know?” He held up his paper and said, “Lookit! I stayed within the lines!”

When I hear children speak like this, like I do so often in the classroom, I know that they evaluate their own work. Sarah Cole Zimmerman, a child psychologist, noted this when her four-year-old daughter, Shandy, came home and announced, “My teacher doesn’t know what ‘good’ means.” The mother was surprised. “What do you mean?” “Well,” said Shandy, “I showed her some work and she said it was good.” Shandy went on to tell her mother in detail all the mistakes she had made while doing the work.

Children are capable of thinking about and appraising themselves, yet, many people think that children need approval from others in order to develop self-confidence and we therefore get questions from visitors to our classrooms asking why we do not praise the children very much. I answer that this is because we want the children to evaluate themselves and not rely on our appraisal. Dr. Montessori said, “To tell a person he is clever or clumsy, bright, stupid, good or bad, is a form of betrayal. The child must see for himself what he can do, and it is important to give him not only the means of education but also to supply him with indicators which tell him his mistakes.” She also stated, “But, unless I can correct myself, I shall have to seek the help of someone else, who may not know any better than I do…This begets a discouraging sense of inferiority and a lack of confidence in one’s self.

I frequently observe parents praise their child for every little thing they do. Out in public I often hear, “Good job! Good job!” If we over-praise children, they can become dependent on us because they want to please us. They want to grow up and become adults themselves (they are incensed at being called “little”: “No, I’m big. I’m five.”). If they are working only for the sake of praise, however, they will be shattered by correction or criticism. And in trying to bolster a child’s confidence by praise alone, we present him with an unrealistic view of reality: no one in the adult world is praised for every little thing he does.

Research at Columbia University by Carol Dweck from 1997 to 2007 strongly indicates that telling children they are smart actually causes underperformance. Children given this type of praise think that their intelligence is innate and fixed. In essence, they think, “I am smart, therefore I don’t have to put forth an effort.” Then, when they encounter something that is difficult, they conclude right away that they can’t do it. This causes insecurity and an obsession with their self-image, and they often react by tearing down other children. Children who are told that they work really hard, rather than that they are smart, conclude that their intelligence is something that can be developed—that they are in control of it— and have excellent persistence and performance. In some cases, these children ended up doing better than children with higher intelligence scores. (I highly recommend reading the entire article about this study, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.”

The child can feel fragile as he builds his self-esteem. Perhaps this is why there is a tendency to over-praise, especially if we think the child has a poor self-image. A friend of mine couldn’t understand why his son was in trouble: “But we gave him plenty of praise!” People think that if you praise a naughty child, you will spare the child looking at his negative characteristics. If he isn’t aware of them, he will feel good about himself. But faking reality does the child no favors. How will he know to correct himself when he hasn’t been told what he needs to correct? Praise needs to be based on the facts of reality and feedback to the child needs to help him, not hinder him—and meaningless messages do not give anyone concrete proof that they are okay.

How, then, do we avoid over-praising the child, and instead encourage him to evaluate himself? We must be careful not to praise a child when he is in the process stage. In this circumstance, it is best to say, “You’re learning how to make letters,” rather than, “That’s a good letter.” We must also be aware of the child who works only to please adults and constantly seeks our approval. When this child asks, “Is my picture pretty?” we should respond with, “What do you think?” We can also try to reflect what the child might be feeling about his picture, such as, “I can see you enjoyed working on that,” or “I bet you feel proud of all that work you did.”

To be effective, verbal praise needs to be specific feedback, so that the child knows where to focus his attention the next time he does the activity. “I like the way you folded your legs, put your hands in your lap, and sat silently, waiting for the first circle to start.” In the Montessori classroom, we have a distinct advantage: the child is largely freed from the teachers and able to evaluate himself, as the control of error is for the most part in the materials.

Under-praising is harmful also. A child who works and works and works to achieve a certain goal will want recognition for it. Dr. Montessori stated, “This, however, is the moment in which the child has the greatest need of [the teacher’s] authority. When a child has accomplished something…he runs to the teacher and asks her to say if it is all right….After he has done the work, he wants his teachers’ approval….The teacher must respond with a word of approval, encouraging him with a smile….” If the adult is not sensitive to the child’s need for recognition, the child will be disappointed. He’ll feel that the adult didn’t understand him or doesn’t care. Children look to us for guidance and need to feel secure. When a child accomplishes something and is happy, the adult needs to show his happiness also.

When you are upset with the child’s performance, however, ridicule is not a good means of feedback. Ridicule is not the same as constructive criticism, but rather is destructive attention. The child feels crushed when ridiculed. A message, direct or indirect, should never sound like this: “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you ever do anything right?” Remember, tone of voice and facial expression can convey ridicule just as much as words can. When angry, tell the child you are angry and state the reasons, but don’t ridicule him. Montessori said, “To tell a child he is naughty or stupid just humiliates him; it offends and insults, but does not improve him.”

All children need praise and hugs and lots of love, but be careful not to over-praise. Don’t use praise as a means to boost your child’s self-esteem, use it as a means to help the child assess himself. If the child learns to rely on his own thinking in his self-appraisal, he gains independence and self-reliance.

Source: Charlotte Cushman, Montessori: Why It Matters for Your Child’s Success and Happiness, (New York: Paper Tiger Publishing, 2014) pages 80-82.

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