Many parents believe that the word discipline means to punish. In reality, it means to teach.
In a Montessori-inspired home, parents are empathetic, caring, and respect children as real and separate human beings. However, children also need to develop a sense of empathy for others and must learn the rules of courteous everyday behavior.
To accomplish this, we need to help them develop a sense of self-respect with both compassion and respect for others. Since we cannot always be with them, we need to teach them to act with honor and integrity whether or not someone is watching. Since we can’t prepare them for every situation that they will face over the years, we need to teach them how to apply general rules of kind behavior to new situations.
Babies and Toddlers
Infants and toddlers don’t respond to discipline, rules, and punishments, but they do respond to unconditional love. They are not yet at a stage where they know right from wrong. They live in the moment, when they want something, they want it right now!
One secret to living happily with very young children is to go out of your way to attempt to understand what they are trying to communicate when they cry. Certainly, don’t take it personally! Even though, in the heat of the moment, it may feel as if your baby is being deliberately defiant, crying is one of the very few ways that young children can use to communicate. It can mean that they are hungry or that they need to be burped, they may be in an uncomfortable position, or they may need a diaper change.
Remember, babies are people too! They can become frightened. They may be bored or lonely. They may have had a bad dream. Watch and listen carefully. If you pay attention to your children, even when they are very young, ultimately, you will be able to determine what they are trying to tell you. Just as most parents learn to recognize the sound of their baby’s cry, we can learn to recognize the way they cry to communicate different emotions.
At this stage, their behavior is impulse-driven, with a limited ability to make the choice to follow ground rules. While you always want to model good behavior and explain why a given behavior is okay or not okay, don’t be surprised when your words go in one ear and out the other.
In a climate of love and respect, toddlers slowly develop the ability to understand our words and will begin consciously to respond to them. Eventually, they begin to imitate our actions when we model polite behavior and will begin to cooperate, in part, to make us happy. Most toddlers have good days when they are cooperative and angelic, and days when they seem to be testing us constantly.
We want to take our children beyond simple obedience, where they do what we ask in hope of a reward or to avoid something unpleasant. We want to help them to develop an internalized sense of right and wrong and courteous behavior. This requires that they eventually develop a social conscience and a sense of self-discipline. This develops slowly as children mature. For better or worse, all parents are moral educators. Our goal is to teach our children the values that we hold dear and teach them in such a way that our children live by them.
Children that achieve this goal develop a high level of self-respect. They also tend to find it much easier to establish strong friendships. They tend to respect the rights of others and are generally pleasant to be around.
Don’t Punish, Teach!
As children get older, do not take it for granted that they will automatically know how to handle a new situation. It’s always better to teach them the right way to act rather than to wait for them to misbehave and then scold, threaten, or punish. If your children do act inappropriately, stop their misbehavior calmly, but firmly, and show them how to handle the situation in a socially acceptable way.
Children have the same emotions as adults, but they don’t instinctively know how to express frustration and anger appropriately, nor do they automatically know how to solve conflicts. As parents, we have to teach our children how to get along with other people.
Montessori teachers call these the ‘Lessons in Grace and Courtesy.’ These lessons set a tone of respect and kindness. We teach our children how to shake hands, greet a friend, and say goodbye. We teach them how to ask politely to join other friends who are playing and how to respond if they are rejected.
We teach them how to interrupt someone who is busy and how to tell someone ‘no thank you’ politely. We teach them how to speak indoors, so their shouts don’t hurt our ears, and how to play without damaging anything or hurting someone. We show them how to offer a sincere apology and how to resolve conflicts peacefully.
To teach a lesson in grace and courtesy we explain a situation in simple terms and demonstrate the right way to handle it. Then we have our children practice with us, role-playing the sequence of events. Most children enjoy these lessons if they are kept short and sweet, and if they have not been embarrassed or threatened because they made a mistake.
For example, if your children tend to yell at the top of their lungs inside the house, you obviously need to give them a lesson in how to keep the indoor noise to a level that does not disturb other people.
First, as it is happening, instead of scolding, instruct them firmly, but politely, to please speak softly in the house.
Wait for a moment when the situation is not emotionally charged and neither you nor the children are upset about the behavior. Then, give them the lesson on the right way to speak indoors.
Rather than giving them a lecture, speak to them in very simple language and show them what you mean. For example, you might say:
“I want to talk to you about indoor voices. When we are outdoors, it’s so big, and sometimes we need to yell so we can hear each other when we’re far away. Outdoors, it does not hurt our ears when someone talks loudly, unless they do it right in our ear. That hurts! So outdoors, we can use our outdoor voices.
But when we are indoors, it hurts our ears and bothers the neighbors, too, if we talk too loudly. Indoors, we use our indoor voices.”
Now show them what you mean. Talk very loudly, and ask, “Was I using my indoor voice or my outdoor voice?” Talk normally. “What do you think? Was I using my indoor or my outdoor voice? Indoors, we use our indoor voices. Outdoors, we use our outdoor voices.”
You can teach all sorts of lessons this way, such as saying “please” and “thank you” or closing doors without slamming.
Practice with each other. Some families have the ‘manner of the week’. They introduce a new rule of everyday courtesy and practice it with one another over meals and around the house.
Other Children and Adults Are Role Models, Too
To teach your children good manners, they need to see that their parents, older siblings, and friends follow them consistently as well. The example that we set through our own behavior is more powerful than anything we say. Especially when they are very young, children are absorbing everything they see us do, and soon they begin to talk and act just like us. We are their role models.
Their brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends and playmates, babysitters, and preschool teachers play a similar and very powerful role as well. Knowing that your children will be influenced profoundly by the people around them, choose wisely the children and adults with whom your children will spend time.
Especially with children under age six, avoid loud, chaotic situations where large groups of children are over-stimulated and generally behave rudely, such as indoor children’s amusement parks with lots of expensive and noisy games and rides.
Choose your child’s play-dates thoughtfully. If your children spend time with a family that allows them to create havoc in their home, tearing up the living room, knocking over lamps, and shoving one another around in rough-and-tumble play, don’t be surprised when your children bring that behavior home with them. Pay attention to the way prospective play-date parents supervise their children. Do they ignore them or talk on the phone amidst chaos? It is not your place to judge other families, but it is your obligation to make good choices for your children.
Positive Discipline: Establishing a Climate of Love
Children are actually so sensitive and impressionable that we should monitor everything we say and do, for everything we say and do will be engraved in their memories forever.
Our children love us with a profound affection. When they go to bed, they want us to stay with them as they go to sleep. When we work in the kitchen, they often want to help. When we sit down to dinner, they want to join us. We may worry that we’ll spoil them if we listen to their pleas, but we shouldn’t. They only want us to pay attention to them. They want to be part of the group.
Children are extremely sensitive to the emotional climate within the family. They love us and basically want us to be pleased with them. This doesn’t mean that they will always behave.
Why Children Test Our Limits
Every child will test the rules to some degree. In fact, most acts of testing parents are a normal part of the child’s process of growing up.
When children test adults, it is often their way of expressing feelings that they don’t understand, and from our responses, they gradually learn how to handle their emotions appropriately. By testing the limits, they learn that we really care about certain ground rules of grace and courtesy in our relationship. In acting out, they are taking their first tentative steps toward independence, attempting to demonstrate that we don’t control them completely.
Agree on your family ground rules and get them written down, where both parents can refer to them. Teach your children how to do the right thing rather than focusing on their infractions.
Family Ground Rules
In the Montessori-inspired home, there are normally just a few basic ground rules:
Be kind and gentle.
Treat everyone with respect.
If you use something, put it back correctly when you are done.
If you break something, clean it up.
Tell the truth and don’t be afraid to admit when you make a mistake.
You should be absolutely clear in your mind about your family ground rules.
Explain your family ground rules positively, rather than as prohibitions. Instead of saying, “Don’t do that!” ground rules should tell children what should be done.
Teach your children how to follow the family ground rules as if you were teaching any lesson in everyday living skills and grace and courtesy.
Model the same behaviors that you are trying to encourage in your children.
Consciously try to catch your children doing something right—reinforce and acknowledge even small steps in the right direction. Don’t wait until they have mastered every new skill. Encourage them along the way.
When your child is breaking a ground rule, there are several things you can do other than scold, threaten, or punish.
You can redirect them by suggesting a more appropriate choice.
You can remind them of the ground rule and politely, but firmly, ask them to stop.
If the event is not emotionally charged, you can calmly re-teach the basic lesson about how to handle such situations.
If you can’t bring yourself to reinforce a rule again and again, it shouldn’t be a ground rule at your house.
A few good rules are much better than dozens of rules that are often ignored.
Why We Don’t Use Threats or Punishments
Threats and punishments are not good tools to get children to behave. While they tend to produce immediate results, they are rarely long-lasting. They only work as long as the person being threatened cares. Many children who respond to threats and are shaken by punishments are anxious to please us and win back our love. On the other hand, when children are angry or are asserting their independence, they often act out and don’t care if they are punished. Punishment is simply not as effective as people tend to believe.
Teach children to do things correctly and emphasize the positive rather than using insults and anger. It’s not always easy. Above all else, try never to ask your children unanswerable questions, such as, “How many times do I have to tell you … ?” to which the appropriate response would be, “I don’t know, Dad! How many times do you have to tell me?” If you ask a silly question, you’re likely to get a silly answer.
Children can correct their own mistakes
Many parents and teachers believe that they can shape a child’s personality and future through strict discipline, but children carry within themselves the key to their own development. Their early attempts to express their individuality are hesitant and tentative. Our children think that adults are all-wise and all-powerful. They are easily overwhelmed by our best intentions. Our efforts to protect children from mistakes that seem so obvious from our perspective tend to frustrate children about the process of learning for themselves about life.
Our goal should be to help children become mature, independent, and responsible. Unfortunately, as parents, we sometimes tend to overprotect our children, not realizing that they can only learn about life through experience, just as we did.
We want to help our children learn to live in peace and harmony with themselves, with all people, and with the environment. We work to create a home in which our children can learn to function as independent, thinking people. To succeed, we need to treat them with respect as full and complete human beings, who happen to be in our care. Our children need to feel that it is okay to be themselves.
Children must feel our respect; it is not simply enough to say the words. If children believe that they are not living up to their parents’ expectations, that their parents are disappointed in the people that they are becoming, there is a very good chance that their lives will be emotionally scarred.
Cutting down on the word “no”
Sooner or later, every child will stubbornly say No, I don’t want to! This is the classic power struggle that starts in the toddler years and, in many cases, continues through adolescence. Many people call the toddler stage the ‘terrible twos,’ but they don’t have to be—not with two-year-olds nor with older children.
Power struggles start in situations where parents and children are each determined to get their own way and are not willing to back down. Underneath, each feels frustrated and threatened. Parents feel that their children are directly challenging their authority. Children, on the other hand, in situations like this, are feeling generally powerless and are attempting to assert their autonomy and establish more of a balance of power in their relationship.
Here are some strategies that may work for you to reduce the number of power struggles and the word No! in your relationships with your children.
Give your children choices. Children desperately long to feel powerful and resent feeling powerless. Whenever you can, look for ways to let your children make a choice between two equally acceptable alternatives. Would you like water or apple juice with dinner tonight?
Teach your children to say no politely. Mom, I really do not feel like doing
Remember that the secret is to speak to them firmly and kindly.
Remember Robert Heinlein’s golden rule of family life: “Kindness and courtesy are even more important between husbands and wives, and parents and children, than between total strangers.”
Look for ways that allow you to back down gracefully from a power struggle without simply giving in. Often, through compromise, both you and your children can get most, if not all, of what you want. “Mom, I have so much homework and an essay to write. Do I have to help with the dishes?” Mom responds, “Yes darling, we all have to help clean up, but working together, it will only take a few minutes. Would you like my help in planning the outline of your essay before you begin?”
Many power struggles seen in some homes are cut down to a minimum simply by teaching your children how to be more independent and giving them meaningful levels of independence and responsibility. This tends to make children feel powerful and grown-up.
Preventing some of the stress in children’s lives
Do not over-schedule your children
Many families try to do too much. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but think long and hard before you sign your child up for dance lessons, baby gym, or any other prescheduled classes for young children. Racing from one scheduled activity to another raises everyone’s stress level and sets the stage for temper tantrums. Allow enough time so that you will not have to race to meet a deadline.
Look for patterns in your children’s behavior
Often there are patterns in family life. If your child tends to have a tantrum when you go shopping, why not leave her with her other parent, a grandparent, or a babysitter?
Talk things through in advance
Children do best when they know their limits in advance. For example, if you are going to the store and your children want to buy a toy, tell them in advance what you will agree to and stick with it.
In Montessori classrooms, the Peace Table is a child-sized table, a plant, a bell, an artificial rose, and possibly a candle. Two children who are having a disagreement decide to retreat to the Peace Table to solve their problem. This can take place at home as well.
Sometimes, children may not remember, and the suggestion might come from the parent or an older brother or sister who, observing the disagreement, might bring them a peace rose (an artificial long-stemmed rose) with the suggestion that they solve their problem at the Peace Table.
Once arrived at the table, a certain procedure ensues. The one who feels wronged places her hand on the table, indicating that she wants to have her say uninterruptedly. The other hand she places on her heart, indicating that she speaks the truth. She then looks her classmate in the eye, speaks her name, and proceeds to explain how she feels, “Sarah, I felt very angry because…” and continues to state why she feels that way, e.g., “because you didn’t let me play with you!”
She then proceeds to state what she wants to see happen to resolve the conflict: “And I don’t want you to do that ever again if you want to be my friend!”
Now that she has stated her case and opened the door for further discussion, she withdraws her hand from the table and from her heart and gives the other child a chance to respond.
The second child proceeds that same way, placing her hands on table and heart, looking the first in the eye, and responds:
“Emily, I feel unhappy that you are angry. I did not mean to hurt your feelings.”
With that, she is finished and withdraws her hands. Now it is the first child’s turn to agree or disagree, in any case, to continue the dialogue until they reach some kind of agreement, even if that means that they disagree. At least they are talking, without yelling, screaming, and blaming. They want to solve the problem. When they have reached an agreement, they ring the bell to let the rest of the class or family know.
In case they cannot come to a positive conclusion, they may ask for a mediator. This may be an older sibling/classmate or a parent/teacher, who has to remain impartial and to listen well.
However, if the problem or conflict is too involved, then one of them may ask for a class or family council, where the entire class or family sit down in a circle, listens to first one, then the other person’s side of the story contributes what they can to it either as facts of what they have seen or heard, or as ethics, right and wrong, or in perspective to rules upon which all have agreed upon previously.
The core experience the children gain from these procedures is that it is necessary to resolve disturbances honestly and with goodwill to maintain an authentically harmonious and cooperative atmosphere. n
Tomorrow’s Child/ November 2017