When working with Montessori teachers, we always start by asking them to list their current stressors. Inevitably, they share that children exhibit a high degree of disrespect, entitlement, and lack of self-regulation. Children don’t listen to adults. Teachers overwhelmingly agree that these behaviors are more frequent and blatant now than when they grew up or when they first started working with children. Teachers who’ve been in their profession for a while observe that schoolwide misbehavior seems more intense than in previous generations. They often ask: What happened to the good old days, when children respected adults? Where are all these behavioral issues coming from? Is it environmental? Is it parenting? Too much screen time?
The Culture Shift
Was there really such a thing as the good old days? We know that, since there have been children, there has been misbehavior; however, there have been some significant changes in society in the last fifty years that have impacted children. We believe that these changes provide an explanation for some of the differences that we are seeing in children’s behavior today; it can help us prepare the social-emotional environment in our classrooms to help compensate for outside factors beyond our control (e.g., video games, diet, materialism, entitlement, and child-centered homes where children decide what and where to eat, what to watch on TV, etc.). Fifty years ago, the world was rife with models of authoritarian leadership and submission. You could find examples at home, where dad’s word was final; in workplaces where the boss was the boss; and in schools where the teacher was considered a highly respected authority figure. In those good old days, there was cultural support for top-down (or vertical) leadership. Parents didn’t ‘advocate’ for their children. If a child was reprimanded at school or in his neighborhood, his parents were likely to take the adult’s word for what happened without much interest in what the child had to say. Neighbors could discipline each other’s children with the full blessing of the parents.
Through the rose-colored glasses of educators who grew up in an authoritarian culture, it may seem like authoritarian methods ‘worked,’ because children are remembered as being more compliant and obedient. On a tough day, compliant and obedient children might seem like water in the desert to a discouraged teacher. But what are the long-term results of demanding that children be compliant and obedient? Too often children become ‘approval junkies’ or ‘rebels without a cause, except when they need to prove, “You can’t make me!”
Montessori wrote, “No social problem is as universal as the oppression of the child.”1 And while it may have seemed easier to require children to comply in an authoritarian culture, the result was the oppression of the child’s spirit. Oppression was the very thing that human rights advocates have been fighting against for decades. It is oppression that Montessori felt was the root cause of war.
At the turn of the last century, educational and psychological pioneers, such as Maria Montessori and Alfred Adler, were writing and lecturing about a radical idea: equality even for children (including equal rights to dignity and respect). While this idea would not meet much resistance today, it was considered counterculture at the time.
During the 1960s and 1970s, human rights movements gained momentum. The idea that all people were worthy of dignity and respect gained wider acceptance in western cultures; however, this was a messy and arduous process, especially for parents and educators.
The rules were being rewritten; yet, parents and teachers did not yet have cultural support and access to respectful discipline tools to replace the old authoritarian methods. As a result, like most countercultural movements, the pendulum swung the other way, and permissive parenting and teaching became more common. We are still reeling from this pendulum swing today.
Soon, alternative or experimental parenting models gained traction. Especially in the home, yelling was replaced with discussion, bargaining, and negotiating. Spankings were replaced with time-outs. Punishments were replaced with rewards. Children were given more freedom and more choices—but without limits or responsibility. The authoritarian top-down model of parenting and teaching was replaced with permissiveness.
The problem with permissiveness, though, is that it is still top-down. It’s just that the roles are reversed. In the permissive model, the child is on top and the adult is on the bottom. As Maria Montessori wrote, “To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”2
Children today are exposed to a myriad of stimuli that vie for their attention. Children have more things, more entertainment, more recreational experiences, more toys, more media, more ‘educational’ experiences that deliver information without true interaction, more activities, more everything. Children are the center of the universe. They often decide what kind of meals are prepared at home and where the family should go when eating out. On the other hand, they are often not taught many real-world skills. In our frenzy for progress, we have inadvertently stolen opportunities for true human connection, discovery, and exploration.
Fewer Opportunities for Real Responsibility
We do not need children the way that we did up to the early part of the twentieth century. Children, generally, are no longer needed to make the farm or the household run on a day-to-day basis or to bring income into the home.
(Chip) grew up in a farming community in upstate New York. It was not uncommon for some of my classmates to have been up since before daylight doing chores to help keep the family farm going. Most twelve-year-olds who lived on working farms had tractor licenses. They didn’t spend their weekends playing soccer, taking dance lessons, or having play-dates. Those of us who didn’t live on a farm had paper routes, mowed lawns, worked in small shops, and had responsibilities at home. It was real work. It was real responsibility.
Real responsibility gave young people the opportunity to develop some incredible life skills. They knew that they were needed and that they were capable. They had the opportunity to develop practical life skills and qualities, such as resilience, perseverance, self-discipline, responsibility, and a strong work ethic. Children were needed but not usually respected or treated as equal in value to adults.
( Jane) grew up in a city; however, children were still expected to do chores, including scrubbing toilets. Having homework was not an acceptable excuse. And my parents didn’t help with homework; that was considered my responsibility. There wasn’t any pressure to get good grades to get into a good college. Most girls got married right out of high school and were expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers. Fortunately, a wise mentor advised me to take one college class a semester so I would have a degree by the time my children were grown. Eleven years and five children later, I received my BA.
As the movement to value children gained momentum, we provided them fewer opportunities to truly feel needed. Today, most children don’t make their own lunches for school, and many don’t have chores. In the name of love, they are given too much and required to do too little. They develop an attitude of entitlement. In an effort to give children ‘the best,’ adults have robbed them of the opportunity to develop strong characters and to experience the sense of belonging (unconditional love) and significance (capability and responsibility) that comes with making a meaningful contribution.
Many people are drawn to the concept of ‘positive discipline,’ because they are against punishment and authoritarian methods of discipline. However, some ‘positive discipline’ followers mistakenly perceive that the best way to avoid authoritarian methods is to simply provide love. This can lead to permissiveness, because these parents are kind (to provide love) but are not firm (which helps children experience significance through learning skills for responsibility and capability).
You can give children love, but they need to develop responsibility. When parents don’t understand the importance of helping children develop responsibility, children often fall into the trap of pampering, which often leads to development of an ‘entitlement’ mentality. When parents understand the difference between belonging and significance (along with the importance of balancing both), they can help children develop the characteristics and life skills they need for successful living.
The Montessori curriculum is designed for children to develop a sense of significance through responsibility and capability. As you will soon see, a sense of belonging is created through the basic ‘positive discipline’ concept of ‘connection before correction’ and the involvement in daily class meetings to give and receive compliments and to focus on solutions.
Another dynamic to mention is that of family size and birth order. In addition to today’s busy lives, where children are given more and less is required of them, families are also having fewer children than at any other time in our recent history. Most families today have one or two children. Today it is not uncommon for a classroom to be populated with many only children. Recently, my (Chip’s) school had a classroom of twenty-two children, of which seventeen were only children and the rest younger siblings (no middle children). While the research on birth order is controversial, many teachers report noticeable anecdotal effects. With smaller families comes more adult help and intervention. There are fewer opportunities for children to develop responsibility and more opportunities for parents to do for children what they can do for themselves.
In today’s world, providing opportunities for children to contribute in meaningful ways and develop true responsibility takes intentionality. It’s hard work.
If you have ever had a small class size, you know how hard it can be to promote independence among the children and how intentional you need to be to do so. When I (Chip) was a young teacher, just learning the ropes, I thought I would prefer a smaller class size. It seemed more manageable in many ways (giving lessons, staying organized, managing behavior, etc.). However, it turned out to be a lot more work. While I was able to give the children more individualized attention, the more I gave them, the more they seemed to need, both socially and academically.
After a few years of experience, I was given a much larger class of thirty students. With more students, the children had to become more independent. Out of necessity I had to learn to trust the children, and as a result I found out how responsible, independent, and capable they could be. More importantly, they discovered their own capabilities. It was amazing to see them rise to the occasion, just as Montessori had said they would.
In addition to increased permissive parenting, fewer opportunities for true responsibility, and fewer siblings, we have other external factors that affect children’s behavior. Screen time now dominates the hours spent at home; children are over-scheduled; some children rarely see their parents because of busy work schedules; there are a variety of lifestyle choices and family structures; there are violent video games and cyberbullying.
The good news is, that while the modern factors that affect children are real and significant, misbehavior is not new. In The Secret of Childhood, a teacher writes to Montessori about her experience with “pampered children”:
An American teacher, Miss G., wrote to me as follows from Washington: “The children snatched the objects from each other’s hands. If I tried to show something to one of them, the others would drop what they had in their hands and gather noisily about me. When I finished explaining an object, they would all fight for it. The children showed no real interest in the various materials. They passed from one object to another without lingering over any of them. One child was so incapable of staying in one place that he could not remain seated long enough to run his hands over any of the objects given to him. In many instances movement of the children was aimless: they simply ran about the room heedless of the damage done. They ran into the table, upset chairs, and trampled upon the material provided for them. Sometimes they would begin to work in one spot, then run off, take another object, and abandon it for no reason whatsoever.” 3
Sound familiar? This is a wonderful reminder that we are not alone and that the good old days were not always easy. Today’s problems are not new problems, even if some behaviors are exacerbated by different factors. Maria Montessori, Alfred Adler, and Rudolf Dreikurs were brilliant thinkers. Their philosophies have survived and grown while many others have come and gone. And we have to admit that we are delighted that neuroscience now validates the effectiveness of these methods that have contributed so much to the world of happier parents, teachers, and children.
Excerpted from Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom: Preparing an Environment that Fosters Respect, Kindness & Responsibility. Originally
Jane Nelsen, EdD, is a California Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and author or co-author of nearly 20 positive discipline books, including Positive Discipline Parenting Tools with her daughter, Mary, and her son, Brad; and numerous experiential training manuals for parents, teachers, couples, and businesses. She earned her doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco, but her formal training has been secondary to her hands-on training as the mother of seven, grandmother of twenty-two, and great-grandmother of eighteen. She now shares this wealth of knowledge and experience as a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader throughout the world. Learn more about Jane’s work at: www.positivediscipline.com
Chip DeLorenzo, MEd, is a school consultant and positive discipline trainer; he specializes in training staff and administration at schools worldwide in positive discipline methods and practices. Chip served as Head of School of the Damariscotta Montessori School, in Nobleboro, Maine, for twenty years. A veteran teacher and school administrator, he began his teaching career in 1995 after serving in the United States Air Force and working as a financial advisor. Chip is the father of four amazing Montessori children. Lean more about Chip’s work at: www.chipdelorenzo.com
3 Montessori, M. The Secret of Childhood (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2013), 143–144.