“Rewards and punishments are…the worst enemies of the child's natural development. A jockey gives sugar to his horse before the race, but uses his spurs and whip when they’re behind in the race. However, do any of these methods induce the animal to run fast and proud like a horse of the plains?”
— Maria Montessori | The San Francisco Call and Post, 1915
More than 100 years ago, Maria Montessori observed that rewards and punishments did not have much meaning for young children, and so in Montessori classes this type of method is never used to modify wrong behaviour or to encourage positive attitudes.
Montessori had understood that children must first feel the motivation for change within themselves, and not simply as something necessary to please adults.
To achieve this goal, it was therefore essential for children to first work on their own self-motivation.
If children change a form of behaviour that we think is wrong or, for example, they only study to please an adult and receive a “reward” or avoid punishment, this will bring results only in the immediate future and will probably develop into a range of situations leading to arguments between children and parents.
To do something positive or not to do something negative merely for an external purpose or consequence means not living one's own life and will, but someone else’s.
It simply means obeying and not developing one's own critical thinking.
So let’s ask ourselves what we really want as parents: children who, as adults, will comply with the highway code because it is the right thing to do or just for fear of getting a fine?
Montessori strongly believed in children’s potential, including that of being able to build their own intrinsic motivation, but clearly this does not mean that from the beginning we will see them miraculously self-motivated and independent, with flawless behaviour and focused on their homework.
A child’s concentration needs help and training to be able to develop, it requires an environment and a guide that accompanies it on the path of self-motivation.
It is not an easy job for a parent: failures and moments of frustration will be common practice especially at the beginning, but then perseverance will bear its fruits.
Why don’t punishments help parents in their educational role?
The effect of a system for bringing up children that is based on rewards and punishments, which many of us will be used to and probably still believe in, does not allow children to learn to reflect on their behaviour and on any consequences that it may entail, because their behaviour will only be governed by the reaction that they expect from adults.
In the long run, this type of educational relationship not only fails to help a child to grow up in terms of awareness and learn to distinguish right from wrong, but it also tends to emotionally alienate parents and children from each other.
Often, negative or confrontational behaviour on the part of our children are “shouts for attention” in search of a safe haven where they can find welcoming answers. If we expect our children to already know how to behave in every situation, to know how to use crayons on a piece of paper without ever dirtying the floor, to know how to carry a glass of water without ever dropping it, or that they should understand the sense of duty at school already at the age of six, the problem definitely lies with the adults and the expectations they have created with respect to the child.
Misbehaviours do not automatically imply that the child is “naughty” and as adults we should not use words that end up labelling the person rather than the behaviour.
Can a chair for reflection or a time-out be a useful alternative to punishment?
In recent years, the practice of the “chair for reflection” or “time-out” has gained popularity. It consists of removing a child that has behaved inappropriately and sitting them on a chair or in a place alone without games or activities so that they can think and reflect on what they have done.
This practice may, in the eyes of an adult, seem fair and far from a real punishment, but essentially it is.
Firstly, because it makes the children feel they are rejected by the adult and secondly because it conveys the message that others will no longer love them if they do not comply with their wishes and this has a strong impact on the child’s self-esteem.
In addition, it does not even teach them how to handle an emotionally complex situation, because in this case the only solution that the adult gives them is removal and no way to share their point of view in the relationship.
Moreover, children in early childhood have not yet structured their own emotional self-regulation because their brain and nervous system that are there to control their impulses and emotions, are still immature.
No child up to the age of six is really in a position to reflect in solitude on their own behaviour with a view to changing their future actions.
In these cases it would certainly be more useful and meaningful for a child if adults could understand the child’s feelings in a difficult time, suspending judgement on their behaviour; this does not mean not giving the appropriate weight to wrong behaviour, but rather conveying to our children that we can all make mistakes and that we are there to accept them even when they are in the wrong, to guide and support them to do better next time.
As educators we should always bear in mind that practice and perseverance in the face of failure help the brain development of children and that it is the mistake that teaches them something, not punishment.
So, is it better not to punish and to give rewards all the time?
No, not at all! Even praise and rewards if not contextualised but used disproportionately are harmful, because they do not push the child towards their own self-motivation, but towards the constant search for external approval or gratification.
As with punishments, adults are also the judge when it comes to rewards and so the child does not find the motivation to behave properly internally but externally.
This is an example of “conditional parenting” that teaches our children just one thing: behaving in a certain way to receive our awards becomes a parameter for children to measure how much they are loved and appreciated by us.
And this is just another method of control, just like punishment.
To give a concrete example, when a child shows us a job which they are proud of instead of saying “How wonderful, you deserve a sweet” or “How clever you are!”, phrases that say nothing about their commitment in producing the task, we could say: “You must have worked hard to get this great result, be proud of yourself.”
Recognition that focuses specifically on commitment drives our children to seek intrinsic motivation rather than external approval.
If we only use praise and rewards to change wrong behaviour, when these are no longer there, their behaviour will go back to what it was before. The most important thing we must pass on to our sons and daughters is love and respect, making them understand that we do not want to change them, but only to help them improve their actions.
Dozens of studies and research suggest that punishments and rewards are not really opposites, but two sides of the same coin because both tend to want to manipulate behaviour. What we need to create and nurture in children is not the question “What happens to me if I don’t do what they ask?” or “I’ll do it so they’ll give me something” but rather: “What kind of person do I want to be?”
“No one who has ever done anything truly great or successful did so simply because they were attracted by what we call ‘reward’ or fear of what we call ‘punishment’.”
— Translated from: Maria Montessori, La scoperta del bambino (The Discovery of the Child)
- Maria Montessori, La scoperta del bambino, 1950
- Alfie Kohn, Amarli senza se e senza ma. Dalla logica dei premi e delle punizioni a quella dell’amore, 2010
- Maria Montessori, The San Francisco Call and Post, 1915
- Michele Borba, Thrivers, 2021