Montessori Moments

August 25, 2009

Up To the Challenge?

A Montessori teacher recently wrote in her blog that, in her experience, children who are given a choice between Montessori materials and materials thought up by the teacher (such as sorting little balls with tongs and counting different colored rocks) would choose the latter over the Montessori materials.

While this is very sad, the phenomenon does not surprise me one bit in this day and age of over-praising.  From the moment children are born into our society, they are praised and rewarded for everything they do.  I have seen three-year old children praised for getting into their car seats, drinking from a child-sized water fountain, and pushing in their chairs. While all this praise is given to supposedly bolster the little ones’ self-esteem and help them figure out right from wrong, it has quite the opposite impact.

Children who are praised become dependent on external rewards, and quickly become hesitant to try something challenging that will not immediately garner them a rather generic “good job” or a gold star from an adult.  Therefore, it’s logical to assume that they wouldn’t be attracted to any activity that might require them to try, fail, and try again.   Additionally, because some Montessori materials require the child to use his own judgment to evaluate whether he has been successful, they will not be attractive to children who depend on adults to evaluate what is “good” and what isn’t.

As if praise weren’t harmful enough to  young children, they are also living in a society built around instant gratification.  From the time they can sit up, children are placed in front of battery-operated toys that light up and make noise following each interaction.  These children rarely get to experience the internal satisfaction that comes from setting a goal, overcoming challenges, reaching the objective, and actually recognizing that the objective has been reached.

So yeah… Transferring cotton balls with tongs from one bowl to another is a heck of a lot less risky than building the trinomial cube.  But which one is more rewarding, in the TRUE sense of the word?

If you think that a three-year old child is too young to have been “broken” by rewards, think again.  I once saw a three-year old outside an IKEA who was refusing to enter the enormous store with her parents.  The mother insisted, and the child replied, “I’ll go into the store if you give me an Oreo.”  The mother turned purple as she tried to swallow an overflowing spoonful of her own bitter medicine.

Parents think they are responsible for doling out rewards, and yet human beings are not born with a need for them… Babies are risk-takers, stopping at nothing to achieve their goals of learning about the world.  I’ve never seen anyone strike their head against the floor so many times as a baby who is learning how to stand.  They hit that floor HARD!  And yet, they try over and over again until they are successful.   Do they stand up any faster if we give them a gold star?  No.  Will they take longer to stand up if we ignore them?  Again, no.  They stand up when they are good and ready, after they have tried many alternatives and have learned what works best.  Where does this internal drive go?  Once it’s lost, can we ever get it back?

If everyone could choose between doing busywork in their office (which, while boring, is a safe bet and gets you a secure paycheck) or undertaking the challenges of starting a business (which, while being very challenging and risky, is also immensely rewarding and educational), which one would most people choose?  Why do you think that is?

Which kind of person do you want your child to be?  It’s all in your hands.

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