Monday, February 13, 2012

Dr. Montessori on Rewards and Walking

    This past weekend was a very exciting weekend in our household; Q-ball started walking!  But, because of our belief in Dr. Montessori's methods as well as a the desire to follow principles of positive discipline and unconditional parenting, Daddy and I worked to ensure that we did not let our excitement diminish Q-ball's own excitement, sense of accomplishment, and desire to continue to work towards mastery. Watching Q-ball learn to walk has allowed me to observe two of Dr. Montessori's ideas firsthand- 1) her reservations towards rewards and 2) her concept of a sensitive period towards walking.

    I believe that Q-ball had been mentally preparing for her attempt throughout the evening. She demanded to get down from her high-chair during dinner and speedily crawled to a wide-open space. Suddenly, although wobbly, she was on her feet with arms flapping. And, then she was on her rear.  But, then she was up again with arms flapping, and then she took three steps! And, then she was on her rear.  She did not look to Mama and Daddy for a verbal reward or encouragement.  In fact, she did not realize that we were watching.  She was so focused on the work of walking that she hardly cared what we were doing.
    Instead of rushing towards her and showering her with "way to go," "good job," and "you are the world's best (and cutest!) baby!" (which would have, no doubt, knocked her over anyways...), we simply looked at each other with happy disbelief and continued our conversation. But, Q-ball was already on her feet to try again. 
   This expereince is very similar to the observations that Dr. Montessori describes in The Discovery of the Child that encouraged her to shy away from a system of rewards and punishments (i.e. praise, grades, threats, and criticism)  within an educational and developmental environment.  In one of her Children's Homes, Dr. Montessori observed two children- one being punished by time-out (or "forced isolation" in the words of Unconditional Parenting's Alfie Kohn) and the other had been rewarded with a large star to wear on his chest. The "good" child was allowed to continue his work and, while busy with his materials, dropped his star.  This child did not even notice he had lost his reward, but the "bad" child quickly asked to pick it up and have it.  The rewarded child was "[indifferent]" to his reward and gave it away without a care. Dr. Montessori concluded, "This pendant could satisfy the naughty one, but not the child contented with his work!"  
   Q-ball does not need us to give verbal praise for her accomplishment. Ultimately, most people provide praise as a means to getting a behavior to continue.  However, the fact that she immediately gets up from falling with a huge smile on her face, ready to try her next steps, indicate that she is internally driven and satisfied with her work.  No additional, exaggerated praise necessary.
   Which leads to the second observation of Dr. Montessori's work...

The Sensitive Period for Walking
     Dr. Montessori believes that very young children undergo a number of "sensitive periods" during which they are especially excited and willing to learn specific skills.  The sensitive period for walking is somewhere between one and two years. Dr. Montessori saw walking as a critical development for children as it provides them with a new sense of independence.  But, she believed that children who are learning to walk view the activity in a very different way than adults do.  While we walk to get to a specific destination or to reach a goal, children walk just to walk.  "The small child walks to develop his powers, he is building up his being. He goes slowly. He has neither rhythmic step nor goal. But things around him allure him and urge him forward."  Q-ball's walking over the last few days has certainly demonstrated this.  
   We have also worked to honor Q-ball's work in developing her walking skills by letting her always lead the way.  We rarely have "helped" her walk since she took her first step (although when a baby is clinging to one's leg as one is frantically trying to finish dinner, one doesn't want to just knock baby to the ground.)  Dr. Montessori also saw this respect for allowing the child to lead while working towards mastery of walking when she said, "If the adult would be of help, [the child] must renounce his own rhythm and his own aim."

   It's amazing to watch Q-ball push herself as she is learning to master a new task. While I'm avoiding providing too many rewards in her presence, I'll happy use this medium to say, "Way to go, Q-ball!  You are the best baby ever!!!"  (Alas, avoiding giving praise is tough!)  

Crain, W. (2011) Theories of development: Concepts and applications. NY: Prentice Hall.
Montessori, M. (1936). The secret of childhood. (M.J. Costelloe, trans.). NY: Ballantine Books, 1966.
Montessori, M. (2004) The discovery of the child. Dehli, India: Aakar Books.

What was it like watching your child learn to walk or master another milestone? Did you provide them with reinforcement?


  1. I love this! It's fun to read about your daughter's first steps, and I love the way you used Montessori quotes and principles in your post. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page:

  2. Thanks so much! Going back and finding Montessori's actual texts has been really interesting and informative!


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