Praise vs Acknowledgement: a Montessori perspective

I have been thinking about this article for months and I was waiting for my head to finally feel ready for it. Praise versus acknowledgement is an important subject when it comes to self-esteem and confidence.

We went from one extreme to another, in the past, people were expected to work hard, and no praise was given or expected and on the contrary, negative criticism would be given to fix mistakes. A few decades later, we reached the other side of the spectrum, people are scared of hurting children’s self-esteem so they started to praise and “GOOD JOB!” and “GOOD GIRL/BOY!” were heard all over schools, homes, stores, everywhere.

But the irony is that none of these did any good to children’s self-esteem or confidence. They were both focusing on giving an opinion of the result of what a child or an adult would do. The old times created people with low self-esteem and the latter created a generation expecting constant external validation without which they cannot feel confident.

Psychology studies seem to find that an in-between is best. Montessori falls into this category.

pink tower process
It is the process that counts.

 

What we want is to have children happy and proud of the work they did and the process they used, we don’t want to focus as much on the result. Why? Because the result can be depreciative when a lot of work has been put into it but what we want is not to discourage people (child or adult). Being discouraged will make the child stop trying. However, an acknowledgement of the process keeps the child making effort until she can realize she succeeded. Montessori activities provide a control of error that helps the child see if she reached the result that is expected. Be patient, the child will get there by herself.

 

 

What can we say instead of “Good job!… Amazing!… Good girl/boy”

In Montessori we :

  • Acknowledge the result (« You did build the tower”, “You helped me put the dishes away, thank you!”, “You read that word all by yourself…)
  • Encourage the effort or the process (« You put a lot of effort into this work”, “I see you used a lot of blue, do you like blue?”)

 

It is more about showing the child we have noticed what she is showing us. If it is the first time they do something, you could comment on the result but you don’t have to, especially if the child still seems very focused and is not asking for external validation. We also acknowledge (but not praise) when the child seems to want us to notice what she did.

happy smile
The smile of inner self-esteem and confidence growing after a lot of work has been put into this button frame.

This is why we think our activities through, what is offered to the child has a meaning to us, the child needs to work at it and she might feel frustrated at first because it is not easy but with acknowledgement of the effort, she can keep on going until she is satisfied and happy of the result herself. What we want is to avoid the NEED for external validation that is very present nowadays. A friend told me recently that her partner has been praised constantly as a child and later on. He is now constantly frustrated because his boss does not seem to care about his work. How is he going to overcome this ingrained feeling that he does not need someone else to feel validated.

My final word would be : “Let yourself be proud as a caregiver/parent but let the child be proud without you, in all independence.”

As a parent/teacher, I do feel proud of my child/students and when I do, I pat myself on the back because it took some work to prepare the right environment for them and I reward myself at time (your choice of glass of favourite drink, little sweet indulgence such as a croissant for example) but I let the child build her confidence. I also watch for these satisfied, inner happiness smiles children have when they feel proud of themselves: they did it by themselves and for themselves.

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