24 April 2011

Discipline - A Montessori Perspective

Discipline – A Montessori Perspective
The concept of discipline is one that cannot really be examined in isolation. It is inextricably linked with many other developmental areas and philosophical ideas. These include obedience, freedom, and the development of will. When discussing the idea of discipline with parents I always ask them first to consider what obedience means to them. So take a minute to consider what it means to you – jot down some key words to help you to crystallise your understanding of obedience and its interrelated subjects before we examine what Maria Montessori had to say on the topic.
“The basic error is to suppose that a person’s will must be broken before it can obey; meaning before it can accept and follow another person’s direction. When people have fully developed their own powers of volition and then freely choose to follow another person’s orders, we have something very different. Will and obedience then go hand in hand in as much as the will is a prior foundation in the order of development; and obedience is a later stage resting on this foundation. It shows itself spontaneously and unexpectedly at the end of a long process of maturation.” – Maria Montessori
If we break down this statement, into key points we see that:
·                a child cannot obey unless they have developed their will
·                obedience is not something that can be controlled by the adult
·                development of will comes first, obedience comes later
·                obedience relies  upon will power being built up, not broken down
So if we can’t control the child’s ability to obey, then who does?
“The child’s actions in the first period of his life are controlled by the horme alone until the end of the first year.”  The horme is the child’s inner guide (in animals this is called instinct, it is there to ensure survival).
Dr Montessori goes on to say that
“Between the first and the sixth year this aspect becomes less marked as the child unfolds his consciousness and acquires self-control. During this period the child’s obedience is closely connected with the stages of ability that he happens to have reached. Hence we first have to know whether the child’s obedience is practically possible at the level of development he has reached.”
As the child gets older, we can expect more of them because they have more self-control. It is a maturity thing. It helps to think of obedience as a skill like swimming. The older a child is, the more likely that they will be able to do everything that is required to swim safely by themselves. In the same way, the older a child is, the more likely that they will be able to control their will enough in order to obey. We wouldn’t think a child was being naughty if we told him to swim and he couldn’t. So a child isn’t being naughty if we ask him to obey and he can’t. He needs to have control over his will, if he is to obey.
And if the child does not have control over his will?
“Before the child is three he cannot obey unless the order he receives corresponds with one of his vital urges.”
“If the child is not yet master of his actions, if he cannot obey even his own will, so much the less can he obey the will of someone else.”
So we as parents need to understand that:
·                the child under three cannot obey unless the order corresponds directly with his inner guide. This is important – it protects the child’s development from being swayed off course by our interference. It is nature’s way of making sure that every child will have the opportunity to learn and experience the world around them, so that they may develop into adults.
·                This means that when we ask a child to do something that is in conflict with his inner guide he will not be able to comply willingly. We can force him or coerce him into obeying, but it will not be true obedience and may be harmful to his development.

This is corroborated by many people besides Dr Montessori.

“Each human being has marvellous self-regulating mechanisms that are frequently prevented from working because of our interference in vital processes.” – Understanding the Human Being, Silvana Quatrocchi Montanaro

“Children will do what they dislike if they are scolded. However, if they do not have the desire to do it, it will not develop into an ability. When a child has the desire, the ability will become internalised.” – Ability Development from Age Zero, Shinichi Suzuki

“Even if we mean well by our children and are convinced that we know what is good for them, getting them to do our will does not constitute doing them a favour.” – Raising Curious, Creative, Confident Kids, Rebeca Wild

“Actually it is useless to depend upon scoldings and entreaties for the maintenance of discipline. These may at first give the illusion of being somewhat effective; but very soon, when real discipline makes its appearance, all this collapses as an illusion in the face of reality.” – The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori

“The idea of painless, non-threatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it is your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t do what you want.” – How Children Fail, John Holt

We also need to understand that young children are programmed to do whatever it takes in order to satisfy their inner needs. These are not wilful acts of brazen disobedience! The child’s needs are determined by his inner guide, and he is bound by his very nature to do everything he can to obey that inner guide, even if it means disobeying his beloved parent.
So we are left asking ourselves how we can establish limits without inhibiting our child’s natural and necessary development. How do we help our children to develop their will, so that they might be able to obey. Discipline is not what we do to our children, it is how we assist our children to gain control of themselves.
“The first idea that a child must acquire in order to be disciplined is the difference between right and wrong.” – The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori
We help children to understand this by being consistent, by setting boundaries, by communicating in positive terms, by not apologising for enforcing boundaries, by providing lots of opportunities for the right choices and limiting the possibilities for wrong ones.
Children learn discipline through working alongside others and being part of a group/family. Logical discipline. Not arbitrary rules imposed by others.
“Those who want to participate in group work must accept the discipline of the moment, without which the group would not be able to function.” – Raising Curious, Creative, Confident Kids – Rebeca Wild
We need to be conscious of giving the child the right amount of freedom for their personal and individual needs. This is where most people make a mistake in thinking that when Montessori speaks of freedom , she means that the child is able to do whatever he feels like.
“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.” – The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori
So we only give each child, the amount of freedom that they can handle. Sometimes this corresponds to their age, but some children need large amounts of structure and order balanced with small amounts of freedom. “Externally imposed structures remain minimal for what a particular child requires, so the child’s personal control is maximal for what that child can handle.” – Montessori, the Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard
Importantly, limiting freedom does not equate to controlling our children’s choices. It means simply, that we structure the child’s environment to support his ability to make appropriate choices. As an example...My first child, as a toddler, was consumed by the desire to push buttons. He would spend hours in front of our stereo system turning it on and off, on and off. The washing machine and dishwasher suffered a similar fate. Once he discovered the remote control, that too joined his ever-growing repertoire of button-pushing! He was not content with simply pushing a button – he delighted in seeing something happen when the button in question was pushed – hence giving him an old remote with no batteries did nothing to satisfy his need. He was simply unable to curb the impulse to push buttons, and would not be swayed from his purpose. We could have spent the better part of a year yelling, smacking, fighting and arguing with him. Instead we chose to support his need to experiment in this way and learn about operating the machines in his environment by inviting him to push the buttons for every machine, every single time we were going to turn something on or off. This eliminated the conflict over unnecessary button-pushing (which we were concerned about, since let’s face it, a remote control is only designed to be used a few thousand times in its life, and ours were fast reaching their use by date!), and gave him both the opportunity to push the button and contribute to our family life in a real and meaningful way. He would joyfully leap up from whatever he was doing to push any button at our request – and in turn, the random button pushing lost its appeal.
We must structure our environment in order to support the development of a disciplined will.
“We must provide environments for children in which their “human plan” can realise itself. Our question is therefore how we can avoid conditioning from the outside and promote an optimum process of maturing from the inside.” – Raising Curious, Creative, Confident Kids, Rebeca Wild
“Rather than try to correct the visible signs of a deviation from normal development, the adult needs only to offer, in an interesting form, a means for the intelligent development of the norm.” – The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori
We need to remember to help our children to help themselves. Independence leads to strong, positive will development. Learned helplessness is the enemy of discipline.
“He who is served instead of being helped is in a certain sense deprived of his independence. Everyone knows that is requires much more time and patience to teach a child how to eat, wash and clothe himself than it does to feed, bathe and dress him by oneself. The one who does the former is an educator, the latter a servant.” – The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori
In conclusion...we give our children the right amount of freedom for their level of development, within limits that are not too constricting. We help them but don’t do things that they can do for themselves. We use words, or actions, but not at the same time because the child can only process one or the other. We encourage independence which leads to self-control, which leads to discipline, which allows the child to reach the third level of obedience.
Coming soon...Rewards and Punishments – Do they work?


  1. I needed this, thank you. I love how I find just the right parenting advice at a time when I need it most.

  2. I'm glad you found us when you needed to! I love it when that happens to me too!

  3. thank you for this! i think discipline in a montessori environment is one of the most difficult things to understand/explain.

  4. well, thank you so much for this - i, too, needed to read this so very badly. being short on time (2 babies under 2.5 yrs), is there one book you would definitely recommend for further reading on this subject? thank you.

  5. This is fantastic and something I really needed. I am really struggling with dicipline and my 16 month old as I don`t think he is really yet old enough to understand right from wrong.

    One issue I am having with him in particular is climbing- we have the tv on a relatively low shelf and there really is no where else to put it at this point (but when we move we hope to be able to mount it on a wall!) and he is constantly climbing up and pushing the buttons on the tv and holding onto the tv and it is really dangerous. I am consistant in making sure he climbs down and if he doesn`t climb down I get up to help him get down.

    I know because of the height it is inviting to him and I am wondering if there is really nothing I can do until we move to another place.

    I have put out some other things for him to climb on and I allow him to climb on the sofa, bed, etc. At the park he also loves to climb and I help him with this.

    One other thing is throwing food...I know at his age this is completely normal but not sure the best way to approach it- he eats mainly with his hands for all meals except the first part of his dinner usually.

    Any advice you can offer would be great!

    Love this post, thank you!

  6. I think that Alfie Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting, and Marshall Rosenberg's Non Violent Communication are probably the most complimentary resources for parents looking for assistance in building positive relationships with their kids.

  7. Your website is an inspiration and a huge help to us beginners! Thank you

  8. Inner Genius Montessori School finds this article very useful and informative.. thanks a lot!