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Montessori at home: why punishment doesn’t work—but consequences do

Like many Montessorians, I’ve used open, glass cups for my son to drink out of since he was 6 months old. People sometimes ask, “Won't the glasses break? Won’t he spill?” The answer is of course, yes!

This is a natural consequence in its simplest form.

Breaking is a natural consequence of dropping something. Spilling is a natural consequence of rushing or not holding something carefully. In the event of a spill, we stop what we’re doing and clean it up. With time, this teaches a child to be more careful as he sees what happens when he’s not.

Natural consequences can be applied to all sorts of behavior from simple things like spilling, to more complicated situations like treating siblings with kindness.

Montessori schools and homes use natural consequences because we don’t want children to behave well out of fear of punishment, we want them to do the right thing because they understand the impact of their actions.

These articles in Psychology Today confirm that punishment is not an effective way to teach children to do the right thing. Instead, it encourages children to lie about their behavior and shames them into feeling bad about themselves. It also hurts our connection with our children, which is the most powerful tool we have to influence behavior.

Alternatively, a child who understands the natural consequences of his actions will learn to make responsible choices of his own free will, rather than to please you or avoid punishment. He will make good choices even when you’re not looking, because he understands the reason for them. And when he slips up, as we all do, he will hopefully see that the consequence is at least fair, if unpleasant.

Choosing how to discipline your child is a personal choice, and often a contentious one, but if you’d like to try using natural consequences at home, here are 10 examples to get you started:

1. Scenario: It’s time to leave for the park and your son refuses to put on his shoes.

Consequence: He will have to sit on a bench with you at the park rather than play because it’s not safe to play on the playground without shoes.

2. Scenario: Your daughter throws all of her peas on the floor at dinner time.

Consequence: She does not get to eat any peas.

3. Scenario: Your son leaves his toys outside, despite reminders to clean them up.

Consequence: It rains and one of his favorite toys is ruined and has to be thrown away.

4. Scenario: Your daughter calls her sister a mean name.

Consequence: Her sister doesn’t want to play with her.

5. Scenario: Your son is running in the house, which is against the rules.

Consequence: A lamp gets broken and he has to use many weeks’ worth of allowance to pay for it.

Natural consequences are one of the best ways to show children that their choices have an impact, on both themselves and others. However, children must be able to see the link between the action and the consequence for this to be effective.

Sometimes, an undesired behavior does not have an immediate natural consequence. For example, refusing to brush teeth will lead to cavities in the future, but explaining that to a young child is not likely to change his behavior in the moment.

In cases where there is no natural consequence, or the consequence is too far in the future to be an effective deterrent, we turn to logical consequences.

A logical consequence is something linked to the child’s behavior, but it is something we as adults create, rather than something that happens naturally.

Here are some examples of logical consequences:

1. Scenario: Your daughter hits someone on the playground.

Consequence: You tell your daughter that you can’t trust her to play on her own when she is hurting other people. She must stand with you until you know she can be safe.

This should be said in as neutral a tone as possible. It’s not a lecture, you’re just explaining the impact of her choices and making it clear that the behavior is not acceptable.

You can also explain the longer-term natural consequences if your child can understand. You might say, “If you hit other children, they won’t want to play with you.”

2. Scenario: Your son is being rough with the library books you brought home.

Consequence: You put away the library books, explaining that if he can’t take care of them, he won’t be able to read them as they must be in good condition when returned to the library. (If your child is older, you might prefer the natural consequence and let him rip the pages, and then save up to pay the library fee.)

3. Scenario: Your daughter is playing in the backyard. You’ve asked her to be careful of the garden, but she is trampling it.

Consequence: You ask her to come inside. If she can’t be respectful of your garden, she will not be able to play around it.

4. Scenario: Your son throws a tantrum every time he has to leave his friend’s house.

Consequence: You say no to the next play date invitation, explaining to your child that you will not be able to have playdates with that friend until he can leave calmly when it’s time.

5. Scenario: Your child repeatedly gets out of bed at night, waking you several times.

Consequence: You explain in the morning that you’re too tired to make the usual pancakes because you were woken up so many times. It will have to be a simple breakfast of toast or cereal.

The key with consequences is making sure your child understands the logic of how they relate to his behavior. Unlike punishment, this does not shame the child or incite fear. It simply imparts the message that actions have consequences.

You won’t need to lecture or yell because the consequences speak for themselves.

Christina is a Montessori teacher for 3-6 year olds, certified by the American Montessori Society. She currently stays home to take care of her son, James. She lives in Austin, Texas, and writes a blog, http://montessoriishmom.com, chronicling her journey through motherhood the Montessori way.

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