Menu
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.

FEATURED VIDEO

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.

When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.

FEATURED VIDEO

The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.



As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

As a mom of three, I frequently get a question from moms and dads of two children: “Ok, so the jump to three...how bad is it?"

Personally, I found the transition to having even one kid to be the most jarring. Who is this little person who cries nonstop (mine had colic) and has no regard for when I feel like sitting/eating/resting/sleeping?

Keep reading Show less
Life