What is your discipline style?
This question was asked of me when I enrolled my son in The Children’s House, and I am having to answer it again for my daughter’s enrollment. I love that our school opens this conversation with parents because there’s immense benefit to supporting our children as a team with consistency.
Am I too firm? Too weak? Too flexible? Too rigid? With my first-born, I knew styles ranged from authoritarian to permissive, and I often felt somewhere in the middle, but there was one term in particular that kept popping up through my own learning curve with Montessori – “respectful parenting.”
At first impression, I assumed this concept wasn’t for moms like me. Not at all in the sense that I was ever a disrespectful parent, but because the label of “respectful parent” evoked a standard of perfection in my mind. It was embodying patience, calm, reason, empathy – all the things I already strive for but realistically fall short of because I am human. Furthermore, the ideal of being calm and gentle sometimes misconstrues respectful discipline with permissiveness, even though it is not permissive.
Despite my worry I was not patient enough, I dove more into this conscious decision to discipline gently and respectfully. Punishment, where it might be the assumed approach from generations past, did not address the underlying needs behind my children’s misbehaviors. As this blog by Karen Young so beautifully puts it: “Discipline was never meant to be about punishment. It comes from the word ‘disciple,’ as in ‘to teach,’ not ‘to punish.’ Teaching our children the lessons that matter will only happen when they are in a brain state, which is consistent with feeling safe. For them to be open to rational information, ask questions, reflect on their behavior, and think about a better way to do things, the prefrontal cortex needs to be on board. This will only happen when they are feeling calm, safe, and connected to a trusted adult.”
The Montessori Approach
As time passed with my son’s first year in The Children’s House, I began to see the striking effectiveness of the Montessori approach to discipline: How are the children so respectful and orderly, while simultaneously having so much freedom? There is a lot that can be said for treating each child as a whole capable person, and for holding adults accountable to modeling social graces with an emphasis on social skills.
Montessori guides do not utilize punishment; they focus on consequences. Dr. Maria Montessori, who originally founded her method with children deemed “unteachable,” discovered that true discipline comes from within the child – not from an external, authoritative source. In other words, it is not through obsessing over blind obedience that a child becomes disciplined; It is through life experience.
This makes sense when we think about discipline among ourselves as adults. True discipline is not making good choices because someone tells us to do so; it is making good choices because our internal moral compass tells us it is the right thing to do.
Therefore, it is less important that we control our children’s behaviors, and more important that we show our children how to behave.
If it works in the classroom, can it work at home?
In theory, I whole-heartedly agree with this. In practice at our home, it is hard! I do lose my patience, but I’ve learned that this is simply a normal part of respectful parenting – not an exclusion to it. I do not have to be a perfect parent to approach discipline with respect, I just have to keep an open perspective. I need humility more than patience.
Only when I am humble will I better be able to meet my children where they are. Take bedtime for example. We are coming off of a relaxed summer where the sun stayed bright far too long, and so returning to an orderly bedtime has been tough. My knee-jerk response was punitive. I began to yell, take away unrelated comfort measures like my son’s desire to have the hallway nightlight on, and my least-proud response was, “If you don’t go to bed now, then tomorrow we are not going to the park.”
Ouch. I knew these reactions were unnecessarily negative before they even left my mouth. My patience was empty. I did however, have the capacity for a dose of humility.
What was actually going on in our nighttime routine? What might I be overlooking here? The next day, my sweet son said, “Mommy, I did fall asleep! Can I still go to the park?”
My heart sank.
I apologized for reacting with anger, and explained to him that I do not want bedtime to feel bad because bedtime is a good thing. I explained that sleep is so important for him to grow healthy and strong. When he stays up too late, he misses this important boost to his body and mind. He listened intently and wanted to know more about the benefits of sleep to his body.
We ended this discussion with a new plan – one in which I realized my expectations were previously too high. I was tucking them in for the night first, allowing them to get up for quiet play, but then arbitrarily returning expecting them to be asleep. They were missing a concrete limit on when quiet play was supposed to end, and they were missing guidance on settling back down to sleep.
“From now on, instead of tucking you in before quiet play, we will let you go right into quiet play after pajamas. We will set a timer so you can hear a beep when bedtime is to start. Then, after the beep, we will come back to tuck you in to sleep.”
Taking away his nightlight only served to make him feel insecure in his bedroom, and threatening to take away a fun outing to the park the next day was not actually an appropriate consequence. It was punishment. The consequence of missing bedtime is losing the energy to get through the next day, and maybe missing the park due to fatigue – but not because of losing my love and desire to connect with him.
Sure enough, a few nights in our new calm, respectful bedtime routine, order returned. It had nothing to do with finding a magical reserve of patience and everything to do with admitting that I, as the imperfectly impatient adult, was overlooking a valid need.
Furthermore, I was certainly not permissive because I did not back out of a bedtime limit; I just learned to deliver my limits without fear, guilt or shame. And in doing so, my patience was actually restored.
“The undisciplined child enters into discipline by working in the company of others; not by being told that he is naughty … Improvement and rectification can only come about when the child practices voluntarily for a long time.” – Maria Montessori
About the Author
Jenna Wawrzyniec is a writer and Montessori-inspired mother of two children under the age of four. Her two dogs also count as children. Read more of her work at itslittlebird.com.
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