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More Choices. Less Discipline.

More Choices. Less Discipline.


In my 20+ years of experience as a Montessori educator, I have found there is often a misunderstanding in the general population of just what discipline means. Discipline is often thought of as something that is external and imposed on children by adults. Most of society would agree that a disciplined child is one who is obedient, compliant and does what the adult says because the adult said to do it.

Disciplining a child typically includes some method of punishment or reward to get the child to do what the adult wants. More often than not, this creates a situation of temporary compliance. By solely punishing or rewarding a behavior, no internal control is being developed within the child. What happens when the external control is no longer there? Can the child control himself when a parent isn’t there to punish or reward them?

What if it could be different? What if discipline was the result of a child learning to decide for himself to make the right choice?

It is possible! So, how do we help guide a child to self-discipline? Giving up external praise, rewards and punishment is one way. The Montessori philosophy of education leverages children’s ability to make good choices as its foundation. The goal of the philosophy is to help children become independent, caring and self-directed human beings; we need to think about the language we use with children and help them to learn responsibility at an early age. The founder of the philosophy, Maria Montessori, said, “discipline evolves: it is not automatic.”

Chick Moorman is an accomplished educator and consultant for teaching and parenting. Over his many years of experience, he has created tools that are congruent with Montessori philosophy that can be easily implemented.

Tools to consider:

  • If a child asks a question that you would say yes to, instead say to them, “You decide.” This helps them feel like they are capable and that you think they are capable of making a good decision!
  • Give children choices between things that are acceptable to you. “Do you want to do your math or your spelling first?” This limits options for children who are not yet able to make good choices for themselves.
  • Be a first time responder. If a child is disruptive or doesn’t comply with an expectation, he doesn’t get until the count of three to make a different choice. Say it once, and if he doesn’t comply, then go to him and guide him to a better choice.
  • Help children to realize that everything is a choice that they are making. Use language like, “When you choose to throw your materials, you are choosing not to use them. You will have another opportunity tomorrow to make a different choice.” This type of communication gives children a sense of accountability for their choices. You are not imparting consequences or punishment on them, you are allowing them to make a choice!

Chick Moorman says, “opportunity = responsibility”

Montessori philosophy says, “freedom = responsibility”

When children choose to be responsible in the Montessori classroom or at home, they choose to have the freedom and the possibility to thrive!

I often share an experience I had with my son when he was 18 months old when I talk to parents about discipline. I tell the story of Ethan standing on our bed. I said to him, “Ethan if you choose to stand on the bed then you are choosing to get off the bed. If you choose to sit, you are choosing to stay on the bed.” Ethan, of course, stood on the bed so I helped him off and said, “I see you’ve chosen to be off the bed.” After I tell the story, parents would often ask his young age and why I would have that conversation with him. I often say, “What age should I begin to give choices and follow through with my expectations?”

Former president Harry Truman said, “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves… self-discipline with all of them came first.”

TV host, author and educator Fred Rogers said, “I think of discipline as the continual, everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.”

Author Amy Chau said, “Instilling a sense of self-discipline and focus when the kids are younger makes it so much easier by the time they get into high school.”

Discipline is more about helping children learn to control their own behavior as opposed to something outside of themselves controlling it.

The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.” Our job as educators and parents is to teach our children the difference between right and wrong, to guide them in understanding how their choices impact their outcomes and to model for them self-discipline in our own lives!

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