Yes, believers, it's true that my gurus are opposed to praise and rewards, though the jury is still out on what constitutes punishment. However, their only real beef is with the praise part, because life provides its own rewards and punishments. Here, let me explain as best I can. Please pipe up in the comments if I miss anything, all you Montessorians out there. Thanks, NOLA mom, for asking one of my favorite questions. Now I know how Judith Martin felt the time a Miss Manners reader asked her to explain how to send secret messages with calling cards.
A big part of the Montessori philosophy is that, if you work to please yourself, success is its own reward. This is the core belief behind all the self-correcting activities, aids to independence, freedom to choose your own work, and community-building care-of-environment (by "environment" we mean dusting and polishing as much as we mean composting) activities. According to the gurus, praise from adults works against independence. It sounds like a tough quandary, but actually, it just takes a few small changes of habit--often only habits of speech--to turn the focus of success away from the adult and back to the child.
A little child is working to perfect herself--that is to be a successful member of her society--and so naturally seeks approval from adults, whom she perceives (on some level) as having accomplished this goal. Simply put, the child is hard-wired to try to be like the adults she sees around her. There are several ways in which adults can indicate acceptance and approval of the child's efforts. One way is applause and verbal praise, and another is respectful acceptance and a normal, courteous reply.
It's easy to see why adults want to applaud and praise children. After all, we are already (for the most part) accepted as worthwhile members of our society. To feel that our efforts have been recognized, adults look for accolades. Accolades help us believe that what we have done is a little bit better than expected, or than what everyone else did. It makes us feel special. As we have all experienced, this is a double-edged blade, no?
Praise is certainly an expeditious way of getting a person to do what you ask/want them to do. However, some inherent pitfalls of praise-driven obedience are: what happens when no one is there to praise the child? Will she still behave? Will the child be able to maintain good habits when those habits don't feel special? What happens when the child becomes an adolescent and is no longer willing to work for the praise of parents and teachers, but in an effort to carve out her own identity, is pointedly indifferent to such praise? The list goes on.
The (arguable) premise is that a little child does not need to be made to feel special, but to feel welcome and appreciated. Children, of course, enjoy applause and praise, and will work very hard for even the simplest reward. Ask any elementary school teacherwhat a child won't do for a sticker by his name. Children, just like the rest of us, learn through our praise/reward system that "special" is king. They develop an appetite for praise and applause, and can begin to feel that efforts that are not applauded are not worth making. Ever feel like that? Right. We could, and many Montessori types have, follow this thread to the root of a litany of common social pathologies and self-esteem issues.
The fact is, everyone can do special things, but much of life is not particularly laudable. Most of what we do is not special, but habitual. Montessorians strive to lend integrity to a child's habits and to make him feel successful even when he is not feeling particularly special. What we hope is that this helps the child maintain his personal integrity even when nobody is looking.
Everyone wants to feel successful, but perhaps that feeling can be had without anyone else's approval. By shifting the "reward" back onto the child, we have a way around the applause cycle, and can allow the child to experience her own success, instead of developing a need for adult-driven incentives to succeed. One can achieve this without a lot of stilted "how does that make you feel" language. Saying "thank you" instead of "good job" is a subtle language change, but it effectively shifts focus away from the act itself, and the adult's judgment of it, and back to the value of the child herself. After all, it's not the work, but the child that needs appreciating. You could also try "You must be so proud!" instead of "I'm so proud of you!" You can do this little trick with any number of praise-y phrases.
What's a little harder (at least in my family) is to back away from "Hooray for You!" and thunderous applause whenever the child does something cute or clever. A great performance ought to be applauded, it's true, and I encourage outrageous whistling and applause following living-room concerts, but life doesn't have to be a performance to be good. Sharing a child's satisfaction might mean meeting his success with a hug, a smile, and a "Look at that! You did it! Aren't you happy about that?" They light up just as much for that one as for a big round of "YAY!" I swear.