Mom talking to son on sofa

The Value of Self-Correction

Is self-correction possible by anyone, let alone a child?  What if we don’t even recognize our errors in the first place?

A common belief is that parents have a responsibility to force their children to behave well.  Yet is this truly good behavior if this behavior is forced, and not chosen by the child?

Maria Montessori advises,

How much better it is if I can recognize my own mistakes, and then correct them! If anything is likely to make the character indecisive, it is the inability to control matters without having to seek advice. This begets a discouraging sense of inferiority and a lack of confidence in one’s self.

The absorbent mind, holt, rinehart, and winston, 1967, p 248

The reality is that parents have both an active and a passive role in encouraging their children to choose good behavior.  And only when the child chooses to behave well – without coercion – can that behavior truly be considered “good”.

What really is good behavior?

Over 20 years ago, when my husband and I were starting to learn about Catholic Montessori child raising, one of our mentors said she could always tell when children were being spanked at home.  Over and over, when the children in her classroom (called an “environment”) thought adults weren’t watching, the ones who slipped into the worst behavior were those being spanked by their parents.

Why did this happen?  It actually makes perfect sense.  Those who were being spanked only behaved “well” through external forces – the presence of adults, or the punishment of spanking.

The children not being spanked were developing the internal discipline of good behavior through self-control.  They behaved well – of their own free will – whether adults were present or not.

Deal with fewer tantrums in 3 days (or less!)

Our active – and passive – role

We actively teach our children good behavior:

  • directly through Montessori Grace & Courtesy lessons.  Through these, we role-play with our children on how to behave in a particular situation.  This preparation happens before they are in the situation.
  • indirectly when we remind them of those lessons they’ve received.  This correction happens after a situation that could have gone better – outside the moment and not in the heat of battle.­­­

We passively teach our children through the example of our own behavior.

Can this actually work?

Maybe you’re thinking, “This is ridiculous.  Why shouldn’t we correct our children in the heat of battle, right when the misbehavior is happening?”

To be clear: misbehavior is stopped immediately.  What doesn’t  happen immediately, though, is the correction.  The correction happens later on, when emotions aren’t running high in parent or child.  If we correct in the moment, we run the risk of adding fuel to the fire of our child’s hot emotions, or of overcorrecting because we aren’t in control of our own emotions.  Neither action is helpful.

This idea of actively and passively teaching our children good behavior is something we Catholics have done for centuries.  When our children reach the age of reason, around 7 years old (although I know some children who have reached this age of reason as young as 5), we actively teach them good behavior by teaching them to follow the Ten Commandments, the principles by which we live.  And then we instruct our children to correct themselves, by teaching them the practice of the Examination of Conscience, usually nightly, and before every Confession.

Can this actually work?

Yes, it can! And here’s how:

We help our children recognize and correct their own mistakes, as Montessori advises, by

  • preparing our children with Grace & Courtesy lessons before situations,
  • correcting our children after situations that could have gone better,
  • teaching our children the Ten Commandments, our God-given guide for good behavior,
  • encouraging the habit of regularly examining one’s conscience, and
  • relying on the grace of the Sacrament of Confession.

Through this process, we multiply our human child-raising efforts by God’s grace.

Ultimately, self-correction develops the internal discipline of examining oneself, moving a person to improve behavior through personal desire, not coercion.  This idea of the value of self-correction is actually not so strange after all!

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