Hands Behind Your Back

From the time we were pre-schoolers, my brother and I constantly visited world-class museums and galleries with my parents. There was one rule that we were expected to adhere to without fail: hands behind your back. For us, “hands behind your back” meant: “We trust you and believe that you deserve to be in this beautiful and inspiring place. Show us that you can be trusted.” Even now, whenever I enter a museum or a store that sells fragile things, my hands swing instinctively behind my back.

Flash forward a few decades… As a Montessori guide in Primary (3-6) classroom, the message I wanted to transmit to my students was a similar one: “I trust you to control your impulses while observing someone working with a material. I trust you to respect the right of other children to work and concentrate.” A child who is able to observe with his hands behind his back understands that his rights end where someone else’s begin. He has internalized a concept that many adults still struggle to understand.

hands1
My son Zachary, choosing to observe at the park…
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A friend’s 2.5-yr old daughter, who has attended Montessori school since she was 18 months old.

The younger we set up these expectations, and the more consistent we are, the more successful a child will be at developing self-control. In the Montessori Toddler and Primary environments, “hands behind your back” is one of the first Grace & Courtesy lessons given. The adults model proper observation etiquette for the youngsters, and will offer gentle reminders. The new children quickly learn to put their hands behind their backs, not because they are being forced to by an adult, but because nobody likes to be told by an irate classmate: “Don’t touch my work!

When a child puts his hands behind his back, he is saying that he respects the other person’s work and expects the same courtesy in return.  Putting one’s hands behind one’s back is always a choice, a subjugation of one’s impulses in the interest of social harmony.  There are times for interacting and there are times for observing; Montessori children learn to tell the difference and make conscious choices on their own at a very early age.

We are often quick to doubt a child’s capacity for self-control. It’s very easy, almost automatic, to say: “You can’t watch her work because you’ll be tempted to grab her material.” Or, “You can’t go into that store because you’ll break something.” It’s much harder to look a child in the eye and say: “I believe in you; show me you believe in yourself.”

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26 thoughts on “Hands Behind Your Back

  1. Excellent explanation. I, too, was expected to keep my hands either behind my back or in my pockets when entering special places such as the art museum or a gift shop with delicate items. As a large bag carrying adult, I keep my bag in front of me and hold it to my chest to avoid whacking someone with it or knocking something off the shelf. This an important lesson to learn early on, right up there with good dental hygiene and other things we just naturally do to educate our kids–and in my case now, grandkids. Keep up the good work.

  2. Why must you put your hands anywhere to control your impulses? Is it not far greater control and trust in ones “capacity for self-control” to observe in a manner that does not require change? I had the privilege of going to many museums and fine shops as a child, never once did I need to be instructed to place my hands anywhere – self control was expected. The same can be said for my children. You are expected to act a in a manner walking in the door.

    In the end, you need to go with what works for you and your children. I will not degrade any person’s right to act and / or parent as they see fit. I want to be clear that it begins and ends with the message that a parent provides – the means used are fluid from situation to situation.

    One last note, this article struck me because I am a student of body language. In my job, I must observe and take actions based upon non-verbal cues. It has been my experience that a person standing with their arms behind their back are either bored or frustrated. This showing of impatience has been a signal for me to change approach in some form or fashion.

    1. Young children are concrete thinkers, so the hands behind the back is a concrete image that the child can have, which reminds him of the need for self-control. If a child is watching without touching, and with his hands at his sides, I will not say anything. But the moment he tries to touch and interrupts someone’s work, I will remind him of where his hands should be, instead of saying the more negative phrase: “Don’t touch.” Once a child has internalized self-control, there is no need to ask him to keep his hands at bay; he can control them. But until then, in order to function in a classroom with 24+ children, these types of concrete cues are essential.

      1. As a teacher, I second your comment. Instead of telling my students, “Stop talking,” or “Be quiet,” (which admittedly would work for my more mature, self-regulated 2nd graders), “Check your hands, feet, mouth,” (after practicing) has worked amazingly well to give them concrete actions instead of abstract nonactive directives to follow.

  3. Question: what age do you start teaching “hands behind the back” and how? My daughter is 6 months so I know it’s a little early. But how would I teach her to do this?

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. Ruth, I was surprised to see my 20-month old son was capable of doing it… I would guess 18 months might be a good age, which is when they start in the Toddler Community, once a child is standing and walking steadily. The thing is, if you do it consistently, they will imitate you and you won’t have to TEACH anything. I’m working on a post that describes how we encourage “hands behind your back” in the Primary classroom. Stay tuned!!

      1. My daughter is 18 months and at Montessori School. She does “hands beind your back” at school. She was touching something at the house tonight and I told her to stop and “don’t touch” and she wouldn’t. I told here “put your hands behind your back” and it worked. Now this where you’ll get mad… I didn’t like it after I did it myself. She walked around for two or three minutes with her hands behind her back, and then picked up her cup with one hand still firmly behind her back. I went to forceably move her hand away from her back and she had it planted firmly! I was a little taken aback. I may ask that she not be taught this. I am a former Marine with OCD and am worried that she may develop impulses. And even if she doesn’t, as a former Marine, she looks like she’s walking around at “parade rest”. lol Just thought I’d share. I was researching “hands behind your back” online.

  4. Very interesting, thank you for sharing. However, I wish you did not default to the male pronoun when describing children. Male is not default, no matter how much our society inculcates that in us.

    Just something that struck me.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Alexandra! In general when I write, I commonly refer to the male child in order to contrast with the female teacher without making it confusing. Yes, there are male teachers and female students, but I simply assume that most readers will be more interested in the topic of the article, and not the pronoun choices.

  5. I am really living your blog which I only found recently. Would it be possible to expand on how and when you would begin teaching hands behind your back?

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience so that others can learn from you. You will make the world a better place!

    Alyson

    Sent from my iPad

    1. Alyson, what a lovely and uplifting comment, thank you! I am working on a follow-up post explaining how we instill the concept of “hands behind the back” in the classroom and how it can be done at home. Stay tuned!!

  6. I am really living your blog which I only found recently. Would it be possible to expand on how and at what age you would begin teaching hands behind your back?
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience so that others can learn from you. You will make the world a better place!

  7. > “Putting one’s hands behind one’s back is always a choice, a subjugation of one’s impulses in the interest of social harmony.”

    Social harmony is not prima facie superior to an individual’s impulses. Logically taken to the extreme, subjugating one’s impulse to run in the face of multiple attackers indeed promotes the “social harmony” of that group (all in non-conflicting agreement) – but it is an atrocious distillation of the rationale for the hands behind the back.

    I agree about how it respects personal space and property. I like what it says about trust and self-control in general. But I vehemently oppose an interpretation that put’s an individual’s concerns as inherently inferior to the collective. Most of society’s ills have been borne out of such a “lesson.”

  8. Try as I might to instill this in my eldest (currently 6) he is still having difficulty with respecting other’s space and belongings. He knows the consequences, he chooses to lose a privilege rather than respect others.

    1. I’d love to know more about what you mean by “losing a privilege”. How do you tie that in to respecting other’s space and belongings? In the classroom, if a child can’t respect another child’s work, he’s simply not allowed to interrupt. He’s kept close to the teacher, he’s given activities he can engage in on his own, and if he does interrupt, the consequence is always the same: He’s removed from the situation where he is interrupting and he is re-directed to an individual activity. Does that help, perhaps give you a different perspective or approach to try? It does get harder, the older they get. I’d love to write something on self-control and the older child… Stay tuned!!!

  9. I really hate to burst your bubble because I love Montessori methods so very much. However, as an educator and parent I can see that this is still a type of coercion. Modeling and discussion are great, but the children still feel they have to do it because of peer pressure and adult pressure. Now, hands behind back is fine, but what about the child who has to fiddle with things? My SPD kids prefer hands in front or hands on a stress ball. Better yet, they CHOOSE this without my direct expectation or instruction because they want to be kind and responsible.

    Sure, we talk about hands being safe and healthy, rather than hurting. However, you discuss expectations of hands behind the back which is an extrinsic and forced rule. They want your approval so they do it. This does not show that you trust the children. This shows that you make an specific, not general, expectation known and they should adhere in order to please you. The thing is that my children choose for themselves and in their own way which allows for intrinsic values rather than extrinsic values.

    1. If a child is standing quietly and observing with his hands at his sides or fiddling with something that is not distracting to the working child, I see no need to ask him to put his hands behind his back. However, hands behind the back is a concrete image that a child can associate with the more abstract concept of respecting others’ work and personal space. When you are working with 25+ pre-schoolers, you need to have clear, concrete guidelines, and the common sense to help the children find variations within those guidelines. “If you want to watch, please have your hands behind your back,” is our way of explaining to a child that her freedom ends where her classmate’s freedom begins. If she stands by the table and doesn’t touch, whether her hands are behind her back, on her hips, or on her ears, she got the abstract message. We could say: “Don’t touch”, but that would leave the child wondering: “Well, what CAN I do?” We could say: “You can put your hands behind your back, or at your sides, or in front of you, or on your stress ball…” but that would be overwhelming for the child and inefficient for the teacher.

      1. I understand this. It’s hard. I’m not sure people who aren’t familiar with running a classroom would understand this on the same level.

  10. […] This is big: Let your kids know what to expect. If you’ll be looking at art or an artist they know, show them the pictures. Remind them they’ll have to be quiet, that they can’t touch the art, and whatever other rules your family has for outings.  This is a great suggestion for all sorts of scenarios to help little ones learn to keep their hands … […]

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