The "Good Job!" Trap
Have you ever said "good job!" to a child? Chances are you have. "Good job" is one of the most overused praise phrases in the American culture. I've heard caregivers "good job!" a child for just about everything.
"You finished that puzzle - good job!"
"You pooped in the potty chair - good job!"
"You ate your peas - good job!"
"You took a bath - good job!"
"You had a nice nap - good job!"
I'm not exaggerating. "Good job!" has become a reflex phrase. We don't just use it to praise a child for a real accomplishment, we use it to verbally reinforce something that we want kids to do.
Think about it - it's not particularly noteworthy when a child eats his vegetables, but you hear "good job!" because the parent wants the child to feel happy and praised so he will eat them again. There are real consequences to overusing the phrase "good job!" (and similar mindless praise phrases, such as "I like the way you ____"). (1) In short, excessive and meaningless praise can backfire by making children lose interest in activities, by reducing achievement scores, and by creating praise junkies (that is, children become so dependent on our feedback that they become insecure without it). (2)What to Do Instead of Saying "Good Job!"
But even when we know the consequences of mindless praise, it's easy to fall back on "good job!" when we're not sure what else to say. We want to express something - pleasure, happiness, pride - but we're not sure how. Here are a few ideas:
- Thank You: it's true - often we say "good job!" when our kids do something to make our lives easier. So why not just say that? "Thank you for picking up your toys. It really helps mama when you clean up your things." "Thank you for wiping up that spill. Now I can start dinner on a clean counter." "Thank you for playing quietly while I was on the phone. I could hear the other person clearly and was able to get off the phone quickly."
- Observe Rather than Evaluate: look at your child's accomplishments as a chance to have a conversation with him. "Your tower has more red blocks than blue blocks." Maybe your child will tell you why or will share that her favorite color is red. "You used markers and chalk in that drawing." Maybe your child will tell you what the drawing is about.
- Keep Playing: so your three year old just built a tall tower out of blocks. Instead of good job'ing her, ask her what she's going to do with the tower. "That's a tall tower, who lives there?" Or start building a tower of your own, maybe she will engage you in creative play. Playtime is a great way to connect on your child's terms, so follow her lead - don't just use it as an opportunity to praise her, that may stifle whatever she was trying to do with her playtime.
- Nurture Empathy: instead of "I like the way you shared with Tim!" or "Good job for giving Katie a hug!," use positive social interactions as an opportunity to nurture your child's empathy skills. "[G]ently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: 'Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.' This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing." (3) Empathy is the foundation for many vital skills and positive attitudes. It is necessary for healthy social interactions and relationships, it leads to creativity, it increases academic achievement, it reduces prejudice, and it is the root of a strong sense of environmentalism. (4)
- Focus on the Action: instead of focusing on the result, talk about the action without adding any judgment. Simply make an observation! "You've been working very hard on that painting." "You really practiced a lot on that song!"
- Ask Questions: take an active interest in whatever your child is doing by asking them about it. "How many blocks did you use to build that tower?" "What do you want to build next?" "Why did you decide to paint his beard purple?"
- Stay silent: Remember that it's often the case that we want to praise, our kids don't really need to hear it. Your child does not expect to be praised all the time - our urge to praise has been hammered into our brains. You might be amazed when your child keeps on building block towers even when you sit back and say nothing at all.
It can be tough to break the "good job!" habit - I know, I was a preschool teacher who used it all the time. But the rewards are worth it.
Do you have any tips for breaking the "good job!" habit? What do you do instead of mindlessly praising your children?
Photo credit: OwnMoment
Dionna is a lawyer turned work at home mama of two amazing kids, Kieran and Ailia. You can normally find Dionna over at Code Name: Mama where she shares information, resources and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with little ones. She is also cofounder of Natural Parents Network and NursingFreedom.org, and author of For My Children: A Mother’s Journal of Memories, Wishes, and Wisdom.
(1) This post was originally inspired by Amber's post at Strocel.com entitled "Praiseworthy?" In her post, Amber talks about how she has been raised to be praise-dependent, and she is trying to create a different environment for her children.
(2) For more literature on the real dangers of overusing mindless praise phrases, see an intro at "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job.'" You can read more in-depth research and analysis in Kohn's book "Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason".
(3) Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job
(4) For more on research about empathy, especially as it relates to toddlers, see the Baby Dust Diaries' article entitled "It's All About Empathy: Nurturing a Toddler's Compassion Potential.
This post has been edited from a version previously published at .
More from parenting