Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Good Job

Ever notice how often we use the word "good" in speaking to our children?

Good boy!
Good job!
Good swinging!
Good painting!
Good listening!

Sometimes I wonder if this omnipresent adjective actually means anything to our children anymore. How can a single descriptor maintain any real meaning when used across the board to refer to behavior, performance, effort and well, pretty much anything?

Of course I think it's fine to commend children for their actions, but "good" is problematic in that it's both generic and judgmental. Given its overuse, "good" becomes a totally non-descriptive word. And surely kids internalize a message that if there is indeed a "good" way to paint, then there must be a "bad" way as well and they better keep on doing it the right way so as to please mom or dad. I daresay this wouldn't encourage creativity or innovation.

And wouldn't it be better to let the child decide if their painting is good? I know that not every craft I produce is worth gushing over and surely kids have an opinion about what they create. If I was always told that everything I did was great, I probably wouldn't put much stock into the words of that particular observer anymore.

I don't like the phrases "good boy" or "good girl" either because they subtly suggest that when they're not pleasing us, they're "bad" children.  I'm not a big fan of using praise to manipulate children and research demonstrates that overuse of praise can actually backfire and make children lose interest in whatever they were doing.  The point becomes not to read or draw, but to get the sticker or the "good job." Excessive praise can also cause kids to become more cautious and avoid challenges. It's as if they are afraid to do anything that might cause them to fail and lose our high appraisal.

So my challenge for you is this. (Didn't know there was a challenge coming, did you?) The next time you find yourself about to say, "Good job!" or "Good drawing!" or "Good girl!" choose instead to comment specifically (and sincerely) on the action or effort you were intending to praise. Or, at the very least, make an observation that demonstrates you were paying attention and not just making a generic statement or offhand comment.

So, rather than saying, "Good job," try, "You poured that glass of milk all by yourself!" or "I've noticed that you're remembering to brush your teeth now without being reminded most of the time."

Instead of "Good drawing!" try, "I see you drew three red flowers next to a very big house with a chimney." Perhaps add, "Are you happy with how your picture turned out?"

Instead of "Good balancing!" try, "You were really concentrating hard to hop all that way on one foot!"

Instead of "Good girl!" try saying, "When you take your shoes off by the door it makes it so much easier to find them tomorrow!"

A word of caution however. Try to avoid simply replacing the phrase "good job" with an observation that starts with "I like how you..." This statement isn't all that different from "good job" in that it still conveys granting of approval.

I also try to avoid commenting on innate ability such as saying how smart or talented a child is. It appears that this can cause kids to become frightened of failure. Once labeled, they don’t want to do anything to lose that label. It's better to focus instead on praising a child's strategies, persistence or effort. This sets kids up to believe that their success is based on things they have control over.

So why does all this matter?

It may seem like a small thing but I'm convinced that our language can influence whether our children tend to be extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation means that children perform only to receive the praise we dole out. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand, comes from an internal sense of joy and achievement resulting from pride in one's work or from simply doing the right thing. I want my children to know that I've noticed their efforts, but I don't want to them to feel evaluated such that they start to look to me for approval rather than finding joy and satisfaction in whatever they're doing.

Motivation aside, I have no doubt that this simple technique improves a parent's relationship with their child. Like adults, kids can feel the difference between a thoughtful compliment and empty words. The people who love and trust us the most will thrive on our sincerity and genuine interest in their endeavors.

If you try this in your family, I'd love to hear how it goes!


  1. Anonymous4:59 AM

    Very interesting reading Jen. It's something I've become conscious of with the kids too, although my habit is to say "I'm so proud of you". Aggie's now started to ask constantly if I'm proud of her, eek. It's in my list of habit changing challenges for 2015, although I have started already.


    1. Thanks Sara. It's really only a slight shift in that we just want them to be proud of themselves first and foremost! Good luck and keep me posted!