I was at the playground recently when I overheard a parent showering their kid with praise for a chalk drawing. I was half expecting to see this toddler’s interpretation of The Starry Night on the ground based on the mom’s rave reviews, but alas, upon inspection I could see that the child had simply drawn a line (actually, it was more like a squiggle). And sure, I may have suppressed an eye roll, but honestly, who am I to judge? Just earlier today I enthusiastically congratulated my child on eating one (yes, one) pea.
If I’m being honest, I probably utter the words “good job!” four, five, or you know, ten times a day. Sometimes I genuinely mean it (“good job, you put your jacket on!”), and sometimes it just comes out of my mouth automatically (file under today’s lunchtime incident). But this is pretty harmless stuff, right? I’m only using these words so that my child feels encouraged, loved and appreciated. Surely, that’s good parenting? Well, as it turns out, this excessive praise may be doing more harm than good.
One of the most widely-cited opponents to this knee-jerk reaction is author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, who lays out five highly compelling reasons why parents should stop saying ‘good job.’ While his whole article is worth a read, the main takeaway is this: This type of praise doesn’t actually increase a child’s self-esteem, but rather makes them more dependent on the approval of others. In other words, by praising my son for eating his peas/putting on his jacket/going down the slide, I’m messing with his intrinsic motivation. He won’t want to put on his jacket because he’s proud that he knows how or because it’s the right thing to do—instead, he’ll do it because he’s seeking my praise.
And here’s something else to consider: Saying ‘good job’ also tells children how to feel instead of letting them decide for themselves, something which ultimately causes children to lose interest in what they’re doing.