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.
There’s plenty of research to back up this school of thought. One study from Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses (“the answer is five?”) and less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students. And in another Columbia University study, researchers found that children who were praised for their intelligence, as opposed to their efforts, became overly focused on results. Following a failure, these children then showed less enjoyment in future tasks and actually performed worse. Conversely, the children who were praised for their efforts showed more interest in learning, more enjoyment in subsequent activities and better results overall.
OK, so I now know that I need to scale back the offhand praising. But how exactly can I do that while still being an encouraging parent? Here are just a couple of ideas for what to say/do instead of resorting to ‘good job.’
- Be specific. “The reality is that children don't need to be told ‘good job!’ when they have done something well; it’s self-evident,” writes psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D. “They do need to be told why they did well so they can replicate that behavior in the future to get the same positive outcome.” Think: ‘You picked out your blue sweater from the drawer and you zipped it up all by yourself!’
- Focus on the process, rather than the outcome. This one goes back to the Columbia University study—comment on the effort, not the result. So instead of ‘great job getting 100 percent on your test!’ you might try saying, ‘you must have worked so hard to get that score on your test!’
- Avoid praising kids about the things they can’t control. This includes things like intelligence, physical attractiveness and athletic abilities. Instead, praise your children about the things that they can control, like effort, generosity and attitude. Because your kid may be top of her class in math now, but next year she might not be, and it’s important for her future self-worth to know that you value her even when she’s not “winning.”
- Say what you see. “A simple, evaluation-free statement (‘You put your shoes on by yourself’ or even just ‘You did it’) tells your child that you noticed,” writes Kohn. “It also lets her take pride in what she did.” For some situations, you may need to elaborate on your statements (‘Wow, you used a lot of green and purple in your painting!’).
- Ask them questions. “Allow your children to decide for themselves how they feel about their accomplishments, enable them to reward themselves for their own good actions, and encourage them to internalize what they observed about their own achievement efforts,” writes Taylor. So, let’s say that your kid shows you a Lego construction. You could ask, ‘what was the hardest part to build?’ or ‘why did you choose those bricks?’
- Say ‘thank you!’ Often, when we say ‘good job,’ what we’re really trying to do is show our appreciation. So, the next time your kid puts away his toys without being asked or sets the table, respond with a ‘thank you!’ And if that doesn’t feel like enough, you could always add in an ‘I appreciate that.’