7 Alternatives to Telling Your Child “Good Job!”

June 2nd, 2010 by Dionna | 38 Comments
Posted in Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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smiley face mosaic tilesThe “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:

1. 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.”

2. 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.

3. Keep Playing: so your 3 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.

4. 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

5. Focus on the Action: instead of focusing on the result, talk about the action without adding any judgment. 5 “You’ve been working very hard on that painting.” “You really practiced a lot on that song!”

6. 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?”

7. 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

  1. This post was actually 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.
  5. Even stay away from positive judgments such as “I like the way you ____.” Just observe.

38 Responses to:
"7 Alternatives to Telling Your Child “Good Job!”"

  1. Amanda

    This is something we work on a lot, but “good job” still passes my lips from time to time. It is fun to see the change in self-confidence in my three-year once we cut down on the “good jobs.” She has this innate ability to know that she succeeded. That is so much more valuable than a blanket compliment.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I don’t think “good job” is bad in and of itself from time to time, it’s just overused :)

    • Amy

      Yep. And I don’t think kids are terribly concerned with success, as such, most of the time. They are interested in the intrinsic rewards of what they’re trying to do. E.g., what’s so great about drawing isn’t that your mom says “good job” or even that you feel an “I did it!” It’s that it’s fun to draw.

      –also trying, slip up sometimes because, let’s face it, three-year-olds are constantly doing amazing things

  2. Jen   growwithgraces

    I used to say “good girl” or “good boy” a lot and broke myself of that habit by changing it to “good job.” I wanted them to know I was making a judgment of the thing they were doing not of them as a person.

    But you make really good points here. The “thank you” one is especially true in my house. I know we are creating praise dependent kids because this happened the other day:

    The kids were acting up and not listening. To encourage them, my husband created a “happy list” and wrote down whenever they did something nice or helpful. Good idea in theory. But soon my 5yo was saying, “If I wash the floor, will I get a note on the happy list?” I tried to explain that she should do it just to be helpful, not to get rewarded. She was not on board with the explanation at all.

  3. Sarah

    I’d heard this in the past, but it didn’t really sink in until Ella was about 2. The playgroup we go to has one mom who “Good Jobs” everything – to the point that it started driving me nuts. I noticed that the more she did it to any particular child, that child was then more likely to act out. I can’t get her to stop, but I do make a point of trying to be the one next to my own children at all times to help off set the negative effects 200 ‘good jobs’ have in a short span.

    Though even worse is “Good girl/boy” my in-laws use that all the time. “Oh Agatha you put down the rock – good girl” It also drives me batty – but I try to keep the peace. Or I did until one day my FIL told Ella she was a “Bad gfirl” b/c she did something he didn’t like – something I had no problem with, in my home. He never apologized, but I did let him know that we don’t use those terms in our home.

  4. sara

    i’ve been thinking about this sooooo much lately – so this post couldn’t be coming at a better time!
    it’s crazy how dylan’s becoming so much more of a *person* lately – he’s got stuff to do and things to explore! and with all his new found freedom, mobility and skills comes lots of opportunity for me to engage at a whole new level myself… all the reading and idea-backing is finally being put to use… i really want to be aware of the praise-trap! it makes me realize how mindless “good job-ing” can be… because sometimes i catch myself with it on the tip of my tongue and i (usually, but not always) catch myself and it’s like the proverbial splash of cold water on my face reminding me to tune in and be present! indeed there are sooooo many other ways to express my happiness, pride or excitement.
    thanks for a great reminder today…

    xo sara

  5. Deb Chitwood   DebChitwood

    Good job! (lol) Actually, those are great ideas for breaking the “good job” habit. And very important, according to the research in the book Nurture Shock. That suggests giving praise only if it is specific and sincere. And it says it’s best to praise a child for working hard rather than for being smart, etc.

  6. the Grumbles   thegrumbles

    Hmmm, this is a challenging topic for me. I think we just haven’t hit this age yet. At nine months I find myself saying, “Good job!” when he pulls himself up or bashes a block into the floor or whatever other little things we’re working on. I get the point of everything you’re all talking about on self esteem, I just wonder if this applies to me quite yet. Do I really need to feel guilty about it already? Then again, wouldn’t it be better to break bad habits early…? I’m torn.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Personally, I like the idea of breaking the habit before it’s too firmly entrenched in your mind. It’s like anything – start in the way you want to finish (what the heck saying am I looking for?!). Also, I’ve always just felt weird telling Kieran “good job” for doing things that are developmentally appropriate. That felt like the start of the slippery slope:
      “Good job holding a spoon!”
      “Good job rolling over!”
      “Good job sitting up!”
      You know what I mean? I’m not doing a very good job of explaining why the phrase has never sat right with me. Meh.
      But no – you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Guilt is rarely a productive emotion.

  7. daisy   TooTooDaisy

    Because I can be anal, I had already read Alfie Kohn before giving birth, and thus have an easy time avoiding the ” good boy” stuff. Other people in my son’s life do say it, but I don’t really sweat it — not really into correcting other people on that sort of thing, and I can already see at age 3 that he’s pretty good at modulating between different relationships and expectations.

  8. Maman A Droit   MamanADroit

    Great suggestions! I find myself saying good job and other such things mainly because I feel like I should respond, but sometimes can’t really think of anything better to say. Since most of the time it’s just Baby and me at home alone, our house tends to be pretty quiet and I feel like I should talk to keep him used to noise! I love the suggestions you gave though!

  9. Amy

    Do you have any tips for breaking the “good job!” habit? What do you do instead of mindlessly praising your children?

    I try to be aware of what I’m wanting to say, and then say that instead. (My daughter is three.)

    If what I mean is “You just did something that made things easier for me,” then I say, “Thanks! That really helped! Now I don’t have to set the table and I can finish making dinner instead.”

    If what I mean is “I like ___” (that she’s made), then I might say so, but I try to be specific instead of giving blanket praise, or any praise at all. “This one has lots of curvy lines. Looking at them makes me feel calm and happy.” After all, useful feedback for an artist is to tell them, not your ultimate opinion of the piece, but the effect is has on you. That way they can decide whether it was successful on their terms.

    If what I mean is “I really didn’t think you were going to be able to do that,” which in itself is not a very nice thing to say or imply, I might make an observation like “You really stuck with that until it worked!” I hear my daughter say those same things to herself or us now, i.e., when doing a difficult puzzle: “Mama, this is hard, but I’m doing it!” I think that’s really good self-talk to incorporate.

    Or, as your list suggests, I might realize that I don’t need to say anything, and be quiet.

  10. I totally agree with you – these platitudes roll so easily off our tongues.Its like saying to a child ‘You are soooo clever’ Much better to say ‘Gosh, you worked really hard at that – well done for keeping going.’
    Good job, good job just turns to white noise after a while and means… nothing.

  11. Amber   AmberStrocel

    Staying silent is what I’m learning to do. As you said, my children don’t really need the constant evaluation. In fact, I was doing it unconsciously even before my daughter could understand. Clearly, it was more for me than for her.

  12. Amber   unlikelymama

    Love this! I try to use Thank You the most. I don’t even like to use the word good anymore. Have you read this:
    http://www.childhood101.com/2010/01/why-kids-are-no-good-at-being-good.html

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thanks for the link, Amber – what a great way to put it. I agree it’s much better to describe behavior using more appropriate adjectives than “good” (and I also agree with Sarah, above, who said she can’t stand the phrase “good boy” or “good girl”).

      • Amber   unlikelymama

        I flinch every time I hear those phrases now. It feels like something you’d say to your pet.
        Almost as bad as when someone else calls your child “my baby” ugh :-)

  13. Fran Magbual   BabiesOnline

    What a great follow up to Amber’s post about praise! Since I read the “Praiseworthy?” post I’ve noticed I say “good job” way too much. I will definitely use some if not all of your suggestions.

  14. mamapoekie   mamapoekie

    another great one. Nothig to add, that pretty much sums up what we do. It’s going in the net Sunday Surf and I have to remmeber to put it in an article have scheduled during my absense.

  15. I realized how much I was using this phrase when Everett started saying it back to me. That was about a year ago and since then have been working on it. It’s a lot of work if it’s already a habit, but it’s worth it. I feel like my praise and responses are more appropriate and effective when I don’t say just, “good job.”

  16. kelly (@kblogger)   kblogger

    Wonderful thoughts & suggestions. After reading this yesterday, I found myself trying it out today when looking at my childrens’ artwork from school. I think I may have sounded a bit awkward, but my kids didn’t seem to notice – they still beamed. :)

    I particularly enjoy your tips on nurturing empathy. Just fantastic post all around; thanks!

  17. monty

    with Dillon I use a highfive or I will say “now that is the way we do it right”
    Yes sis somethings I do use of these techniques

  18. Colin Wee   superparents_au

    Fantastic post. I’ve got a related article that was used as a guest post on Excellence in Early Childhood Education titled Let Your Child Take His Turn which is based on my years as a Montessori Coordinator at a parent-run playgroup. A common discussion we had in the playgroup is the issue of praise. The prevailing guide was not to praise AT ALL. And I think many people misunderstand the objective. It’s not entirely that praise is detrimental for the child, it’s lavishing praise which distracts from the inner satisfaction which is what Montessori does not want happening. IN the playgroup setting, there was some wisdom in this as you see a lot of parents going “oh beautiful girl” or “such a good boy”, etc. This is not entirely constructive. Personally, if something is very praiseworthy, I like to do it softly, with a smile and with respect flowing out of my eyes. Being supportive for day to day tasks is one thing, but to communicate profound respect needs to be done clearly so that the child doesn’t think you’ve once again just used another throwaway line. Cheers for a good article.

  19. monty

    After thinking on this a little further, praising too much is I am not going to say bad, but, what I have encountered is that the men in my unit tend to look for the praise from their upbringing. They look at me like “hey I did a good job so tell me now”. I look at them like their crazy they did thier job to standard. I dont like to praise to much then they think they need it all the time. Oh I am in the Army so parents please help me, one day I might have your son or daughter, they might get dissapointed with me. LOL have a great day.

  20. Thanks for the link love. This is a wonderful article that sums up what is a difficult subject even amongst gentle discipliners. (is that a word?)

  21. Great ideas on what ELSE to say besides “Good Job.” I do feel like sometimes I’ve been that parent with the open handed clap, screaming, “YAY!” to my toddler. Yeah – definitely needed some new ideas.Thanks.

  22. debb   handpecked

    How about fist bumps or high fives? Every kid I meet I teach them fist bumps and even as an adult, since I’m usually not a praise-y or touchy person I enjoy getting high fives and fist bumps with fellow adults.

  23. Jen   growwithgraces

    Since reading this, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the times I would normally say “good job.” Usually, it’s in response to the kids expressing excitement about something they did. So instead of “good job,” I’ve just been reflecting their excitement by saying things like “oh, cool” or “wow.”

  24. Sarah   lullabydelirium

    That is definitely a phrase I over use with my 1 year old. I never got a lot of praise as a child so I want to make sure my daughter hears all the time how proud I am of her…and yeah sometimes I over do it.

    I will take some of these tips into practice when I feel myself becoming like a broken record HOWEVER I think it is always better to over-praise than never letting your child know when they are doing something that makes you feel proud.

    So if I say good job a bit too much I also wont over-think it, as I can only do the best I can ;)

  25. Hope

    Maybe I am missing something but as the parent of older children, I have seen articles like this drive parents crazy. We put so much pressure on parents to be perfect anyway and now we have to measure out how much we praise our children? Isn’t it pressure enough to wear the right sling, go to enough soccer games and choose the proper schooling methods for our children? Now we have to be careful not to say the wrong catch phrase?
    Let me tell you from this side of parenting, this is such a non-issue. None of us our going to praise at all the right times or correct at all the right times. We are going to catch what we can, encourage in the ways we are comfortable and hopefully “lead them up in the way they should go”.
    There was so much pressure on me as a young Mom that my main mistake was worrying about every little misstep I might make. “Am I saying NO too much?”, “Can I use the word SWAT instead of SPANK?”, “Am I giving him enough chores?”, “Am I giving him too many chores?” or anything else that some other parent has decided that was an issue. If I had read this at that time it would have been one more thing to remember in order not to damage my child. With all of that pressure on parents, no wonder children are pressured about every little thing. Mommy is under so much scrutiny as a parent that she has to make sure her children don’t seek too much approval but just the right amount. Just what is the right amount may I ask? Is any of this truly measurable by studies and research?
    I appreciate your intention but childhood rushes by so fast, from my own experience, there will be plenty of times that you will forget to “praise” your child. Enough that the “overuse” of praising will balance out. Trust me, I’ve been there. I didn’t miss the point that we don’t want to use these terms to manipulate but the root of that would be to choose not to manipulate our children in any manner.
    Just my .02

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Hi Hope! Thank you for reading and for your respectful comment. I agree that there is a lot of pressures on mothers, and my intent is definitely not to make mothers feel guilty for using a phrase. But I think there are also many mothers who are very interested in the effects of our word choices, the long-term measurements of excessive empty praise and the benefits of having internal motivation. I don’t mean to imply that telling your child “good job” is going to ruin him – of course not! Children have thrived from treatment much worse than a few too many good jobs!
      There is a body of research that says there are lifelong differences between children who are motivated for different reasons – and we can influence our children’s motivations with our words and the way we interact with them. The parents who are interested in that research might like to get ideas for alternatives to empty praise.
      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning new ideas to relate to your child, especially when you can use these ideas throughout your child’s life!

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