7 Alternatives to Telling Your Child “Good Job!”

June 2nd, 2010 by Dionna | 41 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.

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

  1. J @ Alternative Housewife   AltHousewife

    Great post among tons more great posts! Definitely following this blog.

  2. Melissa   vibreantwanderer

    What a GREAT post! I have long agreed with your points, but could never have put my thoughts on the subject into words the way you have here. I hope you don’t mind if I link to this post in a future post on my own blog.

  3. Amy

    I think I must tell my daughter “Thank you for ______” too much because she’s started saying it back to me lately. But, at least she is learning manners.

    I think I may have gone a bit too far on encouraging her to do things herself too ….. she managed to put neosporin and a bandaid on herself today while I was in the other room. She was VERY excited about doing it ‘all by myself!’

    One of these days I’ll figure out how I got such a good kid.

  4. Stefanie

    I’m going to print this out and put it on our fridge. While my husband and I have pretty much rid our vocabularies of this phrase I cannot get grandma to stop saying it every couple of minutes. I kept track one time of how much she said it during her visit and thought my head would explode. I have told my mom countless times to stop saying it but it still hasn’t stopped. Hoping your ideas will help her.

  5. Heather Antonini

    This post is just what I was looking for! It’s exactly how I think. I have shared this with my hubby and mother in law. Thanks for some wonderful points.

  6. mim

    My daughter has taken this to extremes so much so that I don’t even want to be around her or her children. If I slip and say “That’s great” or “How pretty” or good or bad or handsome or beautiful…etc. she jumps all over me with anger in front of her children. That, in my opinion is worse than an errant praise from gramma. So I have chosen to shut up and not show up. She likes to be a winner but she has lost me. She loses. She also was the woman that got angry when someone told her she was a beautiful pregnant woman. She has taken this attitude of qualifying or quantifying way too far. When these kids(home schooled)hit society; the real world, they will be in for a big shock! I have seen kids raised in this sheltered way and they are the ones who become the truants, the bullies, the ne’er do gooders. I’ve seen it over and over. I was never praised by my parents for anything and contrary to this article, never was motivated to do much or finish anything I started. So I went to college and became a psychologist, finishing at the top of my class. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn about how people tick. Understanding my self and others has become my livelihood.

    • I read a lot of hurt in your comment! Hopefully you’ll be able to reconnect with your daughter so that you can understand what is making her tick.
      And I’m surprised that a psychologist would make such a blatant generalization about kids. I have it on good authority that kids who are valued for who they are as people – more than what they look like or what grades they get – can grow up to be fully functioning, kind and compassionate individuals. Treating kids with respect and peacefulness rarely leads to bullies and ne’er do gooders. Quite the opposite – kids usually bully because they receive that treatment at home.

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