A Parenting Dialogue: Should You Stop Saying "Good Job!" to Your Child?
Q: Why shouldn’t we say “good job” to praise a child? I say it a lot and read somewhere that I shouldn’t, but I’m still not sure why. I can tell my baby is really proud of herself when she stands for a few seconds at a time, so I don't know what else to say other than "Good job!" "Yay!" and "You did it!"
Is there any actual evidence that it's a problem, or is this one of those annoying things the Internet has decided to shame parents about? I want to encourage her. What am I supposed to say instead?
The New Mom
A: I'm trying to follow this to an extent. I don't have all my sayings in place yet, but I’m working on it. I try to name the action he's done, like “Wow, you picked up all your blocks!” or “Thank you for putting your clothes in the hamper.” So in that way, it’s kind of acknowledging that he’s done something new and showing that I’ve noticed. But I’m not really “praising” him for it. On the flip side, instead of saying, "Stop crying!” or “Why are you crying?" I'll say something like, "It looks like you're really upset about X. That's rough. I'm sorry. It's ok that you're upset about X."
It’s so interesting how, as an adult, you instantly understand that specific feedback or an engaged question is so much more valuable than just praise. Like, if my husband cooks dinner I’ll say, “This is delicious. What did you add into the sauce that tastes kind of tangy?” But somehow it seems so challenging (to me, at least) to transfer this over to my toddler. Something to think about, for sure...
-- Shawn, mother of one toddler
The Experienced Mother
A: I don’t know that I personally agree with not saying “good job.” I really struggle with understanding that one. I was a Gen X latchkey kid who grew up with very little parent supervision. I certainly wasn’t coddled or praised for every little thing I did. There was also a lot of negativity in my household as a kid. Sad, right? I obviously didn't want my children to grow up in that same type of environment. So I did it differently than my parents did.
How in the world can telling your child “good job” be a bad thing?? I just don’t get it. Maybe I was just compensating for the lack of attention I got as a child, but I told my kids "good job" all the time when they did something right. And they turned out just fine, if I do say so myself.
-- Katie, mom of four grown children
The Psychological Approach
A: Praise itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Research indicates that praise typically has a favorable effect on children. It has long been associated with enhanced academic performance, improved social competence, and higher intrinsic motivation to engage in kind and helpful behavior. Praise is also linked with increased brain matter in a part of the brain connected with open-mindedness, empathy, and conscientiousness. Ultimately, praise is what is at the heart of positive parenting techniques and is a critical part of most evidence-based parenting programs.
That said, studies do show that how you praise your child matters. Some types of praise are more effective than others. It’s far more beneficial, according to educators and psychologists, to help children develop healthy self-esteem by fostering skills that encourage competence and confidence. Individuals with healthy self-esteem tend to have a more practical view of what they are and aren’t able to do and are less likely to allow their personal capabilities or limitations or other people’s opinions to define who they are as a person. Rather, they tend to trust their own ability to learn from their mistakes, make improvements, and solve problems.
Instead of saying “good job,” psychologists recommend these evidence-based tips for praising children more effectively:
- Compliment your child’s effort, approach, and technique instead of praising characteristics that they cannot easily adjust (like their looks or intelligence). Research shows “process praise” improves children’s inner motivation and perseverance when faced with obstacles.
- Use language that supports (“It looks like you’re having fun!”) instead of controls (“It makes me happy when you get good grades.”) to help foster your child’s sense of independence.
- Avoid comparisons to other children when praising your child.
- Praise specific behavior instead of general. For example, “Good job putting your clothes in the hamper” helps a child understand exactly what your expectations are versus merely saying “good job.”
- Use gestures, like a high five or thumbs up. Research indicates this can be very effective in boosting a child’s own judgment and feelings about their behavior.
- Incorporate a positive nonverbal response (a hug or smile) along with verbal praise for best results.
The Holistic Approach
A: Adjusting your praise to acknowledge a child’s effort vs. only congratulating the end result is a staple within Montessori education (a holistic teaching method well known for promoting self-directed, hands-on learning in an engaging, natural environment). Montessori educators and guides tend to agree that “good job” is not the best form of praise to offer children. They suggest that once a child learns a task and begins to perform it regularly, parents should offer support and feedback as opposed to praise. They argue that praise suggests judgment. In other words, it implies that what you, the parent, think about the behavior is more important than what the child thinks about his or her own behavior.
Instead, they suggest vocalizing what you witness and what it means. For example, instead of “good job”, you could say “You picked up all your toys. The room is clean now.” This allows your child to form their own judgments and impressions about what they did.
To better empower children’s ability to reflect upon their own efforts, Montessori guides suggest the following phrases and questions instead of saying “good job”:
- “You did it!”
- “What was the most fun part?” This encourages children to understand they should be the one judging their work, instead of simply vying for praise from adults.
- “What do you like best about what you did?” Give them a moment to reflect on their own.
- “I can see you put a lot of hard work into that.” Focusing on the process instead of the finished product encourages children to be willing to try new things.
- “That was helpful. Thank you.” Children love to be helpful and like to be appreciated.
- “Tell me more.” Often, children simply want to share their work and talk about it. Show genuine interest.
- Notice and acknowledge. Pointing out favorable outcomes their behavior has created strengthens their motivation to continue making good choices on their own. For example, “I see that you put your dishes in the dishwasher” instead of “good job.”
Praising children with a simple “good job” may deliver positive outcomes in the short term. In the long run, however, it inhibits children’s ability to be genuinely self-reflective about their capabilities and limitations. Rather than fostering self-esteem, children may actually develop a distorted view of their abilities. They run the risk of turning into “praise junkies” (i.e., actively pursuing validation and praise from others and relying less on internal motivation) or becoming highly focused on maintaining their “image.”
In short, adults have simply developed a habit of saying “good job” for every little thing a child does. And while it is certainly well-intentioned, the reality is that this type of praise can deprive children of their sense of accomplishment and, eventually, cause them to focus more on external approval than rely on intrinsic motivation.
A more effective habit for adults to develop is to acknowledge children’s efforts, help them reflect on their behavior, and help them genuinely consider whether they’ve reached their intended goal. Doing so helps children learn to determine for themselves how they feel about the results. There are so many meaningful, genuine ways to show our children that we love and value what they do. In order to break the “good job” habit, adults must develop an awareness of what they’re doing and practice using more effective forms of praise.
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