Yeah I know, I feel your eyerolls from over here. You’re thinking ‘we can’t even say ‘good job’ now? This is getting ridiculous!’
I was that person too. My reaction was pretty much ‘what a load of garbage, I can’t be NICE to my kids?’
That was probably 8 years ago, but a little seed was planted in my mind. And now here I am telling you that maybe the constant barrage of ‘good boy/girl’ our kids hear is not so nice after all.
Umm… what’s wrong with encouraging my kids?
Nothing! And that’s not what this is about. The thing is, ‘good job’ isn’t encouragement. It’s judgement.
Empty praise like ‘good job’ is just a quick way to tell children you approve of something they’ve done. Meaningful recognition and encouragement is about sharing in their joy with them and wanting to hear what they have to say.
So the question is, what message do you want to send? Do you want them to always look to others for approval? To need the praise of others to feel good about their achievements? Or, are you wanting your children to feel that sense of pride from within themselves? To take ownership of their achievements and grow their self-esteem?
“The happy news is that it’s not necessary to evaluate kids in order to encourage them. The popularity of praise rests partly on the failure to distinguish between those two ideas. Just paying attention to what kids are doing and showing interest in their activities is a form of encouragement. In fact, it’s more important than what we say immediately after kids do something marvelous. When unconditional love and genuine enthusiasm are always present, “Good job!” isn’t necessary; when they’re absent, “Good job!” won’t help.” – Alfie Kohn
Praise doesn’t build connection.
I have said it many times, but connection is everything. When I don’t know what to do or how to respond, I come back to connection.
Praise does not grow connection between you and your child. It’s dismissive. If you had worked hard on something and showed it to a friend would you prefer them to simply say ‘great job!’ or to show genuine interest, ask you questions about it, tell you what they liked, and hear your thoughts about the process?
But my kids like praise!
I don’t doubt that! Many adults do too. We come to depend on it the more we experience it. We begin to need it. But is that healthy?
Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting, says no. Unconditional Parenting was the book that first introduced me to this idea. Yeah, the one I thought was garbage, sorry Alfie! But how good is a book that makes you consider your choices and actions instead of living on autopilot? That’s how we grow. I now recommend it to every parent!
Alfie, with the support of lots of research, explains that praise is manipulative, creates insecure ‘praise junkies’, steals a child’s pleasure in their own achievements, makes them lose interest in the task that earned them the praise, and actually reduces future achievement!
“Naturally, this should make us skeptical about any claim that praise is fine because kids seem to want it. If you need to earn money and the only job available is one involving repetitive, mind-numbing labor, you may accept it as a last resort. But that’s not an endorsement of this kind of work. It just means we take what we can get. What kids really need is love without strings attached. But if all that’s offered—the only alternative to criticism or neglect—is approval based on what they’ve done, they’ll lap that up and then, perhaps vaguely unsatisfied, come back for more. Sadly, some parents who received too little unconditional love when they were children end up misdiagnosing the problem and assume that it was praise they lacked. Then they “Good job!” their own children to death, ensuring that another generation fails to get what’s really needed.” – Alfie Kohn
It feels so automatic!
I know. It feels natural right? But not because it’s what we’re supposed to say. Just because that’s what EVERYONE says, that’s what they said to us, that’s the automatic response to anything children do, right?
It doesn’t have to be. You CAN put a stop to it. It may take a lot of practice, but once you start thinking about it and noticing all the times the words ‘good job’ jump out of your mouth, that awareness starts to change things.
When you become aware of it, you hear it everywhere, and begin to realise the absurdness of this habit. Kids are praised so much for the simplest things that it becomes meaningless.
But what do you say instead?
The hardest part is what to say instead. When you’re making a change it can be really hard to just stop and so it was really helpful for me to have something I could say instead. Here are some of my favourites…
- “You did it!”
- “Thank you”
- “How do you feel?”
- “You worked it out!”
- “Tell me about it”
- “I love to watch you do x”
- “That was hard work, you kept trying”
- “You look excited!”
- “I appreciate your help”
- Say nothing
These phrases can be used to show your interest, share your child’s excitement, prompt discussion, express genuine gratitude, and encourage them. Isn’t that just so much more meaningful and connecting than praise? YES!
Things to remember
Be Authentic: Don’t just replace ‘good job’ with another throwaway phrase. Pay attention and really see what your child is trying to show you!
Make an Observation: If in doubt, just describe what you see! That kind of acknowledgement and interest is really what children are after and is much better than praise.
Silence is Golden: Often when you see people praising children it’s not even at times children are looking for praise. They can be simply going about their business exploring the world and a stream of ‘good job’, ‘well done’ follows them. Notice when you feel like saying something, is your child needing your input right now? Or are they absorbed in what they’re doing? Lots of the time you don’t need to say anything, or a simple smile in their direction to let them know you see them is enough.
It may seem like a big change at first, but ditching praise is SO worth it. You can look forward to greater connection, self-esteem, and intrinsic motivation! Why not give it a try and see for yourself?