Photo: ANURAK PONGPATIMET (Shutterstock)
We all said it. When our child first climbs a rock face, turns a wheel, or brings home some less outstanding art, it is almost instinct to throw out an enthusiastic “Well done!” And while it looks like we’re doing the right thing – offering encouragement and positive reinforcement – parenting experts caution that a litany of knee-jerk, non-specific “good job” comments over time can do more harm than good.
Parent writer and lecturer Alfie Kohn says:
Rather than increasing a child’s self-esteem, praise can make children more dependent on us. The more we say, “I like the way you…” or “Good ______ing,” the more children rely on our assessments, on our decisions about what is good and what is bad, rather than learning to make their own judgments . It makes them judge their worth by it, which makes us smile and give even more approval.
Kohn points out that while the phrase is well-intentioned, it can be unwittingly used to control our children’s behavior, exploit their desire for approval, and ultimately help create praise junkies who do awards-only assignments carry out. In the long run, this reliance on external motivation and approval can dilute their enjoyment and cause them to lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, also found that students who received ample praise from their teachers reacted more cautiously, presenting their answers in a questioning tone. Fear of failure, they did not share their ideas so quickly or insisted on difficult tasks.
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Kohn concludes: “In short, ‘Good job!’ does not calm children; Ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. ”What can we say instead? Here are a few alternatives.
Describe what you see
While it may feel uncomfortable at first (we’re so used to praising, after all), try a simple statement that is devoid of any rating or rating. Sentences like: “You brushed your teeth!” Or “You did it!” Let your child know you noticed their achievement and invite them to be proud of it.
Name the characteristics of their work
When a child shows you their art, comment on the colors or dominant features used. “This sun is wearing sunglasses!” or “Wow, I see you used a lot of blue today.”
While a real “I love this! It’s so beautiful, ”will certainly not scare our children for life, it is an advantage to include questions as well. “What was the hardest part in making this Lego structure?” or “How did you choose this color for the house?”
Praise effort, not results
Praising results can lead a child to believe that the only thing that matters is the result of their work. The recognition of their efforts, however, leads to what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “growth mentality”; the belief that perseverance and practice enable them to do hard things. Observations like “You are really focused” or “You ran so hard to score this goal” both fall under this umbrella.
Point out how they affect others
When your child is doing something good for another person instead of emphasizing what we think of it (“I’m so glad you did”), focus their attention on the effect that their caring actions have on another person would have. “Wow, Max looks so happy that you shared it with him!” This leads them to notice and appreciate how their actions are positive for others.
A short list of additional phrases:
- You worked so hard on that.
- You get really good at it … (holding your pencil)
- It’s so creative / It took a lot of imagination.
- I noticed your bed was made so neatly today.
- You look excited!
- What’s your favorite part of what you did?
- Thank you for being patient.
- That was very thoughtful / brave.
- That took a lot of strength.
- I can see that you are really trying to make good choices.
- You tried so hard.
- I couldn’t have done this without you.
- You did it all by yourself!
It is of course important to remember that a few “good jobs” do not permanently harm our children. We also don’t have to approach our children like emotionless androids. However, if we focus on their efforts, personal qualities, and non-evaluative observations of their actions, they may be better able to feel independent, secure, and confident about their talents, whether or not they gain recognition.