"Good Job!" - Why Do We Say This So Often?
Hang out at a playground, visit a school, or attend a child’s birthday party, and there’s one phrase you will hear repeatedly: “Good job!” We blurt this out without thinking, not realizing the repercussions for our children. "Good dog!" is an effective way to train a dog, however, let's look at this a little closer when we apply this to children.
At least we’re not using punitive punishment or forced isolation, aka time-out, to curtail our children’s unwanted behavior as our parents did, using fear to control the child. This is ill-effective and actually creates more challenging behavior in the long run. Let’s also include with this the practice of bribing children with stickers or food.
But why do we have such an incessant addiction to positive reinforcement? Is it because we were controlled as kids? Are we swinging the pendulum the other direction, thinking we are parenting better than the way we were parented? Just to be clear, I’m not questioning the importance of supporting and encouraging children, or offering them physical affection. Praise, however, is a different story entirely that is not coming from love like we think it is. Here’s why.
1. Manipulating children
It’s common to hear a parent offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who puts on their own jacket, or a five-year-old who cleans up their legos. The question is, who is this benefiting? Telling kids they’ve done a good job has less to do with their need to be reinforced with praise and more to do with our need for control! Very much like rewards and punishments, we often say this to children to get them to comply with our wishes. “Oh no,” says my client, "I am not saying it to be manipulative, I’m just excited that they are doing what I want them to do.” Same thing…it’s just sugar-coated control.
Young children are hungry for our approval and using praise does work in the short term. However, we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our convenience. A “Good job!” to reinforce something that makes our lives a little easier can be an example of taking advantage of children’s dependence. Kids may also come to feel manipulated by this, even if they can’t quite explain why.
2. Creates praise junkies
Not every use of praise is a tactic to control children’s behavior. Sometimes we compliment kids just because we’re genuinely pleased by what they’ve done. However, even then it’s worth looking more closely. Rather than boosting a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. The more we say, “I like the way you____” or “Good ____”ing,” the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.
Studies show students who are praised lavishly by their teachers are more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice, “Um, seven?”. They tend to back off from an idea they have proposed as soon as an adult disagrees with them. And they are less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.
In short “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, kids grow into adults who continue to need external validation so they knew they were doing okay.
3. Stealing a child’s pleasure
Apart from becoming dependent, children deserve to take delight in their accomplishments, to feel pride in what they’ve learned how to do. They also deserve to decide when to feel that way. Every time we say, “Good job!”, we’re telling a child how to feel.
There are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance necessary — especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that "Good job! " is just as much an evaluation as “Bad job!” The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, it’s still a judgment.
4. Losing interest
“Good painting!” may get children to keep painting for as long as we keep watching and praising. But, warns Lilian Katz, one of the country’s leading authorities on early childhood education, “once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again.” Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a “Good job!”
Young children who are frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.
Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. It’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.
5. Reducing achievement
As if it weren’t bad enough that “Good job!” can undermine independence, pleasure, and interest, it can also interfere with how good a job children actually do. Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with. Praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Their interest in what they’re doing may also have declined. And they become less likely to take risks, a prerequisite for creativity, once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.
More generally, “Good job!” is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future.
It's not an easy habit to break. It can seem strange at first to stop praising; it can feel as though you’re withholding something. But that suggests that we praise more because we need to say it then because children need to hear it. Whenever that’s true, it’s time to rethink what we’re doing.
What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. “Good job!” is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.
So what could we say when kids just do something impressive? Here’s 3 possible responses:
Your child will be just fine without you noticing. They do things for the sheer pleasure of it. They don’t need you to approve.
Say what you saw
Give an evaluation-free statement, “You put your shoes on by yourself” or simply “You did it” tells the child that you noticed. It also lets them take pride in what they did.
Ask questions, such as “What colors did you use in your painting?” for a younger child. Or “Tell me about what you painted?” for an older child. Or for an even older child, “What was the hardest part to paint?”
(Edited version, original article by Alfie Kohn, author of the book, Unconditional Parenting)