My five-year-old received a couple mini garden kits and was excited to get them going. He followed the directions carefully, put them in a sunny spot, and nourished them with water, kisses, and conversation.
After checking on them one evening, he ran to me in the bathroom screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Look! Look! I’ve taken such good care of my plants, and I have another baby sprout!” I was wrapping my hair in a towel and felt the quickly-excited words “Good job!” on my tongue, but I stopped.
I caught the look of pure joy in his eyes, and all of a sudden, that phrase felt cheap and automated. I knelt down beside him instead and asked him to show me. I asked him how he felt, and he said, “So proud of myself.”
I’ve known the arguments against “Good job” are out there, but verbal praise has felt too natural and harmless to bother investigating. After the sprout incident, I found myself interested. I came across an article by Alfie Kohn, author of “Unconditional Parenting”, which lays out five reasons to stop saying “Good job.”
He claims it’s manipulative and exploits the pleasing nature of children. Good job, he says, is less about the emotional needs of children and more about the convenience of adults. He argues that praise doesn’t increase self-esteem, but actually makes children more dependent on the approval of others.
Kohn cites the work of Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, who found that students accustomed to a lot of verbal praise from their teachers were actually more cautious in answering questions, pursuing creative endeavors, and more likely to give up when tasks became hard.
Kohn says praise steals the pleasure of what’s being done. Children naturally take pride in their accomplishments. When we say “Good job!” we’re telling them how to feel instead of letting them decide. This also causes our young learners to lose interest in what they’re doing because the point becomes the prize, not the process. Ultimately, Kohn’s argument states that praise makes children more unsure of themselves and require greater external validation.
As I read, concern grew inside of me. I decided to pay close attention to the verbal praise I offer my children for a week, and here’s what I noticed: a constant stream of “Cool jump!”, “Nice coloring!”, and “I like the way you’re sharing!” As I took note of my impulses, I considered Kohn’s views. While I often felt the urge to say some form of “Good job,” it didn’t feel manipulative.
My young children are learning every day and require a lot of guidance and feedback. Praising my two-year-old for waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom isn’t about manipulation. It’s letting him know he’s on the right track.
If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Nonetheless, I’m sensitive to the argument about praise making children into people-pleasers. I want my kids to be bold, free to create, to make mistakes, and go for it. I want them to do, make, and learn for their own satisfaction, not for validation from me or anyone else.
Even though some things aren’t all that fun – like cleaning up, and doing homework – I want them to know the fulfillment of being a cohesive part of a family. I want them to know the pride of trudging through something difficult and completing it. I want to nurture their self-motivation, not a dependence on gold stars and pats on the back.
With this in mind, I changed some of my responses. When my five-year-old showed me a letter he wrote to a friend, I didn’t drop the immediate “Good job!” Instead, I asked him what he thought of his work, and he said, “Well, I forgot the S in Best, but I squeezed it in, and I’m okay with it.” I told him I liked that he solved the problem without crumpling the paper. (Wait, is that still praise?!)
When his two-year-old brother was freaking out because he didn’t have a feather to play with, he eventually gave him one on his own. I smiled adoringly and asked him how his heart felt. I couldn’t help but also tell him what a kind brother he is. And as I did, I wondered if my compliments could really change his motives from doing what feels right to earning my approval.
You see, I want to make the point that how he feels is more important than how I feel. But it seems cold and unnatural to not give recognition. Although I’ve found value in withholding praise, complimenting others is a part of my life that I don’t want to give up. I want to continue appreciating and encouraging one another. Now, I feel inspired to do so in more genuine ways.
The other day, when I said it was time to go swimming, my eldest went upstairs to get everyone’s bathing suits without even being asked. As I thanked him, I realized that many Good Jobs are often Thank Yous geared toward children. They’re appreciation dressed up as approval, and even though I don’t want to nitpick wording, they do seem to send different messages.
I’ve found value in interacting more authentically and switching the focus from my evaluations to theirs. I’ve talked with my son more about his thought processes and internal guidance. Meanwhile, the main problem I found with “Good job” isn’t that it’s necessarily damaging, but it’s often empty. The words come out of my mouth too automatically, without enough attention. I hear myself say it as a half-hearted acknowledgment.
One evening, as I cut vegetables and my youngest pasted bits of paper, I felt myself almost say “Nice gluing!” Surely, he didn’t need any feedback in the moment. He was self-directed and doing the activity because he wanted to. The real reason I felt the urge to say this is simply because I wanted to acknowledge him. Instead of speaking at all, I moved closer to him. He looked up at me as I took a seat beside him. I smiled as he continued on with his work.
Being with him then felt more meaningful than any words. The next day, I chose a similar tactic when he wanted to open a yogurt by himself. He didn’t need praise. After all, he’s two and wired to want to do things for himself. I quietly watched him, and he seemed to take pleasure in my attention and his own abilities.
When he got the top of the yogurt off, I didn’t applaud. I said, “You got it. Time to throw it in the trash.” And he did, in the most confident manner. The way I spoke to him felt less condescending. I didn’t act surprised by his every little ability, but rather like I expected his competence – and that somehow felt more empowering than praise.
Now, rather than use my words to let them know I see them, I use my presence. Instead of praising a painting while prepping dinner, I stop and ask what their favorite part of the painting is. And although I feel more conscious of praise, I don’t feel scared of it, either.
A few days ago, our preschooler lay on the couch peacefully. My husband walked over and said, “You’re a good boy, Jav.” Then he looked up at me and said teasingly, “Oh yeah, I’m not supposed to say that.”
I laughed because, of course, we shouldn’t stop saying kind things to one another. But being conscious of how I acknowledge my kids does place my sights on the big picture of parenting: to raise children who are self-motivated and confident, and also to connect with them as deeply as possible. And this happens when we trade passive phrases for true presence and real conversation.