As parents, our days are scattered with “good job” and other similar phrases, such as “great work” and “well done”. Or, even worse, “good boy/girl” which suggests we see no separation between them and their behaviour. We litter these comments about, thinking we are being positive and encouraging of our children. But, often, we are actually using them to “train” our children to do what we want them to do. We are using positive reinforcement so they’ll continue to meet our expectations and, in the process, we are turning them into praise-junkies. Each time we throw out one of these phrases meaninglessly, we teach our children fear rather than Love. There are a couple of main ways that we use “good job” and I will use them to explain what I mean and suggest alternatives.
“GOOD JOB”: WHEN OUR CHILD HAS CO-OPERATED
We all need co-operation from our children to make our day manageable – as in the example in my last post ( when I needed Jack to put his bag and coat in the boot of the car while I strapped Toby into his carseat so that we could get to school on time. There are a million instances in the day when a bit of co-operation makes all the difference. When our children do as we have asked, we say “good job” in the hope that the praise they get will encourage them to be helpful again next time. Perhaps we also say it with relief that we didn’t have to battle this one out! But how do our children hear it when we say “good job”?
As judgement. Positive judgement in this case, but judgement none the less. “Mum’s pleased with me. She approves of my behaviour”, their little brains think. They may also think, “Phew, she didn’t tell me off”. Their co-operation has come from fear of disapproval and fear of our reaction if they don’t co-operate. We have manipulated them into compliance and taught them nothing about teamwork, consideration of others and our faith in them.
So, what’s the alternative? I use “thank you”. With “thank you”, I am showing my boys that I believe in their willingness and ability to help. I am expressing appreciation instead of judgement. It shows them that their contribution is valued. I’ll often go as far as to explain to them how their behaviour is helpful. For example, “Thanks Jack. Putting your things into the car yourself helps us to get to school on time”. For my boys, “Thank you” changes the exercise in getting to school on time into teamwork instead of point-scoring for approval. I enlist their co-operation instead of demanding it of them.
“GOOD JOB”: WHEN OUR CHILD HAS ACHIEVED SOMETHING
“Sweet words are like honey, a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach.” ― Anne Bradstreet.
I’m all for praising our children when it is due. But often we find we’re praising an achievement that we know didn’t really require much of them. Perhaps they finished a puzzle they’ve done many times and we know they can do easily. Hearing “good job” in these circumstances has 2 main sticking points.
- Our children come to expect it and feel upset when they don’t hear it. They become addicted to our praise. They are doing the activity for our response more than for their own joy or satisfaction. Their fear is that we won’t offer our praise and approval.
- Our children begin to think “she always says that, she doesn’t mean it”. When we over-praise, they don’t believe it when we really are sincere. Their fear is that they’re not really good enough to get genuine praise.
So, when my boys have done something that I want to acknowledge but don’t feel warrants “good job”, I use one, or a combination, of the following:
- I make affirming comments that suggest I knew they could do it eg. “that’s it”, “yes” or “look at that”.
- I ask a question eg. “What is this part of your block tower for?” or, simply, “tell me about it”.
- I make a statement about their process eg. “You worked for a long time to get that finished” or “It looked like you really enjoyed making that”.
I am showing them that I am interested in what they have done but I am offering no judgement. I am simply sharing in their satisfaction.
So, when I do say “good job”, my children know I really mean it. I usually try to qualify my praise with a reason why it’s good. If it’s art work, I might say, “Those colours look great together”. If it’s a Lego creation of a spaceship, I might say, “You’ve thought about everything a spaceship needs”. Being specific both gives useful feedback and shows that my praise is genuine.
HOW BETTER PHRASES NURTURE THEIR LITTLE SOULS
Reconsidering our use of phrases such as “good job” and finding meaningful alternatives is a small way to activate love rather than fear in our children. Choosing our words shows we believe in the love inside of them and that there is no need for them to prove their worth. These are, for me, essential principles in nurturing little souls which you can read more about in A Child’s Worth and The Real Purpose of Parenting.
IN SUMMARY: NEW HABITS
Given we tend to say words such as “Good job” so often, they are significant. Our language either empowers or undermines our children and choosing our words more thoughtfully can have a big impact. And the good news is that this is one of the easier adjustments to make to our parenting styles. Once I realised I wasn’t using “good job” consciously, I thought up a handful of alternatives that felt natural to me so that I was ready with new responses. It’s been a case of creating a new habit when responding to my boys. “Good job” still slips out at times when I’m distracted or busy but, most of the time, I only use it genuinely. As a parent, it is empowering to realise that a small change such as this can make a real, positive difference for my boys.
What else do I say out of habit to my children that I could rethink?! (Let’s listen to ourselves more carefully!)
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