Why It’s Not Good to Say Good Job (and What to Say Instead)

You probably hear—and say—it all the time: “Good job!” After all, we’re proud of our kids, we’re amazed with what they’re able to accomplish, or we want to promote positive behavior, or we hope to bolster their esteem and confidence. Yet could saying “Good job!” and other similar phrases of praise actually be more detrimental than we think?

Why It's Not Good to Say Good Job (and What to Say Instead)

In certain cases, yes. Consider the following reasons why it’s not always good to say good job:

Kids can rely too much on our opinion to feel good.

We forget that praise, for all its positivity, is still a judgment. It’s normal to offer judgment periodically, but when we say it too often, our kids can start diminishing their own opinions in lieu of ours. Rather than feeling excited about finishing a puzzle, they’ll turn to us to see if their latest feat was praise-worthy.

Kids can lose interest in what they’re doing if they stop receiving praise.

Giving constant praise is like giving a baby a pacifier: it works, but you’ve got to keep dishing it out to keep the baby quiet. When kids get hooked on praise, they can begin to value the praise they receive instead than the actual activity they’re doing. Rather than painting because it calms him down or keeps him focused, a child might pick up a paintbrush only to garner the praise he hopes to elicit from his parents.

We’re making assumptions on how kids should feel.

My son and I were blowing bubbles when he said, “I popped a bubble!” Right on cue, my first reaction was to exclaim, “Good job!” But what if popping bubbles wasn’t a good thing for my son that he popped the bubble? What if he had been disappointed because he had wanted to keep it intact? In congratulating him with a “good job,” I already assumed that he wanted to pop bubbles and that he considered doing so a positive thing.

“Good job” makes kids feel less secure.

With their actions evaluated on whether they’re “good” or “bad,” kids are less likely to feel secure about themselves. Ideally, we want our kids to feel good about themselves and their actions even if no witnesses were around. How amazing to peek at our kid and catch her holding up a drawing she just completed, with pride written all over her face! She knows she derives joy from drawing; she doesn’t need a “good job” to determine whether her work was good or not.

“Good job” assumes the activity is complete.

Sometimes our praise can signal the end of an activity that may not have been ready to be finished just yet. Consider the kid practicing his writing. You see him hard at work and even catch a few letters and words written on paper. “Good job!” you might tell him, to which he might assume that what he has just done must be good to go. Not only does this not focus on his effort and deliberate practice, but it may just have stopped short more potential growth and hard work.

*

This is one of those posts I write mainly to myself because despite what I know, I still say “good job” on a near-daily basis and am still working on curtailing this habit.

So what’s a parent like me to say instead?

Offer descriptive, not evaluative praise.

What’s the difference? Evaluative praise such as “good job” and many similar phrases (e.g. “well done,” “I like it!” “That’s so nice,” “It’s beautiful”) places judgment on the action, whether good, bad, beautiful, smart, creative, and such. Descriptive praise, on the other hand, simply describes the action. Consider the following phrases:

  • Did you scoop up all your food by yourself?
  • Wow! You’re painting with the orange color.
  • It looks like you’re enjoying your toy.
  • You did it—you slept through the night!

Offering descriptive praise still shows support and highlights the positive behavior we want to promote without shoving judgment on the action. Each of the phrases above keeps open the potential feelings your child may have without judgment or assumptions. And while saying “It looks like you’re enjoying your toy” is our opinion (to us, it looks like he’s having fun), the phrase still gives your child a chance to disagree (“No, I’m just pushing these buttons.”).

Ask questions.

One of the best ways to keep the conversation going is to ask questions. Ask your daughter how she got all her Lego pieces together to form her latest creation.You’re able to share the moment without necessarily telling her what to feel or putting an end to her work. And if she feels proud, asking questions will further cement her accomplishments as she runs through all that she was able to do.

Don’t say anything.

Once your kiddo has gotten potty training down pat, there’s no need to say “good job” every time he runs to the toilet. Certain accomplishments like using the potty will eventually become—and should become—normal tasks, so there’s no need to congratulate him every time. Doing so just might signal that the behavior remains unusual and special instead of expected.

Save “good job” for when you really mean it.

Our kids are going to continue to amaze us, many times when we’re truly taken aback by what they do. Saying “good job” isn’t harmful; it’s still appropriate given that they reveal our spontaneous and even surprised emotions that kids love to elicit from their parents.

That said, simply be mindful of when and how often you say “good job” and in what context. You don’t want your kid to do something only to turn to you to check of its praise-worthiness; they should learn, play and explore for their own pride and joy.

Do you find yourself saying “good job” too often? What praise—evaluative or descriptive—do you tend to offer your kids? Let us know in the comments below!

Nina

Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. She blogs about parenting at Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes everything she's learning about being mom and all its joys and challenges. She also covers topics like how kids learn and play, family life, being a working mom and life with twins. Download her free ebook, "Time Management Strategies for the Overwhelmed Mom" for more tips.

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  1. says

    Good reminder. I can’t speak highly enough of positive as opposed to negative reinforcement in our experience but its always worth stopping to remind yourself to praise the right thing – the effort, not the result. Thanks for the reminder :)

  2. dawnhunter says

    So what about Good job picking your toys up? Your still praising the effort while they are doing it not necessarily when the task is finished. I think though some may think this tool is appropriate when used in context:)

    • says

      I think everyone’s different, and whatever works for your kid in the end is really the best. For me, I usually describe what’s happening during the process: “Look at you—you’re picking up your toys all by yourself!” or “Wow, seems like you really like painting with watercolors.”

  3. dawnhunter says

    I meant though some may think this tool is old school…it can still be used appropriately in context.

  4. seventhacreheaven says

    I had read this tip somewhere before and have noticed my little guy is more calm and confident when I am careful to stick to descriptions. “Ooo, you got out the big brushes today,” keeps him painting and happy. Though my mom really enjoys doing artwork with him, she tends to praise his skills and end his involvement. “You’re doing a good job making circles,” or “You’ve cut a nice straight line” seem to almost freeze him up. He’ll usually stop and say, “No, you do it for me.”
    I don’t mean this to sound patronizing, but I’ve found the same tip applies to adults as well. My husband gets (understandably) annoyed if I say, “You’ve done such a good job on the dishes!” but not if I say, “Wow, you got all the dishes done!”

  5. says

    I hadn’t thought about this until I saw this great post from Teacher Tom on Pinterest: http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/seven-things-to-say-instead-of-good-job.html
    Totally agree with dawnhunter that there’s still a place for it, but we can easily overuse it without realising, so it ends up having no value or sounds patronizing as seventhacreheaven said.
    It takes a bit of practice, but if I focus on the fact that I’m modelling a wider range of language to my toddler it’s easier.

  6. says

    I say “Good job,” but I also try to elaborate. Right now we say it a lot in the pool, for example, so I’ll say, “Good job! You were really kicking.” Baguette is at a point where “good job” has a lot of value for her, because it builds her confidence where she might otherwise have a tendency to withdraw.
    Tragic Sandwich recently posted..Mom-Friendly Meals: Steel-Cut OatsMy Profile

  7. says

    I definitely default to non-descriptive praise even though I know descriptive praise would likely be more effective in the long run. I like your advice to ask questions and, sometimes, to say nothing. (That advice would help in a lot of social situations too.) Like so many things in parenting, I have the best intentions, but I often take the quick and easy road, which, in this case, is made that much easier by the fact that I love my kids and generally do think everything they do is great. But, yes, everything in moderation, especially because everyone else in the world will likely not be quite as impressed by my two-year-old’s water paintings . :)
    Kristen @ Motherese recently posted..Forty Days and Forty NightsMy Profile

    • says

      Good point Kristen about over-saturating our kids with praise whereas the real world probably won’t be so kind (or in love with every cute thing they’re doing!).

      And yes it’s so true that sometimes we just have to say nothing. I read that one of the best ways to be a great listener (even with adults) is to force yourself not to say anything. Usually when we’re having a conversation, we already have a comment lined up and we’re just waiting for the other person to finish talking so we can say it. Or worse, we interrupt them. Talk about “listening” haha.
      Nina recently posted..Why it’s not good to say “good job” (and what to say instead)My Profile