I originally wrote about saying “good job” on November 30, 2011 and wanted to re-visit (and re-write) this post. I hope you enjoy! -Nina
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 often 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 to diminish 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 in fact 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 it would be 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 who is 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.

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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, and there will be many times when we’re truly taken aback by what they do and can’t help but share our opinions. 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 kind of praise—evaluative or descriptive—do you tend to offer your kids? Let us know in the comments below!

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