Three Alternatives to Saying “Good Job”

September 5, 2011 at 6:19 am (Positive Discipline)

Back when my kids were toddlers, I got out of the habit of saying “good job” to them for their achievements.  It had been a somewhat standard response to their successes…until I realized how little information those words actually conveyed to my children for what is so “good” about the “job” they just did.  While my intention of saying “good job” was celebratory, it wasn’t  really celebrating as much as it was telling them, “You pleased me, and that’s ‘good.’  That’s what you should be doing.”

I don’t want that!  I don’t want my children to please me, I want them to please themselves.  I want them to realize on their own that what they did was “good,” was “right,” was what they “should” be doing.  I want their motivation to come from within themselves, not from me.

I know that plenty of people would disagree; they would say there is nothing wrong with saying “good job”; that it is an innocuous phrase and and that it is important praise your kids in this way.  But I say there are more accurate and effective ways to communicate encouragement to kids.

When Elia was a toddler, I read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn.  It’s a very eye-opening book regarding the ways parents commonly take away from children’s ability for intrinsic motivation.  I highly recommend it to all parents, but for those who aren’t book-readers, Kohn also wrote this article:  “Five Reasons to stop Saying Good Job“.

As much as I agreed with Kohn’s perspective that “good job” is not the most effective response to kids’ accomplishments, I was left thinking, “But now what?”  What do I say when my child does something exciting or worth celebrating?  I certainly can’t just sit there quietly!

Over several years and between my two children, I found that my “good job” responses were used in three common types of actions from my kids:

  • Doing something appreciatory (helping out)
  • Doing something impressive (showing talent)
  • Doing something celebratory (achieving a goal or milestone).

So I changed my responses to be more appropriate, more accurate, more communicative.  They’re all equally brief, as what makes “good job” so appealing is its short, exclamatory nature; it’s a quick, easy way to respond favorably.  It just doesn’t communicate what I’m really exclaiming about what my child just did.

These are are my most common responses to my kids when the instinct to give a generic “good job” sets in:

Thank you!  For when my kids tell me they’ve done something helpful, something they’re proud of.  Mom, I’m all done setting the table!  Mom, I got Panga some food. Mom, I watered the plants.  Mom, we each carried in a grocery bag.  If a quick “thank you” doesn’t feel like enough, I might add, “I really appreciate that!” or, “That helps so much!”

Wow!  For when my kids do something impressive or show me cool things they can do.  Mom, I drew this picture! Hey Mom, watch this, watch what I can do! followed by a new dance move, a trick on the jungle gym, or a gymnastic stunt.  To my “wow” I might also add, “That looks tricky!” or “You must have practiced that a long time.”

You did it!  For when my kids achieve a task that is difficult or time consuming.  Mom, I built this Lego boat all by myself!  Mom, I finished the puzzle!  I will usually add something like, “That was hard work!” or, “You sure put in a lot of effort!”

Or sometimes I use all three in a row.  Mom, I picked up my room!  “Wow, thank you!  You sure did!” Followed by a hug or a touch.  But I try (hard) not to tack on a “good job!”  If I’m being honest, it’s very tempting to do so.  After all, that initially seems like what a positive parent should say, and don’t I want to be  a loving parent and tell my kids that they do a good job?

But I remind myself that by withholding a “good job” I’m not ignoring my kids’ accomplishments, I’m just articulating what really makes them special and celebratory.  I’m communicating what’s so “good” about these good-job-moments.  I’m acknowledging their effort, showing my appreciation, and offering specific feedback while withholding my own judgment.

Because if I’ve communicated accurately and encouragingly, my kids know that something they did was “good,” and they’re motivated to do it again.  Instead of telling my kids that they just made me feel proud, they decide feel proud of themselves. Their accomplishment, as it should be, is about them, not me.

“Wow, Elia, look how far your casts are going!  Good job!

Good job, JJ, you reeled that fish in all by yourself!”

“Good job catching that crayfish!” “Elia you spotted that crayfish hidden in the riverbed–that’s not easy!”

“Good wading through the rocks!” “You’re both being being so careful wading around those rocks!”

“Good job you guys!” “You each caught one at the same time, how fun!”

“JJ, what a good job you’re doing!”  “JJ, you are really concentrating on what you’re doing!”

Good job for catching so many fish today.  “You sure had fun with those fish!”

16 Comments

  1. Annette said,

    Great point! By responding like this as a parent, it challenges us to be more creative in our responses and not just robotic! When we vary our comments, our children are more apt to hear us when we speak. :D

  2. kimberly said,

    thanks! This is exactly the post I needed!

  3. alivingfamily said,

    Fantastic! Love the photo illustrations. ;)
    I was anxious at the beginning wondering if my responses are “wrong.” Turns out I say all the same things! I try to use the guideline of explaining what I am seeing rather than praising her with a vague phrase. That makes it easier for me to figure out that I can say “You climbed up and used the toe holds!” instead of “Yay, good job!” Funny thing is, now when she does something she exclaims what she has done, so I mostly end up repeating what she says! “I careful” or “I put away trash” or “I clean up” has me telling her I recognize what she is doing and gives me a chance to show gratitude (another thing I want for her to learn). It’s a win-win…win situation. : )

    The hard part, aside from working on this myself, is hearing others say to her “good girl.” Good job is frequent and frustrating enough (and I do work at avoiding it), but good girl really gets me for some reason. I can’t think of anything good that comes from saying good girl. What do other folks do about family members or adults saying “Good job/girl/boy” to your child? It would bother me less if I didn’t hear her saying it herself.

    Thanks for the post–great reminder!

  4. Nadine Hilmar said,

    oh thank you thank you thank you !
    Hubby just read alfie kohn and we discussed that exact topic. ever since i realise even more how often parent’s use “good job” for real stupid situations.
    It’s not just about raising our children, it’s also about raising ourselves and listening to US (and the crap we sometimes talk).

    and thanks for all the examples. this might help many many parents to find alternatives to “good job” because knowing that it’s useless is one thing but realign going for alternatives and having a real thought about it is another (and the important one).
    so yeah – thank you!

  5. Take Time For Training said,

    Great examples–love the photos!

  6. lorettelavine said,

    Wonderful approach to the words “good job” . Helping children to understand what we mean is so important and the words “good job” do not do that. We must actually tell them what we think they did well doing.
    It is similar to teaching them to say ” sorry”…we need to actually teach them what it is they are sorry for doing or saying etc.
    Thank you for the post.

  7. Susan Belangee said,

    As a parent educator, I am so glad to see these ideas out there and I hope they are far-reaching! In my line of work we call this encouragement and kids respond much better to it compared to praise (“good job” or “I’m proud of you”) because it focuses the spotlight on the child, the effort that child put in to the task, and the child’s creativity. It helps them feel proud of themselves rather than trying to please the adults in their lives. These ideas about encouragement are not new – they’ve been around since the turn of the 20th century. A man named Alfred Adler talked about how to raise responsible, caring, self-reliant children.

    Let me know if you would like more information. Email me at susan@courageouscounseling.com. Thanks again!!!

  8. Jenny said,

    This is a great post! I love everything you say and I try to do it with my family. I really hate “Good job” and cringe every time I hear someone saying that to a child! You hit it so perfectly with your examples and photos, thank you!

  9. Sunday Surf: Alternative Parenting Info for Family and Friends « alivingfamily said,

    [...] 3 Alternatives to Saying “Good Job” (with a link to 5 Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job”) [...]

  10. Play Time Playback « alivingfamily said,

    [...] 3 Alternatives to Saying “Good Job” [...]

  11. Ellen said,

    So helpful. Thank you! I have often wondered about the value in saying “good job”. I am definitely going to try to change my phrasing.

  12. A Heartfelt Letter to Family: Yes, We’re Weird, but Please Respect Us Anyway « alivingfamily said,

    [...] Three Alternatives to Saying “Good Job” « Parenting From Scratch [...]

  13. Sometimes It's OK to Say 'Good Job!' - Not That Special said,

    [...] said, it is not a bad idea to try to curb the broken-record Good Jobbing. Not only for the three, five or seven excellent reasons various articles suggest you do so. But also for the simple reason [...]

  14. Good Girl | surprisemama said,

    […] three-alternatives-to-saying-good-job […]

  15. Leila said,

    I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for clarifying and expanding the alternatives. I am an educator in an Early Learning Center. At the moment, there is much resistance toward using alternatives to “good job” no matter how much evidence is presented to the teachers. The transition is quite difficult and has created a divide within the department. Can you recommend any research-based studies that I can use to support the alternatives? I’m already sold and practicing the alternatives with my students, but that doesn’t seem to be solid enough for some staff. Any guidance that would help me convince them would be so appreciated!

  16. How to Practice Unconditional Parenting in Real Life: Some Helpful Resources said,

    […] Three Alternatives to Saying “Good Job” – Parenting from Scratch […]

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