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, 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!”