My 18 month old daughter, Emma, loves praise. When we put music on and she begins to twirl and dance, her older brothers reinforce it with an exuberant “good job.” Emma smiles at their response and claps her tiny little hands in self applause. She then continues her graceful spinning over and over, stopping only to watch for further approval.
As parents we love to see the grins and pride on our children’s face as we praise them. But are reasons for praising our children are varied and run deeper than instantaneous satisfaction.
So why do we say “Good Job?”
The following 4 C’s are some of the reasons I came up with that most parents praise their kids.
1. Connection: To let them know we love them and to build connected bonds and relationships.
2. Confidence: To promote self-worth and confidence to meet life challenges.
3. Compliance: To “train” children to “listen,” behave and do what we ask them to do.
4. Competence: To encourage learning skills and perform them effectively and independently.
The problem is that new research shows us that simple, generic praise like “good job” really only accomplishes temporary compliance, while failing to produce any of the other three C’s above.
The old psychology of “Good job” was based on the behavioral concept of positive reinforcement. The idea was and still holds that when children are immediately rewarded the desired behavior increases. That is true. Immediate compliance with simple, concrete tasks often increases when we regularly reinforce or reward behavior with a quick, effortless, “good job.” It’s true with baby chickens, with dogs and with your children. In college we trained baby chicks to peck a dot, dance to music and even ride a tiny skateboard. But your child is not a chicken or a dog. The ultimate goal of parenting is not simply to get our child to roll over, peck a dot or even to clean up there room.
Simple reward type praise like “good job” has been shown over and over to increase behavior but it comes with some problems. The child becomes dependant on the reward for motivation. It has been shown that the compliance doesn’t even last. The child only performs when praise or reward are available. “Good job” creates feelings that their personal value is directly tied to performing the task “perfectly,” therefore leading to discouragement and lack of initiative to try new or difficult things for fear of failure.
As parents we would like our child to do what they are asked and to perform their tasks effectively and efficiently because it makes life easier on us but that is not our ultimate goal. We want to teach them and connect with them. We want them to be able to think through a task, adapt and be resilient when things don’t go as planned. We want them to be confident and feel valuable regardless of setbacks in performance. We want them to know that we love them and build relationships with them that will stand the test of time. We want them to feel some power and control over their own life and situation.
It’s not that praise is bad. It’s just that generic praise (Good job) or character based praise (You’re so smart) in response to a job well done are not helpful. The current research indicates that these kinds of statements first, don’t give the child any specific informational feedback about what was effective or why they deserve praise, second, they give them the idea that things are out of their control and third, that they are only “good” if they perform a certain way.
The research suggests that instead of using these kinds of praise that our praise be specific and effort based (“Wow, you really worked hard on that.”). One article from Psychology today stated, “If you’re going to be lazy with your praise, at least say, “Good effort!” (Jim Taylor, PhD). This kind of praise encourages continued effort and helps the child to foster and fortify their own internal motivation and confidence to learn and grow.
How to make the shift, and the two words to say instead.
The two words you can always say, “Thank You!”
“Thank you for cleaning your room. I appreciate you doing it so quickly.” (simply omit the last sentence if it took three hours to get it done.)
“Thank you for sharing your talents with me.”
“Thank you for working so hard on your homework.”
“Thank you for spending time with me today.”
“Thank you” naturally causes us to shift from a contrived, generic reward based praise for a task to a sincere, efforts based expression of gratitude. It says more about how we feel about their efforts than about what they will get as a result of compliance. It allows us to share our appreciation and love with positive words. It allows the child to learn empathy that their actions affect others. It shows them that we acknowledge their effort but that they get to place value on it. It encourages all of the 4 C’s we addressed earlier without the element of manipulation. When we say “thank you” instead of “good job” it also helps us to make an internal mental and emotional shift from simply trying to get them to do what we want them to, to being genuinely grateful for the things they do, realizing full well that they don’t have to. Gratitude changes worlds and “thank you” is the vehicle for transporting and spreading gratitude.
Two other simple things to say instead of “good job.”
Simple observations: Sometimes all children need is acknowledgement. They already feel great about what they have done and that feeling comes from within themselves. Parents shouldn’t try to trump our child’s inner personal praise. We can make simple observations like…
“You tied your shoe all by yourself.”
“Looks like your built a fort your are pretty proud of.”
“You finished your chores and are going to play now.”
“You are pretty happy about getting an A on that test. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
See how I threw that “thank you” in there at the end? By simply making observations it lets our children know we are listening, attentive and aware of them, but it does not make them dependant on outside rewards for validation and motivation.
Random compliments: I often tell parents, “Compliments are relationship candy, minus the risk of getting fat.” Just because the research suggests that generic praise following a task is not helpful and can even be detrimental, that does not mean that we should not say kind things about and to our children. Giving compliments should be a regular, daily occurrence. Simple little things like, “I like your shirt,” “It’s fun to be with you,” or “I love your smile” can lift spirits and improve relationships.
Regardless of research that says that “good job” is a less effective way to praise, there is also extensive research that shows that positive feedback is more effective in teaching kids and building relationships, especially with kids under the ages of 11-12. Before this age, kid’s brains are generally not developed to process negative feedback in an effective way. A child will always learn more during the good times and when receiving positive interaction and feedback than when receiving scolding and negative feedback. Even “good job” is more effective than yelling, scolding and punishment.
Say “Thank You”
The next time you start to say “Good job” try thank you instead. Make it a habit to show gratitude for all your children do and express genuine gratitude for their efforts each day.
Question: Do you think that saying “thank you” vs. “good job” really matters? Why or why not?
Don’t forget to download your FREE copy of “5 Jump Starters for Powerful Family Cycles: Creating Happier and More Effective Parenting THIS Week!”