Don’t you just hate it when you try to offer positive encouragement to your child but it falls completely flat?
It happened to me just this week. My oldest came home and proudly showed me the ‘A’ he got on his biography of Lord Admiral Nelson. I was so impressed that I immediately said, “Good Job!”
He looked at me expectantly for a few more seconds. And then his face fell.
“Ugh. That’s what you always say!” he said and he snatched his paper out of my hands, obviously disappointed.
“But,” I stammered, “I really think you did a great job!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” he muttered as he walked away dejected.
I felt like the carpet had been pulled out from under my feet. Here I was thinking that I’d been encouraging my son. Apparently though, “good job” wasn’t the way to go.
This is not the case in just our house. Research has shown consistently that generic praise like “good job” may actually do more harm than good.
There is even research which suggests praising children on how they did can cause your child to instinctively reject the praise or, even worse yet, deliberately do the opposite. If they don’t believe they did a good job having you say “good job” means nothing. Children result in feeling manipulated to perform and they will rebel against the manipulation.
Too much “good job” praise from parents can also cause children to lose their internal motivation. They achieve only to receive approval from you and not because they are interested in what they are learning or feel good about succeeding. This creates adults who are unable to find satisfaction because they don’t have practice in feeling what makes them satisfied.
So, if we are to avoid blanket praise like “good job”, what can we say instead that will show our kids we really are proud of them and impressed by their achievement? How can we offer our kids positive encouragement?
Here are 8 alternatives –
#1 Acknowledge Their Goals
Start with knowing your child’s goals. And then acknowledge it.
Everyone has something they’d like to improve on or an interest they want to explore more deeply. Children are no different. Asking our children about those goals and then focusing our praise on those goals will have the biggest impact.
For instance, let’s go back to my son’s biography. I know that one of the things he has been trying is to improve this year is how long he can focus on a task.
So, instead of just saying “good job” I could have said “Cool. Was this the report you were focusing on all of last week? You’ve really been doing great with staying on something until you get it right! That’s neat!”
#2 Focus on the Effort
Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth have famously argued for praising effort rather than accomplishment in order for children to develop determination and grit. This is called a growth mindset. Children who are praised for effort rather than outcome end up caring more about what they learn more than children who are praised only for success.
Praising effort and process is praising what is under their sole control. The outcome is never under just their control. You can change the process, but you can’t change the outcome.
Instead of “Good Job” when he showed me his paper I could have said, “Wow, buddy! Look at how much you learned about Admiral Nelson! I can see that you have really put in a lot of focus and effort into this. I can’t wait to read it with Daddy.”
#3 Echo Them
Remember when your child was just a toddler? What did she say when she first got those blocks to stay in the stack she made or when she first climbed the slide ladder with no help?
“I did it!”
Kids know when they have achieved something.
Psychologist Jim Taylor writes in Psychology Today “… children don’t need to be told ‘good job!’ when they have done something well; it’s self-evident.”
Echo their pride back, instead.
“You did it!”
We don’t need to heap on the praise for accomplishments; we merely need to acknowledge it. Echoing them allows our children to learn to use their own satisfaction as their motivation instead of our external approval. Using self-satisfaction as motivation increases confidence levels, focus, and positive risk-taking.
In case of my son’s report, a simple “That’s awesome, buddy. You got an A on that biography. Neat!” would still have gone a long way better than the blanket “good job!”
#4 Use Descriptive Praise
Just so we are clear here, our goal isn’t to eliminate all praise but to use the right kind of praise instead.
One of the biggest problems with “good job” is that the word good can mean many different things in many different contexts. As Christie Burnett from Childhood 101 points out, in the context of “He did a good deed”, good means “kind or generous,” whereas in the context of “I have good news”, good means “favorable”. In her article, Christie explores 19 different contexts in which good has 19+ different meanings. This boils down to one thing – when we say “good job”, we are leaving the praise completely open to interpretation. Or, in the lack of context, completely useless.
One good alternative to mindless praise like “good job” is to use descriptive praise instead.
As the name suggests, descriptive praise “describes (the achievement) in terms that the child is likely to recognize the truth, and credit and praise herself.” They highlight specific factual things about how they did the work; not that they did well.
“You put that puzzle together really quickly!”
“You did that task 4 times in a row!”
“You used really bright colors in your picture.”
“I noticed that you focused a long time on that project.”
Descriptive praise isn’t only what you see it’s also what you feel.
“It made me feel good when you helped fold the napkins.”
“I have more fun when we all play fair.”
Here is an amazing list of 50 alternatives to “good job!” that can get you started on the habit of descriptive praise.
#5 Ask Questions
Let them become your teacher. Whether it’s asking about their collection of rocks or their biography of Lord Admiral Nelson, simply asking them to explain it to you let’s them take pride in their expertise.
Susan Newman calls it Mirroring, but I like to think of it as “Asking the Expert”. My sons love it when I start asking them about their Star Wars figures. I get the whole saga, plus all sorts of associations they have made between stories of other genres. I could take that a step further and use it for showing my appreciation of their school work as well.
Asking them to teach you tells your child you recognize the value of their work and interests and validates their inner drive to continue to explore. Being the expert also allows them to “own” their efforts, something psychologist Jim Taylor cites as being a crucial part of building good self-esteem.
#6 Say “Thank You!”
Doesn’t it feel great when someone says “Thank You!”? Thank you combines focusing on effort with descriptive praise. When someone says “Thank You!” it says, “You are valued and what you do is valued.”
“Thank you for helping me to hang up the laundry. There were so many things in the wash that it would have taken me a long time by myself.”
“Thank you for sweeping the floor. It looks so much cleaner now.”
“Thank you for not yelling.”
Andy Smithson, from TRU Parenting says:
“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.
Of course, this is a special kind of praise and doesn’t work for all situations. We probably don’t want to thank our kids for simply doing their everyday school work. That said, an occasional “You know, I really like how you do your school work independently and responsibly. Thank you! It’s such a relief that I don’t have to constantly worry about you” wouldn’t be remiss.
#7 Be Sincere and Pay Attention
Part of the problem with “Good Job!” (and its siblings, “Good Effort!” and “Way to Go!”) is that they are offhandedly doled out blanket statements, which tend to make them inherently insincere.
Part of sincerity is paying attention. The best praise you can give your child is your undivided attention. Your child doesn’t need praise for every little thing she does, but when she shows you something she is proud of, put down the phone and employ some Active Listening techniques.
In the case of my son’s biography report debacle if I had just paid attention to what my son had actually written, I would have had several different ways I could praise/encourage him as mentioned above, instead of falling back on the default “good job!”
#8 Inquire Appreciatively
Lastly, there are those situations when you want to encourage your child, but things aren’t going quite as splendidly.
It’s easy to find something to say to your child when they are doing well. It’s a lot harder to find words to encourage them when they’ve failed that don’t sound canned.
Appreciative Inquiry is a way of talking about success and failure using positively worded statements. Appreciative Inquiry is a method frequently used by management consultants, however I use it all the time with my boys.
Thinking about What can I improve on instead of How I did makes confronting failure feel less unpleasant and more constructive. We talk about what happened (good or bad), their best moments, what they could do to improve, and what the process could be for next time to do better.
This is a great method of teaching them what is actually in their control. They learn to analyze process and develop critical thinking skills on top of feeling praised.
My son was proud of his biography, and the A he earned on it this time. But he doesn’t earn A’s every time. He is multiplying fractions in school and it is hard for him. He got a C on his last test and he was so disappointed. But we talked through it and he was inspired not to give up. Here is what we said:
Me: So, you got a C. (Identify what happened.)
Evan: Yeah. I’m horrible at fractions. I’m just not going to get it.
Me: Now, come on. Look at these problems here. You got them right. What else do you see that you did well at? (Identify his best moments.)
Evan: Well, I do know all my multiplication and division stuff really well, so multiplying the whole numbers together was easy.
Me: You are good at multiplying because you’ve worked hard. What do you think you can do to get better at multiplying fractions? (Have him identify what he can do to improve.)
Evan: My teacher gave us some websites where we can practice while playing a game. I could do that.
Me: That sounds like a good idea. What about your next test? What do you think you could do? (Get him to make a plan for next time.)
Evan: I think I should write down the problems I got wrong and practice them so I’m ready for the next test.
Our kids know when we are just saying something to say it. They know when our attention is on our phone or the news. Eye contact, active listening, an interested tone, and using descriptive details all convey honesty and authenticity and a true appreciation of our children’s effort.
Now that’s got to be a heck of a lot more effective than an off-handed “good job!”
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take two minutes to think about the following questions:
- How often do you say “Good Job?” (or “Awesome”, “Way to go!”, “High Five” etc.) What could you replace them with?
- What words do you use to praise your children in general? Are you focusing on the outcome or on the process?
- What goals does your child have for school? For sports? For other areas of his life?
- What are the areas where you can let your child share their expertise?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- If you are into journaling, include your kids’ journeys in your journal. Take notes on what they did, what you said, and how they responded. Journaling will help you find where you have the most success and give you ideas on how to improve.
- Pay attention. If they show you their work they are explicitly asking for praise. Taking the time to make them your #1 priority at that moment is some of the best praise they could get.
- Practice Active Listening to help you focus on making substantive comments on the details about the project or about the process.