Updated: Dec 28, 2020
to constantly praise my son. "REALLY, now positive statements are no good for my kid?!?! Goodness, SMH LOL." My first thought and initial response at the mere idea that my praise of "Good Job" just might not be optimal.
I'll be the first to admit how reluctant I was to thoroughly consider why I should stop saying Good Job, how can something so positive be harmful to my son?! The more I thought about this resistance, the more I saw it was rooted in laziness and comfort. I was comfortable with this phrase and didn't want another thing added to my ever-growing "things to work on list".
Over the years I've had to remind myself less (luckily) that if there's a better way to do something for our kids, what's the harm in trying? Yes sometimes a new way of doing things could cost us time, if it's more time consuming, but if the gains could result in our child achieving their highest self, then the gains simply outweigh the costs...right? That said, I still get lazy at times. Sometimes, it's easier to live without knowing, ignorance is bliss after all. I say this to reassure anyone experiencing resistance..you are NOT alone.
Once you got clear on your resistance though, you're usually able to move past it. When I did this time around, I dove into praise research and when I learned the psychology behind it all my reaction was simply acceptance - "okay so this is what science says, let's give it a shot." And on top of that I threw in "hell no, I do not want my child putting in work for someone else's approval!" (I explain this further below.)
Two Types of Motivation
See once you really think about it, "good job" is quite generic. What does our kid really pick up from this? Well over the years I've learned psychologists describe it as external motivation. It is a motivation mostly outside themselves to please others (right now that's aka you/parents).
So what's the better option here? Experts call it internal motivation. This has to do with the child's internal evaluation of their own actions. It shifts more of the focus, from the child thinking "I made mommy/daddy happy" to taking pride in their achievement.
Experts say external motivation is ineffective compared to internal motivation. Now in what regard exactly? Well if the goal is for our children to only learn how to please others then this wouldn't apply. However, for most of us...I'm willing to bet what we actually want is for our children to learn to bring happiness to others (this is different from pleasing others), but also much more than that. We want them to learn how to self-evaluate and find gratification and confidence internally, and rather than seek this externally.
When it comes down to it I think we need to just ask ourselves to we want our kids to be constantly looking to us for approval, to potentially grow up to be people pleasers? Or do we want them to learn to make their own assessments and seek validation from within (rather than externally)?
I want to note that I haven't axed Good Job from my vocabulary completely. The overall goal is just to stop saying it so much, I think the occasional Good Job is fine. I like to follow the 80-20 rule you may have heard from experts, if your goal is met 80% of the time, it's enough to make a difference.
What We Can Do Instead
So how do we cultivate this internal motivation? How can we give our kids deserving recognition instead of saying good job? There are so many ways.
To help retain my sanity and make things more digestible for myself (especially on hard days when brain activity is just declining, steeply), I put together QRGs (quick reference guides) for a lot of new things I learn. I take what I learn and apply labels (if there's not already one existing) and some sort of system to streamline things. So whenever I'm able to muster enough energy and motivation I gather all my hot mess of illegible-chicken scratch post it notes into nice, clean categories of QRGs.
So here's my Good Job Replacement QRG in legible ready-to-share format (there's also an abbreviated, more synthesized version on IG):
Simply state what you observe! That's it. This tells your child you noticed and brings their attention to an achievement but not in a way which we give our judgment.
Child's action: Getting dressed before school.
You can say: "You got dressed and put your shoes on by yourself."
Asking questions stimulates thinking, self-reflection, reflection period. It can also give the child an opportunity to self-assess and give themselves a praise as opposed to your doing so.
Child's action: Presents you with a structure they built with legos or magnetiles
You can say*: "This is a huge castle! What's your thing about your castle?"
*Notice there's also a statement here but it is feedback as opposed to an evaluation (this is a big castle vs it's a beautiful castle)
You can inform them of a positive result they may not be aware of.
Child's action: Went potty
You can say: "You are listening to your body and taking care of your health."
Similar to observation, refer them to an action or result right in from of them to bring their attention to it.
Child's action: Shared a toy.
You can say: "Check out Donovan's smile, bud! He seems happy that you noticed he was waiting for a turn and chose to share."
Similar to observation or reference, you can highlight specific efforts, actions, processes, or things they went through (which you want them to remember) to help bring their attention to it. This also helps to make them aware of what it took to arrive at a result as opposed to receiving generic praise just for the result.
Child's action: Getting a good grade.
You can say: "You worked so hard, kept practicing and didn't give up, even when you had difficulty."
Like most things I write about, rarely are new habits mastered overnight. So if this spoke to you and you see it as quite an undertaking (and it certainly will be for some, ahem aka the writer here), remember the first step is awareness. Once you start putting it in practice it gets easier and comes more naturally over time.
And of course, when I began putting this into practice - I was getting the usual side eye from some friends and family. Here I was "doin' the most" again, ha! Damn right, I am doin' the absolute most for my kids well-being and I wouldn't have it any other way. So don't let any negativity deter you from raising your children to their highest selves.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this and if you've already axed phrases such as "good job" please share any replacement language you don't see listed here! I love learning from everyone.