Leaving the chiropractor’s office the other day, my partner was handed a magazine entitled Pathways to Family Wellness. He glanced at the cover, prepared to dismiss it, but then handed it to me with a laugh: “Look, ‘Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job.’’” After reading Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting last fall, I became very sensitive to the use of all “good” praise phrases. Numerous times I had tried to explain the logic behind this to my partner, but every time he walked away from the conversation unimpressed — I had a hard time explaining to him why the use of “good girl” or “good job” actually undermines the development of creativity, confidence, and independence. But thank you, International Chiropractic Pediatric Association for this lovely little publication with a very clear summary by Alfie Kohn himself. I think my partner gets it now.
Kohn — a former teacher and one of the most outspoken critics of the education system’s fixation on test scores and grades — argues in Unconditional Parenting that the ways we praise our children, saying they are “good” or they did a “good” job or their work was “good,” instills in them that they are “good” and therefore of value only when they please us. He upholds the idea that kids need to understand they are still good people and loved in this world even when they disappoint the grown-ups around them. This idea greatly appeals to my sense of reason, and after reading the book I found myself very conscious of what I say to Coraline, and how people tend to speak to kids in general. But try to explain this to someone and all I got is “You shouldn’t say ‘good.’ ” Period. Not very helpful. But this article in Pathways, very useful.
Kohn doesn’t advocate coldness or ingratitude; rather he urges parents to consider the true effect of their statements, seeing opportunities for learning and growth rather than performance or compliance. In short, here is a paraphrased summation of the Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job.”
It manipulates children. Children are by nature dependent and “hungry for our approval.” Kohn posits that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have more to do with our convenience, pointing out that a verbal reward (praise) is just like tangible rewards or punishments because it is a way to get kids to comply with our wishes. So it produces a result, but doesn’t necessarily teach them anything, and exploits their dependence on our validation.
It creates “praise junkies.” Constantly reinforcing a child with praise (or any reward) conditions them to expect external validation for their behavior and actions, and they may “come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments.” Over time this may breed insecurity, as studies show that kids who are praised lavishly by teachers become more tentative answering questions in class.
It “steals a child’s pleasure.” If you were like me, early pregnancy was not 100% exciting — there were all those hormones to contend with, and vicious nausea, and trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’d be forever and always someone’s mom. But every time someone asked me excitedly “Aren’t you so excited?!” it only compounded the anxiety I felt inside at not being excited (yet), because it made me feel I “should” be excited. While evaluations and guidance are certainly necessary and appropriate at times with children, “a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary or useful for children’s development” because it leaves little room for them to decide how they feel. Kohn points out “the most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged.”
It may make them lose interest. Many studies show that the more someone is rewarded for something, the less interest they’ll have in doing it. By constantly rewarding success or talent with verbal or tangible praise, we make the point not to create or problem solve or work hard, but to get acknowledged. “[A]ctions become seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult.”
It reduces achievement. Research proves that kids who are praised for doing a creative task well don’t do as well on the next task. This is attributed to the pressure praise creates to earn more praise, because their interest may be declining, and because they’re distracted by the silent agenda of earning more praise. Since actions are motivated by thoughts, feelings, and values we often cannot see, praise doesn’t necessarily ensure that the right seeds are being planted.
So what do you do instead?
Say nothing. Reinforcement isn’t always necessary. Children aren’t inherently evil so good behavior is not always a fluke.
Say what you saw. Completely objective feedback or observation (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or “Look at your friend and how happy they seem after you played with them”) tells your kid you noticed what they did, but leaves room for their feelings.
Talk less, ask more. Instead of telling them what you see, ask them to tell you about what they did. It will offer them an opportunity to think about their process and fosters interest.
For more from Kohn check out www.alfiekohn.com.