It is generally accepted in today’s generation of parents that praise and encouragement are the tools of choice in childrearing rather than some past methods such as yelling, shaming, and, of course, whupping. Praise and encouragement have taken the place of criticism and disparagement. The catchphrase of the new mentality might be pithily captured in the ubiquitous declaration, “good job!” While I think “good job” is far better as an encouraging statement than nothing at all (or even a diminishment of personal accomplishment), effectiveness in “positive parenting” demands a little more thought and effort. Here’s why.
1. “Good job” doesn’t help your child improve his skills.
Effective praise tells a child exactly what he’s done right, so that he can repeat that same behavior in the future. If your ten-year-old washed the dishes and your response is “good job,” he may be pleased to hear it, but he isn’t exactly sure what he did that was “good.” An effective coach has to break down into tiny segments the various details of his trainees’ practice movements in order to improve on each point. If you want your child to develop any number of skills, specific encouragement is the way to go: “Thanks for scrubbing the forks so well – looks like you really got out all the food that was stuck there.” This kind of specific comment helps him to recognize what he did right so that he can do it again next time.
2. “Good job” doesn’t foster real self-esteem.
One of the goals of positive parenting is to endow your children with self-esteem based on their strengths and value as a person. When your four-year-old shows you her latest drawing, “good job” sends the message that you approve of her work, which might make her feel good – but that good feeling is coming from an external source (you) rather than developing an internal source (her).
If instead your comment is, “Wow, look at how the red and the blue mix so nicely here to make purple!” you are highlighting the particular characteristics worth appreciating. This helps her to notice and develop a sense of satisfaction in her own right, which she will be able to draw from as she gets older so that she will not always need approval from you, and later, her peers.
3. “Good job” gets old after a while.
If all you ever say to your kids by way of encouragement is “good job,” it will eventually lose its meaning (much as “how are you?” no longer really indicates any actual interest in the person you are talking to). As you well know, kids are great at tuning you out, and when it comes to something you say all the time that doesn’t mean much to begin with (see points 1 and 2), it gets real easy to ignore. Varying your comments and tailoring them to the situation at hand avoids the trap of habituation where it simply doesn’t impact your kids anymore. In addition, tailored comments demonstrate to your children that you actually are paying attention, not just lip service.
Let’s be honest – it’s not easy to drop “good job” in favor of more complex reactions. I remember a training I once attended for a new reading program that was to be implemented in a school where I was teaching. They were big on encouragement, but they forbade use of the words “good job” as an option. They even made us role play it to get the hang of it, and it was surprisingly difficult. I was the first sucker to try it, and I was surprised at how frequently I found myself tripping over my lips as I tried to hold back from an immediate “good job response.”
So yes, it will take some practice and getting used to it. Nobody said parenting was easy! Take heart – “good job” is not ruining your children and you don’t have to excise it from your vocabulary yesterday. Keep it in mind, keep working at it, and over time you’ll get better at delivering the positive messages you want your kids to hear from you.