5 Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!"

We know that it is not good to punish our children for every little thing, especially when it involves physical pain or forced isolation (the all time favorite “time out”), but is it also not a good thing to give too much praise?

Alfie Kohn, one of the world’s top expert in human behavior, education and parenting says that while it is important to be supporting and encouraging, watch out for excessive praise because it can fall too closely to becoming ‘verbal’ rewards which will, in the long run, affect your children’s emotional needs.

There is a fine line between being encouraging and taking advantage of children’s dependency on our approvals. Not taking notice of this fine line can cause us to unknowingly exploit these dependencies, and risk with our children’s future potential.

What children really need is the opposite of praise, they need love and endless encouragement and support - with no strings attached.

I was also amazed to learn that a study conducted at the University of Florida, says that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses and were more likely to answer in a questioning tone of voice! They would also most likely drop an idea that they proposed if an adult disagreed with them and were less likely to continue with difficult tasks or share their ideas with their peers.

That is some interesting stuff right there.

Ready to know more? Here are the top 5 reasons, according to Kohn, on why ‘praise’ may not be such a good thing after all. The full version of this article was originally published in Parents magazine in May 2000 with the title “Hooked on Praise.”:

Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”

By Alfie Kohn

1. Manipulating Children

Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as “sugar-coated control.” Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes.

It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people.

The reason praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval. But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience. A “Good job!” to reinforce something that makes our lives a little easier can be an example of taking advantage of children’s dependence. Kids may also come to feel manipulated by this, even if they can’t quite explain why.

2. Creating Praise Junkies

To be sure, not every use of praise is a calculated tactic to control children’s behavior. Sometimes we compliment kids just because we’re genuinely pleased by what they’ve done. Even then, however, it’s worth looking more closely. Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. The more we say, “I like the way you….” or “Good ______ing,” the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.

Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice (“Um, seven?”). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

3. Stealing a Child’s Pleasure

Apart from the issue of dependence, a child deserves to take delight in her accomplishments, to feel pride in what she’s learned how to do. She also deserves to decide when to feel that way. Every time we say, “Good job!”, though, we’re telling a child how to feel.

To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary — especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that “Good job!” is just as much an evaluation as “Bad job!” 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.

I cherish the occasions when my daughter manages to do something for the first time, or does something better than she’s ever done it before. But I try to resist the knee-jerk tendency to say, “Good job!” because I don’t want to dilute her joy. I want her to share her pleasure with me, not look to me for a verdict. I want her to exclaim, “I did it!” (which she often does) instead of asking me uncertainly, “Was that good?”

4. Losing Interest

“Good painting!” may get children to keep painting for as long as we keep watching and praising. But, warns Lilian Katz, one of the country’s leading authorities on early childhood education, “once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again.” Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a “Good job!”

In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

5. Reducing Achievement

As if it weren’t bad enough that “Good job!” can undermine independence, pleasure, and interest, it can also interfere with how good a job children actually do. Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with.

Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

More generally, “Good job!” is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future.

Click here to read the full article and find out better alternatives

As an icing to the cake, I am going to share with you a video on Kohn speaking very passionately about what praise can do to your child.

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10 comments

  1. leilacarpenter10@AOL.com'
    Leila

    This article is such an interesting subject. Firstly, I would have liked to read more about tone of voice. What I mean is, something like 80% of the meaning of a statement is inferred from tone of voice or body language. So, ‘good job’ could mean a variety of things to a child I imagine.

    I agree though that it is a lazy way of commenting on something. Being totally engaged and making interesting and thought-provoking comments and suggestions is a large part of a teacher’s (and parent’s) job, no wonder good job gets trotted out sometimes – especially at the end of the day.

  2. stephanie@wiredantiks.com'

    I always am open to learning how to communicate with my children and what researchers have discovered in the different ways we communicate with our kids. However, what I would really benefit from is reading solutions. When I read this I instantly start doubting myself and worrying about the detriment I have caused my children’s development as a whole human being because, as a human Mother, I do make these mistakes. Reading your article leaves me with self doubt, shame and fear rather than hope and tools to use to start changing these harmful behaviors and habits. Of course, alot of this is my own personal “stuff”, however, as an analytical reader, I would like to leave an article feeling encouraged.
    I would like to read more positive endings to these discoveries and finish reading with a tool belt full of hope and useful solutions to use for becoming the best informed Mother I can be who wants nothing more than to raise self confident, whole rounded individuals.
    Thank you for bringing these topics to us and giving me something to think about and I look forward to learning more on communication.

  3. marmat@centrum.cz'
    Marketa

    Melissa, please write more on this subject. Something like “How to stop saying -good job- without harming the kids who were used to it before” would be great. I do agree with Stephanie Vaughan. Thanks

  4. adsaenz99@att.net'
    Alex

    This was an interesting article, and I can see where wanting to praise my child and give them “rewards” for accomplishments may be causing problems. Now I am at a loss as to how to react to a good test score or project, etc. or to reinforce some good behavior. I would like to see some suggestions for alternative ways to deal with these situations.
    I’ll have to do some serious thinking and be careful what I say from now on.

  5. poschmob@activ8.net.au'
    Catherine

    I agree with Stephanie, how about providing some useful tools to better parenting instead of just creating self doubt and confusion in your readers. Mostly I find your stuff interesting but when no solutions are presented I get a little cynical.

  6. ivylevy999@gmail.com'
    Ivy

    As a former teacher and now mother of a 3 yr old this struck me right where it counts: the heart. I did feel awash with fear and guilt as I read this. I do see how my praise has affected my daughter. I want to change now and am going to take the suggestions to heart. I am also going to print the article and give it to my daughter’s pre-school teacher. This is some serious research info that needs to be widespread to parents and teachers!

    Just an update: For about 2 hours now I have got creative with new words when praising my daughter. We were playing a game and she won. I was conscious of my words and instead of saying the usual “good job!” I said “How does that feel?” She said “perfect!” and “I feel so proud of myself mommy” when later she was able to do a chore on her own w/o help. I gave her ownership of her feelings and pride. What a difference! Thank you for this article. It has helped me shift my awareness tremendously!

  7. larn86@live.com'
    Alana

    WOW. I have been having a fair bit of difficulty with my 4yo and 18 mnth old. I have recently seperated from their father, so we have a lot going on trying to start fresh. I noticed an almost instant change in the kids when i approached them differently, using information i read from giftED. Thanks heaps. The things i am reading are resonating within me. Im lookig forward to a much happier future :)

  8. Pingback: The “Right” Way To Praise Your Kids | Project GiftED - Revolutionizing Education, Transforming Mankind

  9. daddytrains@yahoo.com'
    Kevin Verhoe

    you all just offered an form of praise and apprieciation to this web site and this article as if you were so amazed that it can do something of good or value.
    Praise, appreciation, acknowledgement,guidance and encouragement go hand in hand with childhood development. Otherwise we would all strive to be Neandrathals again.

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