What I learned about “Good job” and other kinds of praise we flood our children with, is best summarized in this article. And this was one of the hardest things to change about my parenting style. I always praised my baby for every insignificant milestone she achieved. Not just praised, I clapped, I jumped, I kissed her. And I discovered that we both became slaves to this habit pretty quickly. She would do something and look straight at me waiting for my reaction. And I gave it to her, thinking I was helping. At some point it became an automatic response without giving it any thought, something that I felt was my job as a parent, something I thought my daughter needed in order to keep reaching her milestones.
Now I try to take a moment to evaluate the situation, which sometimes is a great effort on my part (the habit is very hard to break). And then I ask her to describe what it is she did and how she feels about it. Sometimes that is all she needs, me paying attention and listening to her. She doesn’t look for my approval most of the time. I noticed that I also don’t fake my excitement this way. But when I am really excited and she feels proud of herself because SHE feels that way, we still hug and kiss.
I suggest to read the whole article by Alfie Kohn, though I couldn’t resist quoting a big part of it here, it is just too good not to share:
“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.
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.
So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done.
And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider three possible responses:
* Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be “reinforced” because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded – and a lot of research suggests that it is – then praise may not be necessary.
* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”
If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing
* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying “Good job!”, as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.
This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head.”
Photo: Anthony Kelly (Flickr)