Proud father patting son on the head while he studying

Even Better than a “Good Job?”

Nice work! Good girl! Excellent job! This is verbal praise—a warm expression of approval or kind acknowledgement of admiration. While it is certainly nice to hear, could we be getting hooked? Ironically the first thing I did when I drafted this article is ask: Do you think I did a good job?

Parents, I believe you want to celebrate your children’s good choices to both tell them how proud you are of them, and positively reinforce that good choice-making in the future. I respect that! Together, let’s take a closer look at how we can do it. A well-intentioned “good job” is likely a go-to, but is it really doing the trick?

As valuable as verbal praise is, today I’d like to offer another perspective. That is: Too much verbal praise, especially superlative labels, can breed fear of failure or people pleasing tendencies. Why? Because praise is product-oriented and evaluative. It is about assessing the outcome, the result, the accomplishment or grade. 

Thus, kids might rely on praise or even interpret the absence of praise as criticism with insecurity. Kids may begin to get stuck in a good kid vs. bad kid mentality, failing to separate a choice or action from their identity or persona. Pressure to “keep up the good work” may backfire. A “good job” could unintentionally interrupt a child’s interest in the process or indirectly tell them how to feel. It can also be so vague and overplayed that it becomes less meaningful or unclear what exactly was good about their job. Praise may make us work harder, yes, but more for the approval of another than for our own satisfaction or appraisal of our worth. We might become extrinsically motivated to do it just for the prize and think: What’s in it for me?

Ok, then what instead? Add encouragement! Although similar, encouragement is process-oriented. It is focused on effort, interest, and improvement rather than task completion itself. Encouraging your children involves emphasizing their positive qualities, choices, and behaviors, as well as making noteworthy observations. 

Here are 20 starters:

  1. Your hard work is paying off! 
  2. Thank you for [x]! 
  3. Looks like you had fun! You seem to really enjoy [x]!
  4. That’s what I call [positive adjective]!
  5. I noticed you [desired behavior]! 
  6. That took a lot of patience. You kept trying!
  7. That was brave! You can do hard things! 
  8. Way to be considerate of [x]!
  9. You’re on the right track!
  10. I can tell you thought about making a kind choice here!
  11. You worked together on [x]. Great teamwork!
  12. Look at your friend’s face. Their smile tells me they seems very happy that you [x]!
  13. You seem very interested in [x]!
  14. It was nice to see you decide to [x]! 
  15. This was a first for you. I admire how you tried something new! 
  16. You have been so focused while playing!
  17. I can see you are making so much progress!
  18. Very responsible of you to [x]!
  19. You are using your imagination!
  20. You set a lovely example for your classmates by [x]!

You might take it a step further by then inviting discussion or asking questions. 

Here are 5 ideas: 

  1. Tell me about it! 
  2. How does it feel? 
  3. How did your effort or choice change things? 
  4. How did you think to make this or solve that? 
  5. Can you show me how you did that?

Or, high-fives and hugs! Even silence. You don’t have to comment on everything; your body speaks too!

As you know, the messages we send to our children matter! Praise is great; encouragement is even better! 

For additional thoughts on this topic, you may reference Amy McCready on Positive Parenting Solutions, Alfie Kohn on Unconditional Parenting, The Montessori-Minded Mom, and Imperfect Families: Positive Parenting Community & Coaching.