The Praise Problem: A Case for Saying “Goodbye” to “Good Job”

By Emmy Brockman

Good job, you’ve come to the CCM education blog! I like how you clicked all the way here! You did an awesome job navigating! You made it!

How does this praise make you feel? Personally, I find such saccharine statements condescending. Receiving unwarranted praise makes me feel like a small child. I suppose this makes sense, because this is exactly the type of praise we often heap upon children. When enthusiastic praise is encountered in the adult world it is laughable.  For example, a two year old I babysit says, “good job! You did it!” every time I pee in a public restroom. Inevitably, this elicits chuckles from the adjacent stalls. I agree the situation is humorous and absurd, but this young child is merely parroting back what she hears every day.

It was only two years ago that I was shown just how parasitic our “good job” culture is. Prior to this I was your standard praise pusher, and still struggle to find constructive ways to comment on the actions of children. In this post I will discuss the problems with praise as chronicled in several books and articles, issue a call to consciousness about the language we use with children, and finally offer some time tested “good job” alternatives. It should be briefly noted that I approach this topic as the museum’s Early Childhood Specialist, however, I consider these points important at all stages of development and education.

The problems with praise have been discussed in several excellent written works. Alfie Kohn, noted education scholar and author of “Punished by Rewards,” wrote an article for Parents magazine in 2000 entitled, “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job!”. He posits that over praise can serve to: 1. Manipulate children, 2. Create praise junkies, 3. Steal a child’s pleasure, 4. Cause children to lose interest, and 5. Reduce achievement. Before we bring the hammer of doom and gloom down on praise, an important disclaimer must be issued. In the words of Mr. Kohn, “the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely.” Praise, particularly the odious specter of “good job,” is indirect, automatic, and meaningless. Take a child going down a slide for example. I witness this action everyday, and as the child comes squealing down the slide my impulse is to applaud them and issue a smiley “good job!” What purpose, however, do these words serve? The child is accomplishing something well within her ability, having great fun doing it, and she does not require approval or interjection. Isn’t it preferable for a child to feel a personal sense of achievement rather than an external affirmation of “goodness?” The more articles I read about the plague of praise (I recommend these two: Kohn and Dionna) the more I feel like a candy-coated criminal. This is why I have undertaken the challenge of eliminating “good job,” and other such empty vessels of praise, from my vocabulary. I invite and entreat all of you to join me in this challenge.

Adjusting to a “good job”-less world is a challenge, and it can feel like you’re failing to support children. Kids, however, do not need praise. What kids do need, according to Mr. Kohn, is, “unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. ‘Good job!’ is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.” So, if we agree to collectively vanquish “good job”, with what do we fill its ample void?  Below you’ll find several ideas, culled from personal experience, talks with educators, and other blog posts, articles, and books:

  • State what you see
    • I noticed…you used a lot of brown color, you spun around on just one foot, your play dough sculpture feels sharp, you’ve been jumping for more than a minute, etc.”
  • Ask questions
    •  “I wonder…if this square block would fit in your tower?”
    • Can you tell me about…your creation? Your dance? Your song?”
    • Did you notice…the red and blue are mixing together? You climbed higher than my head?”
    • “Do you have a favorite part of your creation?”
    • “What was challenging about this project?”
  • Say simply “you did it!”
    • The accomplishment is the reward. Children should be proud of themselves, not of our approval.
  • Focus on the action
    • “You’ve been working really hard on that drawing”
    • Wow! It seems like you’ve been really practicing…”
    • “That’s not easy
  • Engender empathy
    • Instead of “Good job sharing!” try, “Look at Max, he seems pretty happy to be playing with your truck.”
  • Say “thank you”
    • Not only is “thank you” what we often really mean (“thank you for helping me clean up” rather than “good job cleaning up”) but children mimic the language they hear adults use and “thank you” is a powerful phrase to have on heavy rotation.
  • Remain silent
    • By stepping back we allow greater independent exploration and creativity. This is reward enough.

Do you have other alternatives to good job? Particular techniques you’ve found successful? Other relevant articles? A counter-argument? Please join the conversation.


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