Do you often hear yourself saying “Good job!” to the children? I used to – a lot. I hear parents saying it all the time – for everything. And when I taught my university course back in the day, during every single class in which young children were present, my students said it at least a few dozen times in response to something the children had done.

“Good job!” “Good job!” “Good job!” “Good job!”

I winced every time I heard it in class – and 20 years later I’m still wincing. I hear “Good job!” everywhere there’s a mix of adults and children: in homes, on playgrounds, in classrooms, in the grocery store, and on television.

One reason the phrase is so ubiquitous is that we have too often, and in too many ways, received the message that positive reinforcement is important for children. But psychology professor Ellen Ava Sigler told me in a BAM Radio interview that people tend to misunderstand what positive reinforcement is. She said, “They believe that positive reinforcement is sweets, treats, and empty praise, when positive reinforcement is positive attention…[S]imply acknowledging a child’s work or talking to a child about what they’re doing is positive reinforcement.”

The confusion has only deepened with the so-called self-esteem movement of the last couple of decades. Somehow, adults have been led to believe that they must do everything they can to give children self-esteem. While this belief – and the concept of verbally or physically rewarding children – may seem harmless, there are many problems with the idea of giving children self-esteem, not the least of which is that it isn’t possible. You can foster it, but you can’t offer it up like Thanksgiving turkey. Also, trying to bestow self-esteem through constant praise and rewards simply doesn’t prepare children for the real world. As the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan pointed out in another BAM Radio interview on this topic, “If you drown a child in praise, nothing has meaning.”

Sure, hearing “good job” the first few times – or receiving a treat – may make a child feel good. But the feeling is temporary. And someone is eventually going to critique or criticize her. Instead of a happy-face sticker or a pat on the back, a teacher or an employer is going to hand back a heavily red-penciled report and demand to know what she was thinking. Blue ribbons will not be awarded just because she walked through the classroom or office door. And no one is going to say “good job” unless she’s actually done one. And even then she might not hear it. But the child who has come to expect extrinsic reward – who has become convinced that everything she does is worthy of praise or prizes – will be the adolescent or adult who can’t handle life’s realities.

Does it lead to challenging behavior? Absolutely it can. Children know false praise when they hear it, and though they may not be able to articulate it, they know they’re not being respected. So, why should they respect you? They also know they’re going to hear “Good job!” regardless of what they do. I once came upon an anecdote from a new teacher who used praise lavishly as a way to win over his class. But when he later became frustrated because the class wasn’t focusing, he chided them for not making enough effort. In response, one student said, “What’s the point? You’ll just tell us we did fine anyway.”

From the mouths of babes.

If you’re one of the many adults stuck in this pattern, be kind to yourself by accepting that this is a very difficult habit to break! But awareness is an important initial step. You first have to hear yourself saying it. Then, if you’re determined to stop saying it, you eventually will!

Note: “Use Praise Wisely” is one of the tips I offer in my online course, “Avoid Challenging Behavior in Your Early Childhood Setting.”  and in my new book, Acting Out! Avoid Behavior Challenges with Active Learning Games and Activities, available for pre-order now.

6 Comments

  1. Hello Rae ~ The wholesale praising of anyone becomes lost in the general noise. The praise level would have to be ratcheted up quite a bit to be noticed after a short while. Dr Montessori taught us not to praise children. Instead, we observed our students closely as they worked. If after many tries a child managed to complete the lacing item, for example, I would say something like “I noticed you kept at it until you finished that job, you’ll never be in doubt as to how to do it again”. The child knew attention was being paid to his or her work and a comment on the work done was made. There are no prizes in Montessori. The pleasure is the satisfaction children feel from having succeeded in a job they’ve chosen to undertake. Children are not fools and hate being taken for fools. They despise throwaway remarks which are supposed to make them feel good but which they know are just empty phrases, probably said by people hoping for their approbation. I can see how easily cynicism could embed itself in quite young students’ attitudes to showers of plaudits, as they realise nothing much means anything, and it’s of no true value if everything is valued the same, whether or not an effort has been made.

    Kind regards, Iseult

    • Iseult, I’m always glad to receive your thoughtful comments!

      Dr. Montessori was a brilliant woman. What you describe here references intrinsic motivation — doing something for the satisfaction of doing it. It’s the only kind of motivation that truly matters. We have decades of research proving that extrinsic motivation — being rewarded or praised for doing something — is, in the long term, detrimental. Yet adults keep offering rewards and praise, possibly because it’s easier in the short term.

      And, you’re so right when you say that children are not fools! They deserve our respect!

  2. Thank you so much for this information! I feel like getting onto something high and yell: Look here all teachers and take serious note! I always said to my students/teachers that praise must be genuine and must be earned. This is how life works. One of the Learning Outcomes in the SA curriculum is “perseverance at completing a task”. If praises are dished out so easily, it leaves very little room for the child to put in effort and really try hard in accomplishing something as any effort is good enough. We do of course encourage children and guide them to do the best they can but “good enough” often stops further investigation, the will to learn more, to explore beyond, to try harder to perform a skill better. I personally think cheap praise can lead to competition between children to earn more praises than others – a sort of praise race or praise collection.

    • Sophie, I’ll get up there with you and yell! You make such an excellent point about “good enough.” Thanks for expanding my thinking on the subject! And, yes, kids can definitely become praise addicts!

  3. What a fabulous group of articles. I would love to share these with my coworkers. Is there a way to purchase or reproduce this information? Thank you

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