The scene was comical.
Every time one of the 4- or 5-year-olds caught a ball in our park district’s sports program, the parents all gleefully cheered "Good job!"
When a child missed the ball, we all said, "Aw! Good try!"
After thinking more about our parental behavior that day, I decided to pay attention to just how often I said "good job" in my daily mothering.
Turns out—a lot.
I said it to my 2-year-old for picking up his toys. I said it to my 4-year-old for coloring perfectly within the lines. It came out repeatedly during dinner time.
I sometimes said it in that perky annoying voice that makes people cringe. I may have even said it to my co-workers, and worse, to my husband.
But hey, positive reinforcement is a good thing, right?
Not always, according to child developmental specialist and parent educator Betsy Brown Braun, who believes repeatedly saying "good job" to a child is "poisonous" and sabotages their self-esteem.
Furthermore, "60 Minutes" recently aired a piece on how children who have been coddled with gratuitous praise all their lives grow up to be "narcissistic praise hounds" who can’t handle failure and have unrealistic expectations in the work force.
The piece blamed everyone from Mister Rogers, who repeatedly told children "You’re special," to parents today, who go over-the-top to ensure children never feel disappointment, such as in sports leagues where every player gets a trophy.
No one advocates never saying "good job."
But there is a trick to how and when to say it, experts say.
"Parents are saying ‘good job’ with the best of intentions ... but they can do better than that," says Braun, author of the new book, Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents ($15.95, Harper Collins). "If you can become a more deliberate parent and think about what you’re saying, it’s more effective."
What’s wrong with it?
What’s wrong with saying good job a lot to your child? For one thing, it teaches a child to look to you for approval, rather than being proud of him or herself, Braun says.
"We want the child to kick the ball and think, ‘Yeah! I did it!’ Not to look over to the sidelines to see if you’re proud," Braun says.
The words themselves are judgmental, leaving children to mistakenly conclude that if they’re not doing a good job, then they must be doing a bad job, adds Braun, who designated an entire chapter of her book to "The problem with praise."
The reason most parents say "good job" a lot is because they want to give their child self-esteem and positive reinforcement. But Braun says self-esteem comes from working hard and accomplishment, not praise from others. Even if a child isn’t doing well, parents need to curb their temptation to say "good try" and let their kids struggle, so they can learn to work hard and overcome it.
"Saying ‘good job’ a lot sabotages their risk-taking," Braun says. "A child thinks, ‘If I get a good job every time I kick the soccer ball, but I don’t get good jobs when I play volleyball, then I’m going to play soccer and not try at volleyball."
If it’s said too much, the meaning of "good job" gets watered down in a child’s mind. That’s why Shelly Jagiello, of Mount Prospect, tries her best to save her "good job" praise for the times her 3-year-old daughter goes above and beyond expectations.
"I want to reinforce that she’s doing the right thing," says Jagiello, a middle school teacher. "I do say it a lot. But I’m not saying it, like, ‘Good job you brushed your hair.’ And I make sure it goes the other way, too. When she’s wrong, I let her know it."
Excessive good jobbing might be a generational thing. Grandmothers say their grandchildren are told "good job" far more than they ever heard it.
"I had my kids during the movement of self-esteem. But when I was a kid, it was all about hard work. You worked hard for what you got," says retired teacher and grandmother of five, Joyce Gryglas, of Arlington Heights. "It’s not like that as much today."
Braun agrees, saying this generation of parents is over-achievers who are trying too hard to give their children self-esteem rather than teaching them how to develop it themselves.
Christine McGrath, a child psychotherapist with Fox Valley Institute for Growth and Wellness in Naperville, says parents often say "good job" as a way to make their child feel better, not because they believe their child did something praise-worthy. For example, if a boy didn’t play well in his baseball game, but his mom says, "good job" as he walks off the field, it can actually make him feel worse.
"That’s where it becomes a disservice," says McGrath. "You’re better off saying, ‘Maybe if you practice a little more, you can have a better game next time.’ Because if you don’t teach them to manage disappointment as a child, how are they going to manage it as an adult?"
If parents tell a child one thing, but everyone—including their peers—knows it’s not true, a child will learn to doubt their parents’ sincerity. Honesty needn’t be "you stunk," but encouragement, like, "Maybe you can practice that" or just a simple "Well, everyone has good days and bad days."
Palatine mom Jennie Steffus says she felt pressure to say "good job" to her 6- and 1-year-olds because she’s read so many parenting articles and books that stress the importance of positive parenting.
However, in the past few months, Steffus realized her frequent "good job" comments weren’t helping her daughter. When they’d play board games, for example, her daughter would have meltdowns if she didn’t win.
"There are only so many times you can pretend to lose at Hi-Ho Cherrio and Candyland. Soon, it’s like, hey, this is life," Steffus says. "You know, you can’t do well at everything all the time and that’s OK."
A few months ago, Steffus made a conscious effort to stop saying "good job" so much and give praise to her children in other ways. Instead of focusing on winning or being the best, her emphasis now is on having fun. Instead of "good job," she’ll say things like, "Isn’t this fun?"
"It’s helping (my daughter) manage her expectations a little better," says Steffus. "Sometimes, you’re not always at the top of your game. Teaching her that has had a positive effect on her behavior."
When ‘good job’ is OK
It is perfectly acceptable to say "good job" frequently to infants and toddlers who are learning to do things like walk and eat and get dressed, experts say. That type of positive reinforcement helps children in that age learn. It’s when a child becomes self-aware, usually around the time they enter preschool, that a parent should be careful about overdoing their praise, McGrath says.
An exception is with children with special clinical needs, such as ADHD, depression or low social confidence. They need to hear "good job" more than most children, McGrath says.
Dan Barten, a father of two from Wauconda, found himself saying "good job" to his daughter with Down Syndrome much more than he did his older son. But that extra praise helped her learn, he says.
"A disabled child has to work harder and focus and be taught to get daily tasks completed. So they need to get a ‘good job’ more often to assure them they are doing the correct thing," says Barten, who heads up Living Legacy, a non-profit organization that helps special needs families. "Sometimes a good job isn’t a good job, but it’s a child doing the best job they possibly can."
What should you say?
So if good job is bad, what’s good? Experts say "good job" is acceptable in moderation if it’s heartfelt and includes specific actions, such as "Good job putting on your coat by yourself."
What’s better, they say, is to start sentences with the word "You" rather than "I." So a better choice is "You put your coat on by yourself. You didn’t need help. Yesterday you weren’t able to do it, but today you were."
By including specifics, such as "You picked a nice shade of red" instead of "Good job coloring," it will provide a child with encouragement—what other pretty shades can I pick?—and gives the subliminal message that you’re paying attention.
Specific praise like this is valued by adults, too. Think about it: a general, "Good job with the fundraiser" doesn’t carry as much weight as "You really found a way to get people motivated."
Another tip the experts offer is to pick and chose positive encouragement opportunities so children aren’t always expecting a "good job" from you.
"Praising our kids when they least expect it is very powerful stuff," Braun says.
Perhaps the most important rule is to never say "good job" when a child’s done a mediocre or bad job. If you heap that praise on them and it’s undeserved, they’ll know it.
"You have to have honesty in your relationship," says Arlington Heights grandmother Ann Paine. "Otherwise, what you say won’t have any meaning."
Instead of saying ‘Good job,’ say ...
• "Oh my gosh, you kicked the ball all the way down the field!"
• "Look at how strong you are. You carried that heavy bag inside by yourself."
• "You’re sitting so still. Wow, it’s a pleasure to sit at the table with you when you’re sitting so still."
• "Yesterday you were afraid, but today you were brave."
• "You put that on all by yourself."
• Start sentences with "you" rather than "I."
• If you still say good job, add on something specific, such as "Good job tying your shoes by yourself."
Jamie Bartosch is freelance writer in Arlington Heights who is trying to do a good job of raising her two children.