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5 Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job"

Written by Alfie Kohn   
Wednesday, 01 March 2006 00:00
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Hang out at a playground, visit a school, or show up at a child’s birthday party, and there’s one phrase you can count on hearing repeatedly: ‘Good job!’

Here’s why it may not be the best thing to say. Even tiny infants are praised for smacking their hands together (‘Good clapping!’). Many of us blurt out these judgments of our children to the point that it has become almost a verbal tic. Plenty of books and articles advise us against relying on punishment, from spanking to forcible isolation (‘time out’). Occasionally someone will even ask us to rethink the practice of bribing children with stickers or food. But you’ll have to look awfully hard to find a discouraging word about what is euphemistically called positive reinforcement. Lest there be any misunderstanding, 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. Here’s why.

5 Reasons1) Manipulating children
Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behaviour of a two-yearold who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience? Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as ‘sugarcoated control’. Very much like tangible rewards—or, for that matter, punishments— it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids—for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done— or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people. 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.