Why We Might Want To Rethink The Phrase ‘Good Job,’ And What We Can Say Instead

by A. Rochaun
Originally Published: 
Re-think The Phrase ‘Good Job’?
monzenmach via Getty

“Good job, Chub,” is a regular phrase in our house. Some might even say it’s overused. We say it when my son successfully goes potty and when he successfully differentiates his right foot from his left foot. We also use the term in a million other contexts that I can’t remember at the moment.

We’ve always thought we were doing the right thing by providing a generous amount of encouragement. But lately, I’ve been wondering about this phrase… should we re-think the phrase “good job”?

First, it’s important to note that we all get motivated by different things. The two main types of motivation are extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation compels you to do something out of genuine interest, like curiosity or a desire to improve yourself. For instance, if your child brings you a book to read because they enjoy storytelling or it has their favorite character, they are intrinsically motivated to read the book.

Conversely, extrinsic motivation is when you complete a task to receive an external factor, like

praise or payment. You’re using extrinsic motivation when you tell your child they can watch another hour of tv if they eat all their veggies.

Technically, there is a time and a place for both motivation triggers and no one style is better than the other. But as a society, we tend to view intrinsic motivation more favorably, especially when setting a foundation for our children. And motivation isn’t nearly as clear-cut as we make it seem. It can be hard to differentiate one motivation from the other. Some things are even a mix of both.

So what does this have to do with whether we tell our kids “good job?”

Well, as this article points out, the fear is that conditions under which we tell our children “good job” can reinforce the idea that noteworthy completion equals success; conversely, it can send the message that struggle equals bad job/unsuccessful. There’s also the concern that we are training our children to be motivated by the expectation of praise.

According to Rae Pica, a child development specialist, one of the biggest problems with the phrase is that it’s too vague. “The expression isn’t remotely informative; the children haven’t a clue about what they’ve done that’s ‘good,'” she said. “So how did that help them improve.”

This makes complete sense. Few things are as ineffective as a feedback that is too general.

Pica also notes that “good job” is often used in situations of dishonesty and children have the ability to detect this. Not to mention it’s overuse makes it less impactful.

The good news is, this doesn’t have to be an “either/or” circumstance. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t give positive feedback. If you would still like to verbally affirm your children, you can beef up its effectiveness with the following strategies. Regardless of how you feel about the phrase “good job,” we could all benefit from some additional methods of encouragement in our toolbox and here are a few suggestions:

1. Describe what you see.

As stated above, the vagueness of “good job” is problematic. You can make the phrase more impactful by describing what you see in detail.

Have you ever told your child that they look “handsome” or “beautiful” when wearing a certain outfit? Well, to some, that could leave your child feeling like they don’t look nice when they aren’t wearing nice clothes. An example of this is saying “Aw, you look so beautiful in your red dress” to your child.

The fear is your daughter (or son) will say dress equals beautiful so no dress equals not beautiful. And in a society where young girls are expected to put a ton of weight on their appearance, this can lead to long-term self-image issues and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes.

Instead, you can say: “You look happy and comfortable! What do you like about that outfit?” or better yet say “I notice you really like the outfit.”

2. Emphasize effort, not outcome.

The idea is that saying “great job putting on your clothes” could suggest that the day your child struggles longer on an outfit with more buttons and snaps, they didn’t do a good job.

If you describe what your child has done, instead of making it a judgment on the outcome, they will learn more from the experience. By saying something like, “Wow, you tried really hard to fasten all those buttons, didn’t you,” you can let your child know that the most important part is that they tried hard.

3. Don’t just comment on “successes.”

One principle I do think is fundamental is being sure to comment on wins, losses, and draws. The choice is yours on whether or not you want to be an “everyone is a winner” parent. But even if you don’t say “good job” when your child doesn’t reach the traditional measure of success, it can be helpful to comment on the process and their actions along the way.

It’s normal to want to emotionally support your child through losses, but it needs to be done in a way that is constructive and honest.

Saying something like “How are you feeling?” or “What do you wish you did differently?” are great conversation starters to encourage older kids to see setbacks as opportunities for improvement instead of failure.

Regardless of whether you find the phrase “good job” to be problematic or not, the beauty of parenting is you get the opportunity to customize the experience to fit in a way that works best for your family and your children.

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