In our society we’re almost programmed to respond to children with a “good job” when they do something ‘correctly’ or to our liking. As I listen to the chorus of “good jobs” around me (take a moment to listen next time you’re out in public with children to the frequency of “good jobs” they hear), I often wonder what we really mean. I think there are a few limitations with “good job” and its synonyms. The first is that it doesn’t fully express our meaning. My husband insightfully reflected that he’s most likely to offer a “good job” when he’s being a bit lazy and actually not offering the child his full attention. The second limitation in saying “good job” is that it isn’t immediately relevant to the child. By saying “good job” we’re taking what the child did and making it about us, rather than let it be whatever it is for the child. That’s especially true when we assign our opinion without knowing the child’s own thoughts about his work or effort or product. Take a child attempting handstands against a wall. If we walk in and say “good job” to the child we have no way to gauge if that hand stand was actually frustrating for the child because he’s held it longer the last 52 times he’s attempted or alternatively if the child felt valiant at their absolute best handstand even though vertical was still a ways off.
Sure, as my mom likes to remind me there are moments when a good job is deserved and we all like to hear it. Moderation in all things. But rather than jump to a “good job” here are five alternative responses when you’re with children (or adults) and feel that urge to generically praise.
- Ask them about their experience: You can shift the focus to their own opinions and get insights into what the child is thinking by asking questions. Start with open questions like “what did you think of that” or” how did that feel?”
- Make a statement that conveys no judgement but instead just acknowledgment and noticing. These might sound strange at first but we can stop before we assign value to our child’s actions and just exclaim. I’ve been trying to use these as my new automatic responses: “That was something,” “Look at you,” or simply “Wow” or Whoa”!
- Notice or observe their experience: You can help kids notice what they’re feeling or experiencing by noticing what you see. “You look like you’re…” can be filled in with anything from “having fun” to “really invested in the outcome of what you’re doing.” Be thoughtful with how you word these to make sure you’re preserving your opinions for you and theirs for them. Try out “I’ve never seen you do that before,” or “I’ve never seen you do it that way before.”
- Appreciate them specifically: No doubt, everyone loves to be appreciated and told they’re wonderful and what they’re doing has a positive impact on others. A great way is to say “I noticed the way you ____, and I really like that,” “I really appreciated when you ___” or “When you ___, I felt like you were really trying to help me.”
- Let them be: This one is my favorite for sure. I think more often than not we can just let our kids be. A rub on the back, pat on the arm or leg, or a squeeze can convey our love without any judgment. Or stay out of the way and just observe. Sometimes the quiet pride you feel in watching children be their awesome selves is just as rewarding as voicing it.