Inside: this previously members-only resource will help you give up your “good job” habit and teach you how to praise kids better. A 19-page pdf “101 alternatives to inspire kids’ minds” is available as printable.
You want to say something nice about the picture your child has just made.
Your child’s eager eyes are looking at you expectantly.
You’re wondering what is it you’re looking at exactly? If you tilt your head to the right, it looks a bit like, hmm, a flower? Or a cloud, maybe?
You rack your brain, for something inspiring to say. Something to boost his confidence, encourage learning, and build a connection. Something to …
You extend your hand toward the picture and put your other hand on the child’s shoulder, and murmur, “Good job, Mark!”
What’s so bad about “Good Job”?
The last twenty years have seen a proliferation of research into the inner thoughts and feelings of children. And the burgeoning body of evidence points an accusing finger in the direction of shallow praise like “good job.”
Supposedly, those two words are guilty of everything from damaging the relationship between the child and the adult to undermining the child’s interest in the task, hindering development, robbing children of the ability to judge their own work, and encouraging them to create only things that they think are likely to bring praise from adults.
So how to praise kids better?
The alternatives were not part of my lexicon when I was growing up. As a mother, “good job” is what instantly came out of my mouth. I knew, if I wanted to re-train my automatic responses, I had to be intentional about it.
So in the early days of parenting, I created a cheat sheet for a quick reference. I’m glad to say that with enough practice and repetition the words on the cheat sheet became an automatic mode of response.
I believe the use of those words made a tremendous difference in my relationship with my kids, as well as in their self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities.
Even more heart-warming is to witness how easily those positive words of encouragement come to my kids when they talk to each other.
101 alternatives to “good job”
to inspire kids’ minds
For the ease of reference, I divided the alternatives into eight situations where you most likely will need to use them.
When your kid proudly brings you a drawing
- Look at it and say, “Tell me more about it.”
Children (and adults) love talking about their creations. Ask a question that starts with “what, how, or why.” For example,
- How did you come up with this idea?
- Why did you use this color?
- What do you like best about your painting?
- Would you tell me how you did that?”
Pay attention to details, describe what you see, and wait for their response.
- You used a lot of colors in this picture.
- You put a lot of detail into your drawing.
- I find it interesting that you used mostly blue to paint this box.
Recognize the qualities that brought about this result and give proper credit.
- That took a lot of imagination (patience/effort/creativity/etc.).
- It must have taken a long time to paint this truck. You are showing a lot of dedication.
Invite your child to find a way to share their painting with other people or exhibit it.
- Should we take a photo of your drawing and text it to grandma?
- Shall we hang your picture on a wall in the kitchen or in your room?
When kids spend a lot of time trying to figure something out (i.e., a math problem, a science project, etc.).
Scientists who looked at the effect of ability praise (“you are really good at math”) versus effort praise (“you worked hard on this math problem”) discovered something interesting. The ability praise resulted in “less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort.”
- Acknowledge their effort, not their ability: “You worked really hard on this project.”
What you pay attention to grows. Point out the qualities of character that brought about the desired effect, and you will see more of it in the future.
- You spent a long time figuring out this math problem. You were persistent. You kept working until you were done!
- I noticed you were getting frustrated with that science report, but you did your best to figure it out anyway. You showed a lot of self-control and discipline.
- You kept going even when it was hard.
We don’t want to encourage kids to be dependent on our opinion. We want them to be able to judge their outcomes when no one is around.
- How do you feel about performance?
- You got a “C” on your math test. How do you feel about it?
- You look proud. Are you?
We want our kids to work hard, and we usually bring it up when they are not working hard. “Why are you not doing your science report! Stop procrastinating!” Instead, put the energy into the situation when they do get it right.
- It’s obvious from your grade that you worked hard to prepare for this test.
- You got an “A” on your test. Your studying really paid off.
Steer clear of any statement of judgment, like “it’s good, I like it, etc.” If a child specifically asks, “Don’t you like it?” you can say, “Yes, I like it, but the more important consideration is that you like it.”
- If your child is showing you an “A” report card, say “I see you are learning.”
The best way to make a lasting connection
In order to connect with people, we need to let them know that we see them, we hear them, we feel them. To little kids, simply being noticed is powerful evidence that they matter, that they are lovable, that they are good.
So, start with your eyes: “I see you…. + [describe what you see].”
- I see that you look very pleased with your work.
- I see you ate most of the vegetables on your plate.
- I see that you put a lot of effort into this project (Lego tower/painting).
- I can see that you are frustrated with me, but you are managing your big emotions well.
- You look so excited!
- It doesn’t look easy, but you are doing it.
Or when you see them doing something you would like to reinforce like reading, or picking up the toys, simply state the fact in a neutral voice:
- You are walking around the room and picking up the toys.
- You are reading.
- You are putting your school books away.
Start with your ears, “I hear you…+ [describe what you hear].”
- I hear the pride in your voice. Tell me more.
- I hear you are making all kinds of animal noises. It’s almost as if a whole farm is coming to life through you.
Start with your senses. “I feel you…or It seems to me that + [describe what’s happening].”
- It seems to me that all your hard work led to a very interesting result.
- I feel disappointment in your voice. Getting a “B” was not what you expected to get on this test.
- It seems to me that you are very pleased with your progress.
- I can feel the joy of discovery in your project.
If you notice something that deserves praises, start with “I notice… + [describe what it is].”
- I noticed that your bed was made very neatly today.
- I noticed that you played quietly with cars while I was cooking dinner.
Ask them to be your guide,
- Can you show me how to build a Lego bridge?
- Show me how you did this part?
How to praise academic success
Research has clearly demonstrated that how we talk about performance has a tremendous impact on future performance. The important finding of this line of research is that when you praise kids for being smart, talented, or not making mistakes, you are doing them a great disservice. What you should concentrate on is an effort, perseverance, dedication, etc. Here are some examples:
- What a creative way to solve that problem!
- You showed great focus when performing that exercise.
- Wow, you worked hard and made it.
- That is an effective way of doing it.
- You figured this out by … so you can now …
- You used a very good strategy that worked for you.
- That’s it—by doing it this way you can finish the whole page.
- That’s a great technique to solve this problem.
- This is a good way to ….
- The amount of effort you are putting into your schoolwork is really paying off.
- See, because you practiced, you are getting better at this.
- Was it easy or hard for you?
- Now that you’ve tried two different strategies, which way was easier for you?
- That was a challenging project. What did you learn from it?
- You got a higher grade on the last math test than the one before it. Why do think you did better this time?
- This shows dedication.
- You have a sense of responsibility.
- How did you think of that?
- You tried your best.
- You practiced until you learned to add fractions.
- You are managing your time well.
- You did this assignment. What will you do now?
When kids are helpful
If your child emptied the dishwasher or threw a load of laundry into the washing machine, it’s so tempting to say, “Good job!” But a better thing to say is “Thank you” and clarify what you are thanking them for.
- Thank you for picking up the LEGO blocks from the floor. Now I can walk back and forth with the baby without worrying about stepping on something.
- Today you worked nonstop all morning on cleaning your room. I appreciate your hard work.
Don’t say anything about it making you happy. Doing chores shouldn’t be about making Mom happy. Your happiness is your business. Your kids are not responsible for it. Doing chores is about doing the right thing.
Praise growth. It’s always a good idea to concentrate on progress.
- This week you completed your chores without any reminder five days out of seven. That’s one up from last week. Terrific progress!
Praise qualities of character you want to see more of.
- You took the garbage out without me asking. That was very thoughtful.
- You organized the shelves in your room with creativity. You have a gift of resourcefulness.
What to say instead of “Good Job” when you need something short and sweet
Okay, there are times when you simply don’t have time for a long, drawn-out response or when a short acknowledgment does get the job done. For example, “Look, Mom! I really can almost make a cartwheel! Check it out!” “Good going” or “Way to go!” is all that’s needed. Or “My science project was one of five selected for a state competition!” “High five!”
- Good going!
- Way to go!
- High five!
- You did it!
- You’ve figured it out!
- That’s the way to do it!
- I knew you could do it!
- You impressed me!
- This is very advanced!
- This is so creative!
- This was hard, but you did it!
- It’s beautiful!
How to praise sibling cooperation
Avoid comparison or highlighting one child’s achievement or faults, especially in front of the other siblings. A good rule of thumb is to describe what you see without judgment, even when the kids are disagreeing. And habitually bring to their attention the situations in which the kids are exhibiting behaviors that you want to see more often.
- You are demonstrating flexibility and cooperation today.
- Thank you for helping your sister with her reading assignment.
- You did it on your own, guys. The whole room is cleaned up!
- You worked together to build a spaceship. Good teamwork!
- You were respectfully talking to your brother even though he took your toy without asking. You showed a lot of self-control.
- Thank you for helping your little brother with the shoe, even though you were impatient to get outside and start running.
- Thank you for being so patient with your baby sister.
- Your brother smiled when you gave him that toy.
- Sharing your chocolate with your siblings was a very considerate thing to do.
- Good job, sharing toys! (Just checking to see if you are paying attention!). I see that you are sharing your toys today.
These words are most effective when delivered in a business-as-usual tone of voice without emotion as in “that’s the way things normally are around here.”
Plus: Six powerful ways to give a nonverbal praise
Don’t feel like you always need to rush in with verbal praise. Instead, use silence to invite kids to share their thoughts. You might be surprised at what kids say when you don’t fill the silence with words.
- Try mirroring. Notice your child’s body language—posture, gestures, voice pitch—and properly match them. If your child is jumping up and down from excitement, you don’t necessarily have to jump, too, but you can match his/her facial expression—huge smile, sparkling eyes, etc.
- Give a gentle pat on the back/head. Both chimps and humans use pats to connect and feel closer to someone.
- Offer a playful wink.
- Smile and nod. Look the child in the eyes and wait. What will your kid say? The ball is in your child’s court. You are giving him/her space to reject or accept the engagement, and in doing so, you give the child power (something that little kids don’t get enough of).
- Try a fist bump or a high five.
- Stop and be mindful. Seize doing whatever you were doing and look at the child with interest and expectation. When you put your agenda out of your mind and really listen, you signal to your child that he/she is worthy of your attention. And in the end, that’s the highest praise there is!
To inspire your kids’ minds, the right vocabulary is as important as the other opportunities for growth. At times, nothing better than “good job” comes to mind simply because we were not exposed to a different vocabulary in our own childhoods. Other times, “good job” is what comes to mind because we are not fully engaged with the situation and our mind is elsewhere. If you don’t have time to be specific about what you are praising, then it might be better not to say anything at all. At least when you do say something, kids will know you are being sincere and not dishing out “good jobs” without really meaning it.
How to praise kids better is available as a printable pdf.
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