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Does 'Good Job' Really Mean 'Do What I Say?'

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Tell the truth: What are you actually saying when you compliment your teen for putting away the dishes?

mother and daughter smiling doing chores

Ronda Kaysen: It's hard not to blurt out "good job" every time my kid does something I think is amazing, like, say, pull up his Pull-up all by himself. After all, he never considered doing that a week ago. But parenting expert Alfie Kohn has been on a mission to get parents to stop saying the dreaded two words, and his latest New York Times article brings up the topic again.

Telling our kids "good job" for completing tasks that we've arbitrarily deemed worthy of our approval is no less manipulative than withholding love and affection when they mess up. Recent studies support his theory: college kids who received conditional love from their parents were more likely to do as their parents wanted, but they tended to dislike and resent their parents in general. Ouch. Their happiness about a job well done was often fleeting and replaced by feelings of guilt and shame. Other recent studies have found that positive reinforcement gets kids to work harder at academic tasks because of negative feelings of "internal compulsion." Negative reinforcement, meanwhile, has no positive outcome at all.

"Praising children for doing something right isn't a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive," Kohn writes.

The alternative is to explain reasons for requests, involve kids in decision-making, offer encouragement without being manipulative, and consider how your actions and words would be perceived by a child.

It's hard to think that telling a kid that he did a good job because he cleared his dinner plate is manipulative, but the more I think about it, the more I see his point. It is manipulative because clearing his plate isn't a job well done, it's following orders. And what a child will take from that is, "If I do what Mommy wants, she'll be proud of me and love me," when he should feel that I'll love him regardless of whether he clears his plate or not.

We're trying to raise independent adults, not robots who blindly do as we say for fear that we won't love them, or to win our empty praises. The goal is to end up with a person who is compelled to make good decisions because it makes him feel good about himself, not because Mom will tell him she's proud of him.

As a mom, it's hard to bite my tongue. It's hard to hold back when the smallest achievement seems like an amazing feat. He walked up the stairs unassisted! He drank from a cup without a lid! He got in the car seat without a temper tantrum!

But each time I say "good job," I'm not allowing my child to decide on his own how he feels about his latest achievement. I'm telling him how to feel about it. I'm actually robbing him of his moment to shine. Maybe next time he gets the Pull-up on all by himself, I'll sit back and let him tell me what he thinks about it.

next: How Do YOU Respond to Your Husband?
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Laura aka LaLaGirl October 5, 2009, 9:52 AM

I think you guys are WAY overthinking this. Raising kids is hard enough - there will always be conflict, chaos, drama - why invent more of it? Why dream up new crap to worry about?

vanessa October 5, 2009, 12:58 PM

Yeah, Ive gotta say, some article coming out lately are making me scared to have kids-I know I am not a mother yet but will be in a couple years, and occasionally come across articles from this site. Its hard to know what to take into consideration and what not to sometimes.

Chalky October 5, 2009, 1:48 PM

+1 with Laura aka LaLaGirl. Praising kids for doing something they should be proud of is secretly manipulative? Really?

Perhaps it is better for the child to tell you that they did something praise worthy, but I would not stop trying to praise them for good behavior.

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