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Why I Never Tell My Child “Good Job”: the Case of Praise versus Encouragement

Photo by Casey Leigh Wiegand

And no, I never tell my child “bad job!” either. Save your gasps for Jerry Springer, SmartMoms. It’s simply a matter of praise versus encouragement.

The first time I ever considered this idea of encouraging instead of praising a child was when I took a job at a preschool. In fact, in the interview, they told me, we don’t say, “good job!” I was shocked. I had learned about the benefits of providing a positive learning environment, and that comment didn’t strike me as something the school should advertise to young, ambitious, happy, new teachers.

However, I grew to appreciate their ideas, which were based off of the Reggio Emilia approach to childcare (ages 3 months-6 years). This approach was born out of Northern Italy in the 1960’s, when the municipality was increasingly concerned with their children’s education. They designed schools that focused on providing a self-directed environment for students with holistic learning that encouraged all sorts of expression. All that to say, the city wasn’t satisfied with their preschoolers coloring in the lines or singing their ABC’s. They wanted their children to thrive as they grew in curiosity, creativity, and expression.

For this bunch of preschool teachers, they saw, “good job!” as the end of an opportunity for learning. The Reggio Emilia approach prefers to offer encouragement as a way of extending the child’s learning experience and challenging them to wonder all along the way.

Here’s how you, too, can implement this approach in your home as a means of providing rich encouragement to your child:

  1. Extend, Don’t End: When your child creates a painted masterpiece, or designs a brilliant train track, you’ve got two options. You can extend their learning experience, or you can end it. By saying “good job” you are acknowledging their work, but not extending or challenging them further. Try thinking of positive way of encouraging them to continue their work Try: “Wow, I like the way you used your paintbrush to add details to your tree. Do you think you could add that kind of detail to other parts of your painting?” Now, you’ve let your child know you like their work, while also challenging him/her to continue!
  2. Challenge, Don’t Coddle: My favorite example of this happened at a nature center. I was watching a dad and his 4-year old daughter interact.  The girl was playing by a small creek and couldn’t figure out how to get across. She whimpered, “Daddy, come get me!”  He was on the other side of the creek and easily could have slipped her over his shoulder and across the creek. But he didn’t. He said, “I know you can do this.  I’m right here.  How can you get across?” This dad knew he could come in and fix his four year old’s problem. He also knew he had an opportunity to challenge her, and he seized that opportunity. She made it across the creek by walking across a log, she also gained the confidence that she is capable of developing solutions and fixing problems.
  3. Wonder, Don’t Wander: Sometimes the best way to encourage your child is to wonder with them. As your child is putting together a train track, ask: “I wonder how far you could make that train track go?” or at the zoo: “I wonder how much food they have to prepare for all these animals?”  Perhaps there’s a sibling conflict in your home.  Once things have cooled, try asking, “I wonder how we can get along better?” These questions facilitate problem solving skills and cognition. Encourage your child to think of ‘wonder’ questions as well. It’s tempting to wander off to reply to an email, clean the kitchen, or attend to any number of pressing household issues.  Try challenging yourself to connect with your child several times a day and wonder with them. By wondering with your child, you are sending them the message that you are engaged in their world and that their play is important.

Encouragement makes an impact. When you use your words to encourage your child, think of words that accurately reflect the way you want to encourage them. We were all brought to tears during the movie The Help when Aibileen Clark says, “You is kind, you is smart, and you is important”. When encouraging your child, be specific. Telling your child “good job!” for the thirtieth time after they color in their coloring book is a little different than, “you are a truly talented artist and I love watching you enjoy your painting!”

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