“Good job!”

We all say it to children. We probably think it has more power than it actually does.

I used to work with a child who consistently took two sessions to learn to make a lower case letter. Thinking of him inspired me to write this post because his persistence has been amazing. I have long felt that saying, “good job” didn’t do justice to the work that people do and it really wasn’t enough for this child and the effort he put into his learning. What does “good job” mean anyway?

If your child has few struggles, excels at school and making friends then you may not need to read this. However, if your child has issues in any area that may affect their self-esteem, then read on to learn ways to give praise that your child will find more valuable than our go-to: “good job.”

It’s Parent Night at your child’s school and the whole class has work displayed for everyone to see. You notice that your child’s project is less than stellar compared to his peers’. Maybe it has only a few words whereas others have a paragraph. Or maybe you can’t tell what the drawing is while others have multiple details. What do you do if you realize that he is aware that his work is different than his classmates? You may worry that he will feel bad about himself.

Even if he doesn’t seem sensitive to this and isn’t comparing himself to others that you are aware of (though he is probably doing this MUCH more than you might realize), your “good job” statement is likely to have only a slight impact, if any. Kids know when you are humoring them. They know that mom and dad have to say these things. Teachers do too. Even when you are sincere when you say this it can fall flat to a child’s ears.

So, what are other ways that you can express your pride and give praise?

First, don’t lie. Kids know when you aren’t sincere and that’s more insulting than no comment at all. (Don’t we feel this way as adults, too?)

Second, don’t rely on synonyms (okay, sometimes with the right inflection and sincerity these still trump “good job.”). “That’s amazing.” “Wonderful.” “Great work.”

Third, try not to compare them with other children, let them stand on their own merit and if you are going to compare then use their previous work, behaviors, etc. Remember, it’s better if we let them see their strengths and stop comparing themselves, so help them learn to do that.

Oh, and skip the “I like.” This isn’t about you—praise is about them.

Here’s what you can do instead. Now this takes practice because it’s a new way of thinking for a lot of people. What’s cool about this is that it is really the optimist’s view of the world. Look for the positive. We get so stuck on the deficits that it can be challenging to see the good things, especially when a child has delays.

*Ask genuine questions about what they did then praise that. Maybe there is something in the process worthy of a compliment.

*Just notice. Make observations about their project. “I notice that you added a lot of detail to the tail of your tiger.” “The colors and wavy lines you used were really unique; that was very creative.” “I notice you had a lot of words spelled correctly.”

*Try to find something specific in what you see that is unique to them.

I’m going to give you some examples below. These are generalized, but can give you a starting point.

For behaviors:

I know it’s hard to sit this long/go to the grocery store/etc. but you didn’t complain today. I really appreciated that.

For kids who have a hard time paying attention:

I didn’t have to remind you to write down your homework today!

Practice this on yourself too. We are all too hard on ourselves. Heck, let your child see you do this.

What if adults only focused on the positives and singled children out when something amazing happened? You would probably see fewer unwanted behaviors. Children want to please and you are giving them the best reinforcer of all time when you notice the good things they do.

Back to the kid who inspired this post. What if I only focused on what he was doing wrong each time he made the letter instead of praising the things that I wanted him to continue to do right with each letter? Would he have been so persistent? It’s not likely. With his hard work he made tremendous progress and not only learned to make all of the letters and numbers, but learned that he is a person capable of success. This made him more willing to continue to be persistent when something challenging came along.  This is a life skill that we all need to foster in children.