Thursday, October 20, 2011

When Gratitude is Better Than Praise

I try to avoid overuse and misuse of the phrase "Good job!" when talking to my son. This type of "empty" praise is a value judgment that can lead to an array of self-esteem, autonomy, and relationship issues (check out this article for a primer). Therefore, I'm always looking for more constructive and meaningful things to say. Like many great ideas, this one came about while I was on the, uh, porcelain throne...

Usually, I tend to let empty TP rolls pile up in the bathroom before I take them to the recycling bin because I get lazy or immediately distracted by my messy toddler. Once, I decided to give Munchkin a chance to do it for me while I was - ahem - occupied. When the toilet paper roll ran out, I handed it to him and asked if he could please take it to the recycling bin (if he could get me a new roll, that would be even better!). In our house, this task means carrying the empty roll down the hallway, through another room, opening a pocket door, putting the empty TP roll in the bin, then closing the pocket door using the hard-to-grab latch. This is a multiple-step task that requires dexterity, memory, and the ability to stay focused on task - no easy feat for a young toddler! I didn't really expect Munchkin to actually make it all the way to the recycling bin and back, at least not without unloading a stack of papers or other mess.  But I thought 2 minutes of privacy might be worth the chance.

To my surprise and delight, he did it! He placed the empty roll in the recycling bin, closed the door behind him and came back to inform me. I felt the urge to say, "Good job!" because I was so impressed. I resisted, although I'm sure I let out a "Wow, you did it!" When I realized I was also incredibly grateful for the help, I added, "Thank you, Munchkin! That's very helpful."

This got me thinking. I realized I had a new and incredibly valuable new tool in my arsenal of unconditional parenting techniques.

Instead of offering praise for Munchkin's helpful "achievements", I offer him gratitude and appreciation whenever appropriate. Anytime he "accomplishes" a skill or task, especially a new or difficult one, that is helpful to me or others in some way I say "Thank you, that's very helpful. I appreciate it." I don't exaggerate the gratitude, I just say it simply and honestly.

It makes so much sense. When an adult does me a favor, I don't flatter them by saying "Nice work, you're a good helper!" No, I say thank you. Why would I treat my toddler any differently? If I want to teach him to be helpful, it seems like being gracious and appreciative will go a lot further than telling him "good job." With honest gratitude from me, he may begin to feel the joy of giving instead of the joy of getting his ego stroked.

Here are a few examples of typical toddler situations where I find saying "thank you" is more appropriate than saying "good job":

·         putting waste in the trash, recycling bin, etc.
·         picking up toys
·         opening or closing a door
·         picking out shoes or clothes
·         putting clothes in the laundry bin
·         putting clothes in the washer or dryer
·         returning an item to its stored location after use
·         selecting an item from its location for use
·         carrying groceries or other items to or from the car or bike
·         helping wash vegetables
·         pouring rice into the rice cooker
·         when I ask "Can you help me to...?" and he is able to, and does
·         and of course...flushing the toilet

On the flip side, I avoid showing disappointment or disapproval if he can't or won't do the favor I've asked. After all, favors are just that - favors. They aren't obligations.

The best part is that it feels good to say thank you to him. It feels right. It feels genuine and real and respectful. I don't get that feeling from saying "good job."  I'm guessing he doesn't, either. With a healthy dose of genuine appreciation for his helpful efforts - not empty praise -  it's likely he will grow into someone who enjoys helping others.  And I bet he'll do a "good job" at that, too.

Do you have useful alternatives to saying "good job"?


  1. Unfortunately, I don't think many people think about what they are saying to most people - adults or children. Very often I find adults saying things that are rather vapid and empty when they mean quite well. It is that they haven't really thought at all about what they are trying to convey.

    "Good Job" is just blurted out. So are, "Thank You", "Your Welcome", "I'm Sorry" and "I love you." Unfortunately, our culture seems to have lost the meaning of so many phrases. I'm glad you are willing to consider what you are saying and trying to actually communicate yourself.

    If I use the phrase good job with my son, I normally try to follow it up with whatever is being approved of. "Good Job! I really like how you used your words instead of freaking out." or "Good Job, you finished your work thoroughly instead of rushing through. Thank You, I really appreciate it." That kind of thing. I don't know if it is working, but we seem to have pretty good report so far :)

  2. @Granola Girl, yes I agree, it seems that mindless chatter is pretty common, especially for pleansantries. We are all guilty of it, at least in certain contexts. That's why mindful parenting is such a requires focus, concentration, and being fully aware of what comes out of our mouths. I know I don't get it right all the time, but I'm working on it!

    I like how you modify "good job" with something specific. You're aware of what you're praising, and I'm guessing your child is too. I'll give that a try!