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What to Say to a Child Instead of ‘Good Job’

Jana Ellingwood

Oct 30, 2023

Your child’s self-esteem is important to you, and telling them ‘good job’ increases it, right? Not as much as you think. Imagine finishing a major presentation at work, and your boss briefly looks at you and says, “Good job,” while walking out of the room. For a moment, you feel pretty great because, at the very least, they liked it. But the moment of passive praise is fleeting, and now you’re left with self-doubt, wondering if your work was ignored or not good enough to be fully acknowledged and appreciated. Now imagine the same scenario, but this time, your boss shares their appreciation by highlighting your valuable research and resources and how the presentation helped the team gain helpful knowledge. Hits a little different, right?

It’s the same way for kids, and that’s why ‘good job’ doesn’t mean as much as highlighting the effort. Our kids are always watching us as we are their first teachers. While that can be overwhelming, it’s also an incredible chance to offer and model positive behaviors and internal dialogues.

Good parenting is not about copying how someone else does it; it’s not a one-size-fits-all model

Caring for a child looks different for everyone based on factors like upbringing, values, goals within your family system, cultural and spiritual differences, and so much more. Here’s the good news: there is a path toward breaking generational patterns and cycles. You can decide how you and your family want it to look and feel. If you need professional assistance with this process, family therapy can be incredibly useful. It’s innate to want to delight in our child’s abilities, and one of the ways we can do this is to praise effort, not outcome. Ignoring or minimizing their internal effort and work can decrease kids’ confidence and cause other issues that affect how they approach life. When you describe everything leading up to the final product, you’re still recognizing the end result with the vital addition of highlighting the multiple steps it took to get there.

You are the expert on your child, and you are the one your child needs most

Parenting experts across the board believe praise matters, and we agree. This article is just one of the many tools that you can use to build, maintain, and repair with your child. Providing specific praise helps children to love who they are absolutely. The bonus? It creates stronger relationships and supports children to feel confident exploring their environment while knowing they can depend on their grown-ups for safety and connection. It also includes seeing and delighting in their kids through the lens of effort, not product; our children’s job is to revel in and believe in it.

Rebuilding your automatic response

Parenting can often feel like being placed in a tall tower with no staircase. Instead, endless bridges span a land full of various views, theories, perspectives, judgments, and resources. Choosing a path can feel very isolating and overwhelming when you only want to do what’s best for your family. Take a breath and soak in the view; the decision doesn’t have to be immediate, you can seek professional guidance, and you can always switch the path. This idea can be challenging for some parents as it can cause self-doubt in picking the first path. Being flexible, knowing when it’s not working, and actively pushing for a different and healthier path is a central tenet of parenting. There is beauty in apologizing and admitting when something no longer serves you and your family; doing this does not negate the effort or progress made. Instead, it shows your family what resiliency, compassion, and flexibility look like.

None of us know what we’re doing in parenthood

We’re all worried that the next decision will be the one our kids talk about with their therapist in 20 years, saying, “That’s the moment when my parents really screwed up.” Feeling conflicted and overwhelmed by the vast amount of differing parenting paths and the general pressures of being responsible for another human being’s existence is not only okay; it’s completely normal, and all parents have felt that way at some point.

It’s normal not to enjoy being a parent

I bet you’re thinking about that one mom or dad in your life who never has spit up on their clothes (or in their hair), whose kids are always clean (how do they keep their faces and clothes so clean?!). Their kids don’t scream out potty words at inappropriate times, like grocery checkout or morning drop-off. Yep, even those parents feel overwhelmed and don’t soak up every moment even though it ‘goes by so fast.’

Here’s the thing: while we love and adore spending time with our kids, time with them can also move at an unbearably slow pace.

Living up to societal expectations is a heavy burden, and not only do you not deserve that, it’s an impossible standard to meet, and you are not a failure. Your kids are not supposed to always get it right, nor are you. It’s healthy to navigate and learn from mistakes, and it helps build resiliency and increase confidence. Modeling this looks like implementing self-regulation, self-love without strings attached, and the motivation and humbleness to try again. Seeing grown-ups make mistakes shows kids it’s normal and safe not to get it ‘right,’ that outcomes do not define their worth, and that your ‘approval’ stems from who they are as a person.

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Failure is your child’s friend

Remember that failure is a learning opportunity, and the ability to succeed is not dependent solely on performance. Not getting it right will increase their ability to build intrinsic motivation, a growth mindset, emotional regulation, and connections. We don’t want kids to stop trying or lose interest in the activity simply from viewing themselves as unsuccessful. Part of a growth mindset includes being open and unafraid of making mistakes, as those are just learning opportunities for the next try. What does this look like? Your kid makes it halfway on the monkey bars before falling off, and you shout, “Awesome!” Yep, it’s great to celebrate they made it halfway. Identifying the steps it required to get there and engaging in active listening offers the needed information to incorporate praise like, “Woah, I was paying attention to how hard you focused on getting your grip just right before moving on to the next bar.” This kind of praise highlights something utterly different than ‘good job’ and will increase connection with your child.

While kids are tiny, incredibly observant geniuses, these little masterpieces are the worst at interpretation

They are (and designed to be) focused on self, which leads them to believe everything in their orbit directly results from something they did or didn’t do. They hear ‘good job,’ and while momentarily happy, they won’t process or internalize that praise meaningfully and more profoundly. So what do you say instead? Encouragement is not singular and looks different to everyone. It’s important to recognize when we admire and praise the final product; it glosses over the effort, and with all the ‘good jobs,’ it ties performance to praise and does describe or notice the most challenging part, which is to help them see that the reward is to be proud of themselves. Building confidence takes work and intent, and you are the example they will look to as they begin to encourage themselves to see the wow factor is the hard work, and their job is to continue to notice. As Dr. Becky would say, they are good inside. Using an alternate phrase shows that words matter; you see the whole event, including their ideas and possible failures, and you will unconditionally delight in their existence.

Children seek to be praise junkies

This can do more harm than good as it can make children have less enjoyment in their hobbies and skills. A child’s pleasure matters more than the activity’s outcome.

You’re showing genuine interest, making space for feelings and failures, and reinforcing that their wow factor is about them, not what they produce. So you’re saying I shouldn’t celebrate and be proud when my kid gets an A on a paper? Of course not. Instilling achievement and supporting your child is essential and offers tremendous joy when others celebrate their success. This is about how you are helping them define success. Recognizing and highlighting external success is a piece of this, and the takeaway shouldn’t be to ignore that entirely. Instead, by shifting the focus inwards, it models that you have noticed and value that their internal qualities are an essential and unique part of them.

Don’t lose interest in noticing the little things. Paying attention to the details matter.

So many beautiful things stem from acknowledging and praising your kids this way. You are breaking generational cycles that tend to focus on output and outcome, and these changes offer you a chance to parent in a way that maybe you didn’t get as a kid (also, you deserved to be praised for being you). Being able to show delight and appreciation for who they are positively affects your child’s perception of self, their view of how they move about in life, and how they feel love and delight from you while also providing you a chance to model how to interact and support others in a meaningful and impactful way.

Encouragement about effort, not outcome, will increase your child’s self-esteem, positive attitude, work ethic, and connection building.

This won’t happen immediately, but it will become reflexive for both of you over time. Being responsible for a child and going past the surface of the ‘good job’ can feel foreign, but it’s worth it. The ‘good job’ and ‘that’s great’ don’t highlight the work or what they learned along the way. Instead, the child gets the sense that attention and praise from grown-ups will only come based on performance, which can and will lead them to believe that putting in the effort doesn’t matter nearly as much as the product.

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