What To Say Instead Of “Good Boy.”

This is part two of a series on praise. If you have not yet read the first part, click here to do so.

ID-100141136“Mummy, can I play with the torch?” calls my toddler as he rummages through the kitchen draw.

“Of course!” I call back.

After a short pause.

“Mummy, it’s not working,” he says, as he comes over and hands it to me. I click it on and off and discover he is right.

“The batteries must have run out already and we don’t have any spares at the moment. Can you play with it like that?” I hand it back to him.

“Don’t worry mummy, I’ll fix it!”

I leave him to play with it as I clear up lunch and notice that he has unscrewed the top and poured the contents onto the kitchen floor. The bulb comes out of the top part and rolls away. I wander back out again to sweep under the table and a minute later my two year old reappears, torch in hand, its light blazing down upon me.

My jaw hits the floor. I am gobsmacked!

“Mummy, look, I fixed it!” he announces proudly.

A thousand things run through my head! I can’t believe he did that! Oh my goodness how clever, wow, that’s amazing!

He looks at the patch of light on the wall and waves the torch around beaming widely.

To say the words “good boy” right now would be a kick in the teeth. I want to get right in there with him and share in his excitement.

“Look at that, you did it all by yourself!” I tell him. “How did you do it?” If his face could have cracked from the size of his smile, it would have. He launches into a detailed explanation from start to finish, joyous at his accomplishment. Not once do I try to take that away or try to condition him to perform his trick again. Not once do I patronise him with dismissive and empty praise.

Part one of this series bought up some big questions from readers. Some felt I was downright cruel at advising not to praise children. In the current society we live in, the praise that is most often directed towards children is empty, coercive and given for EVERY LITTLE THING.

Our children are told a hundred times a day that they are “good” for doing something. From eating their dinner, to putting something in the bin, to playing, and even for laughing (Yes I actually heard a dad telling his daughter “good laughing” recently!) it becomes a mindless and meaningless stream of nothingness. It is just empty words. Our children stop hearing it, and stop hoping we will really listen, really notice, really understand. And parents forget to stop and consider why they are saying this utter nonsense to their children so often. It becomes nothing but habit and a bad one at that. It is not demonstrating real interest in their accomplishment, and far from boosting our children’s self esteem and making them feel connected and heard, it is actually damaging to them.

But real praise, or to word it more accurately, real interest and involvement, is something that boosts our children and helps them to thrive. Note: This is not a recommendation to improve the quality of the praise nor to reduce the frequency of it. Praise comes from a place of control and that is not something that benefits our relationship with our children. Instead what we should be aiming for are real and genuine interactions.

Instead of “good boy/girl” or a flippant “well done” why not try one of the following?

  • You spent a long time working on that, did you enjoy it?
  • What is your favourite part?
  • You did it!
  • Wow, you put your shoes on all by yourself. Now we are ready to go out!
  • How does that feel?
  • How did you do it?
  • Why did you choose to do that way? I see it worked!
  • I know you worked really hard on that.

And finally, “Thank you.” A simple couple of words that are often exactly what we mean to say instead of “good boy.” Rule of thumb: If your child performs a task that you would thank an adult for doing, give them the same respect and offer your thanks instead of praise.

Children do not need to be trained and coerced into behaving in appropriate ways with little verbal treats for their every action. Save it, and when they really do something they themselves are excited and proud of, really get involved. Ask questions, put down your work and give them your whole self. They deserve it don’t they?

Further reading -

Alfie Kohn – Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise

Dr Laura Markham – What Every Parent Needs to Know About Praise

Alfie Kohn – Unconditional Parenting

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2 thoughts on “What To Say Instead Of “Good Boy.””

  1. Interesting. I always thought people who said praising children is bad were not thinking straight. But to me praise isn’t “good boy” but things like you posted here “wow! You did it by yourself!” “Thank you!” “Look at that!” Etc. those are phrases I use all the time with my daughter and she loves them. They are phrases I needed to hear from my own parents when I was growing up but never did because they were told not to praise us. I always thought those were the phrases people were saying not to use with your children. Thank you for explaining that we are indeed on the same page after all.

  2. I have been trying really hard lately to stop the “good job” trap with my 3 yr old. I’m naturally positive and all about feedback so I have been this way with my daughter from the start but have seen the negative impact (her expecting it after every little thing). I was asking her if she feels proud of herself when she achieves something but now she has started asking me if I’m proud of her when she does normal things like putting on her shoes or getting in her car seat. Any advice on how to respond in a way that isn’t perpetuating the cycle but isn’t harsh either?

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