Excess praise can be damaging to our children's intrinsic motivation (working just for the pure pleasure of it - not to please anyone else), but what should we do instead? Constant "good jobbing" is a habit, and habits can be hard to break. But it can be done!
The easiest way to stop saying "good job" or "nice work" if you are committed is to simply start by swapping out the praise-heavy phrase with a more neutral one.
Keep in mind that a child who is used to getting lots of praise will keep asking for it, so using more than one of these suggested phrases when your child keeps probing may help get both of you past the praise dependency. In my experience, most children (even the most persistent praise-seekers) become self-satisfied when there is a meaningful dialogue.
Below are some phrases that might work for you in your home or classroom. None of them will fit in all situations, and if used without the intention of connecting more deeply with a child, they will definitely not work. Use them as a starting point, and before long, your automatic "good job" will become an automatic "something else."
1. "Hmm!" Smile and nod. That's right. Bite your lip if you have to. Just don't say it! Smile and nod. Smile and nod. And then listen. What will the child say?
Example: Child brings you a puzzle that has been completed. "Hmm!" Now look the child in the eyes, tune in, and listen. What does the child say about his puzzle?
2. Tell me about this!
Example: Child has glued a yellow circle onto an orange piece of paper and comes to show you the big gluey mess of artwork. "Tell me about this!" What the child says may surprise you.
3. I can see that you_____. (describe what you see)
Example: Child has scribbled with chalk on the chalkboard with pink and blue chalk and brings you over to see. "I can see that you have been using pink and blue chalk."
4. You look proud. Are you? I'm glad you_____. (describe the accomplishment)
Example: Child chops strawberries into a bowl to serve herself and then invites you to look. "You look proud. Are you? I'm glad you know how to chop your own strawberries now. It's nice to serve yourself when you're hungry."
5. Describe + How did you do it?
Example: Child presents you with a handwritten, hand-drawn, haphazardly stapled book that you recognize is very similar to one of his favorite bedtime picture storybooks. "You made your own book. How did you do it?"
6. Thank you! I appreciate_____.
Example: Child gives you a love note in pictorial form - drawn for YOU. "Thank you. I appreciate you thinking of me." Never underestimate a simple thank you!
7. Describe + I appreciate your hard work / effort.
Example: Child loads dishwasher perfectly and looks to you for approval. "You loaded the dishwasher perfectly. I appreciate your hard work!"
8. Your face looks happy! It feels so good to_____.
Example: Child: asks you to watch him perform a physical trick on the playground. "Your face looks happy! It feels so good to stretch your muscles, doesn't it?"
9. I am so happy for you because_____.
Example: Child masters the monkey bars and she runs to you to celebrate. "I am so happy for you because I know you've been working on those monkey bars for a long time!"
10. When you __________, I__________.
Example: Child builds a very tall tower with blocks and asks you to look look look! "When you started that tower, I didn't have any idea how tall it was going to get! Super tall!"
11. What was the hardest / easiest part?
Example: Child learns to ride a bike up and down the block. "What was the hardest part about learning to ride? What was the easiest part?"
12. When I was a child, sometimes I liked to_____. Do you like to_____ too?
Example: Child hands you a list she made of -at words. You read cat, hat, sat, mat... "When I was a child, sometimes I liked to sing a rhyming song. The caaaaat saaaat on the maaaat la-la-la... Do you also like to sing your rhyming words?"
13. Wow! May I______?
Example:Child constructs a crazy invention out of straws, paper towel rolls, masking tape, and paper clips. "Wow! May I try your invention? How do I use it? Would you show me?"
14. Hmm... I wonder what you’ll come up with next.
Example: Child makes dominoes topple over in an interesting pattern. "Hmm... I wonder what you'll come up with next."
15. You did it!
Example: Child has been trying very hard to write his name and finally has written all of the letters correctly on the page. "You did it!"
16. I've noticed that_____.
Example: Child builds an airplane out of legos and comes to show you. "I've noticed that you've been working on your lego building skills and you are starting to make a lot of interesting things.")
17. I love seeing you_____. Would you like to_____.
Example: Child sits and reads a book. When he gets to the end, he closes it and tells you he can read it. "I love seeing you teaching yourself how to read. Would you like to read this book to me? Or would you like for me to read it to you?"
18. What did you learn from this?
Example: Child works hard to match all the pictures of animals that live in Africa to the continent of Africa. "What do you think you might have learned from this?"
19. How did you come up with the idea for this?
Example: Child has made a paper airplane and decorated it. "How did you come up with the idea for this?"
20. You sure are growing! I remember when you weren't able to_____, and now you can_____.
Example: Child has brushed her teeth, for the first time, by herself. "You sure are growing! I remember when you weren't able to brush your own teeth. I brushed them for you every day. But now you can brush them all by yourself!"
21. A hug or a pat on the shoulder. As long as you are giving physical affection regularly and not tied to specific behaviors, feel free to connect with the little one without any words at all! A hug can sometimes say it all.
Patience and Practice
Like anything else, learning how and when to effectively use these phrases will take practice. Pick a few to try out and get familiar with those first before moving on to others. It's a guarantee you'll find opportunities to use all of these phrases within a single week of time spent with a child, but it will likely take much longer to solidify the new habit.