Before You Say "Good Job" Again, Read This

"See my picture? I made it for you. Do you like it?" When a child comes to you with excitement to show you some of his work, it can be difficult not to respond with praise. On the tip of the tongue is a positive response such as "I love it! Great job!" or "Did you draw this for me? Very nice!" I hate to burst a bubble, but if praise is the constant go-to, there's a problem.

Getting praise can be addictive. Everyone wants affection, and if drawing a pretty picture and making it for someone else is a path to getting some positive attention, it's only natural that the child will do it again.

And again.

And again.

Pretty soon he'll forget why he was excited about drawing in the first place. He'll scribble anything on the page in order to feel the glow of a compliment. He may have started by working for his own pleasure, but with lots of praise, he begins working in order to hear his work validated by someone else.

Getting the warm fuzzy at the end of completing a task becomes the focal point of the entire process, rather than the satisfaction that comes from one's own effort.

The Praise Addiction

It can feel as good to give these accolades as it does to receive them. The praise may even be completely genuine in the beginning. We all want to make someone feel good, and that, in turn makes us feel pleased with ourselves. We can make people feel good, and that feels goooooood!

But what once was an honest, happy surprise becomes tiresome as we are presented with the hundredth drawing (now mostly scribbles without effort). We've run out of compliments, and we settle for a minimalist "Good job!" or offhanded "High five!" with a fake smile. We have exchanged authenticity for a habit.

While steeped in good intentions, this dynamic is not healthy for the child or the parent.

Praise is one example of extrinsic motivation, where one takes pleasure in working for the sake of a reward (in our case, the compliment), as opposed to intrinsic motivation, when one works for the joy of the work itself. It seems a benign practice on the surface until you realize that the more "good jobs" we provide, the more we are inadvertently trivializing the child's work, leading to lower intrinsic motivation.

You heard that right. By good jobbing our children, we are suppressing their desire to learn for the sake of learning. No parent intends for this, of course, but it is proven again and again in study after study. It's time to think before we speak.

External Motivators

Some educators believe that children need praise to become motivated to finish a task. Giving praise is without a doubt motivating. Rewards are very, very strong external motivators. There's no question about that. In Montessori, however, we have a different view of the child. Maria Montessori reminded us that young children will absorb what they need in order to develop into healthy human beings simply from their environments. Motivation comes with the territory. Learning new skills takes effort, self confidence, and determination, yes, but it is a natural state of being.

If the joy of the work alone is not enough to motivate a child to complete the task the teacher intends for the child to complete, we believe that perhaps it is the task that is at fault and not the child. When the child finds the perfect match between activity and interest, desiring only to please himself, that is when you see the real deal excitement for learning.

Praising a child for his efforts to learn a new skill is like praising a tree for absorbing water from the ground in order to grow taller. It just doesn't make sense.

A plant that is given a nourishing environment and treated with reverence will flourish, and so will a child. A compliment here and there can be meaningful if it is well phrased and descriptive. Even physical contact such as a hug or a brief touch on the shoulder can show admiration for the enthusiasm and hard work. Open communication about the benefits of taking on new challenges and feeling proud of accomplishments will always be helpful! What is not helpful is a barrage of meaningless, superfluous accolades.

Consider

Not convinced? Take some time to process it while reading these two excellent books chalk full of evidence about what motivates humans to work and enjoy what they are doing.

But if you're already convinced and just need a little nudge in the right direction, I'd like you to think about what qualities you'd like for your child in regards to his work habits.

Do you want to raise a child who...

  • thinks learning/working is boring or a waste of time
  • needs to show you his work all the time for confirmation
  • doesn't trust that you are honest in your opinion
  • loses interest in hard projects in lieu of easier ones
  • evaluates the quality of his work by his perception of your satisfaction

Or do you want to raise a child who...

  • thinks learning/working is fun
  • doesn't need to show you every time
  • seems genuinely interested in your detailed opinion
  • gets excited about new learning projects, especially challenging ones
  • evaluates the quality of his work by his own feelings of satisfaction

Seems like an easy choice, doesn't it? A little praise now and then in admiration of the child's effort - no harm done! Lots and lots of praise - time to meditate on why you're giving it.