thing you shouldn’t say:
“Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phoney. I could puke every time I hear it.”
— JD Salinger
I WAS VISITING MY FRIENDS TANYA AND NICK WHO HAVE A NINE-MONTH-OLD SON named Sam, and we were all hanging out in their living room when seemingly out of nowhere both of his parents broke out into full-on yippie-skippie applause.
“Good job Sammy! Good job!” they exclaimed, clapping their hearts out. “Good job!”
One second we were all talking about something while the kid was doing whatever; and the next it was as if they’d just witnessed Moses parting the Red Sea. Even though I was sitting right there, I’d somehow missed the miracle.
“Today Sam crawled up that step for the first time! That was only his second time doing it!” Tanya explained to me, responding to what I imagine was a confused look on my face.
Ahh yes. I’d seen it too. Sam had indeed crawled from the living room up into the dining room. “That’s great,” I said, forcing myself to smile. The last thing these excited, proud, new parents needed was some killjoy raining on their parade. Not to worry. I didn’t say a thing. I just thought some things.
While I can understand how thrilling, even awe inspiring, it can be for parents to see their little baby quickly evolve from someone who can’t do much more than wriggle around into a coordinated, on-the-go kid, I nonetheless can’t help but find it absurd to applaud someone for doing something they were born to do. I mean praising a kid for lifting his knee up and placing it on a surface a couple of inches higher than the surface it was just on? Little Sam couldn’t not crawl up that step. It’s in his DNA. That’s what we mammals do. We walk. (Or swim.) Certainly in the case of little Homo sapiens, the route from birth to walking is a lot longer than it is for most of our fellow mammals, but we do get there. And it’s not something that warrants praise—or help, for that matter. In fact, I think “good jobbing” a kid for a crawl up a step is just a hair away from applauding a kid for blinking.
Am I advocating that Sam’s parents transform themselves from enthusiastic, doting parents into cold, stone-faced observers? Yes! No. I’m not. But it would be great if they could take their good jobbing down a couple of notches. Babies love to know their parents are there, taking in what they’re doing. That they genuinely care. But I can imagine that, among other feelings, it might be confusing for Sam to, all of the sudden, have his parents go good job! crazy over a simple lift of the knee and transfer of weight. At the most, a simple “Sam, you just crawled up a step,” or perhaps “Sam! You just crawled up the step!” would not only have sufficed but would actually have been informative. It’s weird: right around the time when kids are learning to speak, parents can’t seem to help but talk in generic generalities. Instead of Sam hearing that what he’d “done” is called “crawling up a step,” he’s heard—yet again—“Good job!” even though virtually everything else he does has been called that too.
SAM: O-kay, I got it! It’s good. It’s good. Going up the step to another room is better than the crawling around in one room I was doing yesterday. I got it. Thanks very much. But is that all you can come up with? That my crawl up was good and that it was a job? What kind of job was it? Hey, wait, I thought a job was where you guys go everyday. I’m confused.
A simple description of the activity not only helps kids learn what we call what they’re up to—but simultaneously shows them that we’re not on our cells or computers, but instead that we’re genuinely interested. Actually, what may be even more important than some “descriptive reflecting” (as the experts like to call it) is to, at times, say (gasp!) nothing at all. In that way, instead of telling our children how we feel about which aspect of their activities we deem noteworthy, by just observing what they’re up to, the focus is on their experience. The less parents squeal, clap and “good job!” their kids, the more we’re able to notice which parts of their kid’s activities they actually enjoy. After all, what could be more important? We don’t want kids looking to us to know what they should think about something; we want to know what they think and feel about it—which they’ll no doubt show us if we get out of the way.
My guess is that if Tanya and Nick weren’t so busy applauding Sam’s big “accomplishment,” they may have been able to notice a change in Sam. Perhaps that he himself felt excited about this new skill. Or maybe they would have noticed that to him, the crawl up was no big deal because it was only a means to an end. That it was getting his hands on that red ball that had rolled under the dining room table that was actually the driving force of his mission, and fortunately for him his development was now able to get him there. As a matter of fact, it was likely his wanting the ball that helped spur the development in the first place. But now, all of the sudden, his parents were going good job crazy! So, of course, Sam looked around. What’s happening? What have I done?! Is it really better to get a ball than to play with my blocks in the living room? Ahh, the step! It must be going up that step that my parents love so much. My parents like that step! Silly parents.
Silly or not, it’s likely that Sam will become so in love with the attention that his new ability has inspired in his parents that he might try to do again whatever he thinks it may have been that got them going. Screw the ball. I’ll go up and down this stupid step all day long if both of my parents will stay close and continue to heap this attention on me. But what happens if (when!) the parents tire of this new accomplishment or lose their steam and don’t go good job! crazy again until Sam can go up two steps or four? The kid may no longer become focused on what’s of interest to him (that red ball!), but what he’s guessing might be of interest to his parents—trying desperately to recapture the excitement of it all. A child on the prowl for applause is slowly but surely being transformed from a curious explorer in touch with his own interests into a desperate performer, eager to find something that pleases his parents.
Kids are making discoveries all of the time. Their play is seamless. If given some space, they get absorbed in their play, and a parent throwing out a “good job!” can take the kids right out of what they are doing. Wait Mom, which part is good? The jump? The climb up? The landing? It’s like putting a period in the middle of their sentence. Sadly, a parent calling out “good job” might also be interrupting a kid’s activity before she even has a chance to light up herself, thus ending an experience before it’s really taken flight. As Magda’s mentor Dr. Emmi Pikler explained, the child is no longer doing what her development calls for, but instead is trying to do what she thinks it is that excited her parents so much. The negative effect of this, Dr. Pikler warned after decades of research, “is incalculable.”
I think if some parents were hanging out with our son Hudson, they might be thrown for a loop. Standing next to him at the top of a slide, their good job! all cocked and ready to fire, they may not know when to shoot. You see, Hudson loves to go down the slide only to put on the brakes a third of the way down. The thrill of stopping is as exciting to him as the rush of sliding down. When would a parent good job! a child who does that? When he decided to let go and slide down? When he stopped mid-slide? When he climbed back up to the top? One might even feel like they need to teach him the “right” way to use a slide: “Hudson, you must come all the way down! Come on down. Come on. Good job. You came down!” I’ve seen it more times than I can bare.
I had this exercise teacher once who literally used “good job” as her sole means of encouraging everyone in the class. Certainly she would have been infinitely more effective had she ever said stuff like, “You’ve really lowered your hip and supported the movement with your abdomen. That should feel stronger.” Instead, her good jobbing was so rote, so sucked dry of potential information and so inevitable. At some point I started to make a game out of it. How long until she says it again? Ten seconds. A minute? Encouraging was the last thing that it was. And I don’t doubt it is any different for little kids.
Think about it: if you’re yippie skipping your kid into oblivion over a crawl up a step, you’d better have something really good up your sleeve for his ability to solve a calculus problem. And what if your kid sucks at math? Hey maybe he’ll suck at math because he’s afraid to try to do something that doesn’t come easily to him for fear of not getting the praise he’s become so accustomed to getting for things that have come to him effortlessly. Because kids can become afraid of failing or of disappointing their parents, they might stop trying new things they suspect they won’t be succeed at. Forget ice-skating, who wants to look like an idiot falling down all the time?
Fortunately, a host of high-profile new studies are calling parents and teacher’s attention to how damaging praising kids can be:
“When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes…[Carol] Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hits both boys and girls…Even preschoolers weren’t immune to the inverse power of praise.”
One day I was talking about all of this good job stuff to my psychologist friend Julie. She wasn’t surprised by a thing I was saying.
“You should check out Carl Rogers’ Theory of Positive Regard. He’s a famous clinical psychologist,” she said.
So I did. Here’s what I found:
Getting positive regard “on condition” Rogers calls conditional positive regard. Because we do indeed need positive regard, these conditions are very powerful, and we bend ourselves into a shape determined, not by our organismic valuing or our actualizing tendency, but by a society that may or may not truly have our best interests at heart. A “good little boy or girl” may not be a healthy or happy boy or girl!
Over time, this “conditioning” leads us to have conditional positive self-regard as well. We begin to like ourselves only if we meet up with the standards others have applied to us, rather than if we are truly actualizing our potentials. And since these standards were created without keeping each individual in mind, more often than not we find ourselves unable to meet them, and therefore unable to maintain any sense of self-esteem.
What Does Magda Say?
Children at play don’t need praise for their actions. Let your child’s inner joy be self- motivating. You can smile and express your genuine feelings but should refrain from giving excessive compliments, clapping your hands and making a big fuss. If you do this, your child starts seeking satisfaction from external forces.
It helps to be descriptive in your comments, which will help your child feel understood….Reflecting entails neither praise nor criticism, rather it acknowledges, informs and illuminates.
When your child does something truly difficult, like waits a few moments for her meal while you are busy, thank her rather than praise her. Say, “Thank you for being patient. I know it’s hard for you to wait when you’re hungry.”
6 Dr. George Boerre, Personality Theories.