Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Good Job!!!

One of my least favorite things to hear is “Good job!” Grownups usually say it breathlessly and in a sing-song manner, as if they’re overawed by each and every piece of artwork a child produces. They utter “Good job!” every time a child puts on a pair of trousers correctly (or not), makes a mud-pie, or builds a small-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. There is this idea that we are supposed to react to everything our charges do and make sure that their self-esteem is bolstered, boosted, and buttered.

I don’t advocate tearing down children’s self-esteem. Far from it. I just think we’re going about dispersing accolades in such a way that genuine appreciation for our children’s work gets lost in all the treacle. When we pour on the excessive praise, we encourage our children to become performers for us, the adults, rather than letting them focusing on the actual work (i.e. play) they need to do.

* * *

In first grade, my teacher would sometimes write “Prize” at the top of certain assignments. At the end of the week, students would take all of their “Prize” papers up to the teacher’s desk and select an object from the prize-jar. The prizes were trivial plastic objects, but they were rewards, so I wanted them.

One day, I spent a lot of time on a handwriting assignment with the specific goal of getting the “Prize.” A week later, I got back my assignment, and there was no “Prize” written at the top. I was furious. I took my own red crayon, wrote “Prize” on the handwriting assignment, and brought it up to retrieve a plastic spider ring from the reward jar. I was old enough to know that what I did was deceitful: after all, the teacher was the one dispensing the prizes, and it was up to her to decide who got them. On some level, though, I realized that her system was arbitrary, and didn’t have much to do with the actual quality of my work.

Early experiences shape how we think and relate later on. After writing “Prize” on my own paper, I didn’t start a life of embezzlement and fraud, but I gradually became more resistant to jumping through other people’s hoops. Even in graduate school, I did what I needed to do to get A’s, but much of the time I felt I wasn’t learning anything as much as I was giving the various professors what they wanted (i.e. memorizing portions of the text-book). The learning happened on my own. My system. My hoops.


In the comments section, Melangell links to a page of articles by Alfie Cohen. One of the articles is called "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'" It's the seventh article down from the top. Also, take a look at this article in New York Magazine regarding research on the subject of over-praising kids.


Yorkshire Pudding said...

My thought is this - your cynicism around the "Good Job!/Have A Nice Day!" cult is peculiarly British. We almost expect Americans to display a refreshing naivetee and unquestioning optimism in their daily affairs. I hereby grant you eternal citizenship of The Republic of Yorkshire - contact my secretary for a passport application form.

jules said...

Great post. Good job!

(Sorry, I couldn't resist).

I hear you loud and clear on this. I am in full agreement, and I try to be careful about it with my girls. One interesting manifestation of this parental trend are the scrapbooks some mothers make. Don't get me wrong -- I can understand why people want to make them (and my mother does them and is totally archiving my girls' younger years, so for that I'm grateful, especially since I'll probably never make one), but sometimes they get out of hand, it seems. Huge double page spreads about children doing the types of things that don't necessarily need to be over-awing the parents, as you put it. I just don't get it. I want my girls to know when they're getting that genuine appreciation from me, as you put it, that job well done that was really hard to pull off. If they here 20,000 "OOOOH!"s and "AAAAH!"s and "GOOD JOB!"s in a day, they won't be able to recognize when I am truly impressed that they worked hard at a difficult task and accomplished it.

So, yeah, thanks for the post and not making me feel so crazy for thinking this way . . .

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

YP: Huzzah! I've been waiting for what seems like forever for my citizenship paperwork to the Republic of Yorkshire. For the record, I never say, "Have a nice day." I usually say, "Take care," or (with closer friends), "Be safe." It's a dangerous world out there.

Jules: I knew you'd understand. Something clicked for me when you wrote in one of your posts that you didn't give your children potty-training rewards because, well, going to the potty was a fact of life. (I still laugh when Lucia exclaims, "Congratulations!" after she goes to the potty, though.)

Melangell said...

Right on, Ms. Alkelda. I guess you have seen article on the research that has shown praise to be counter-productive, but I know how hard it is sometimes not to fall into the trap. "Good job" becomes a filler like "OK?"

I like Alfie Kohn's articles on this topic.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Thanks, Melangell! I've placed your link in the post field.

Lone Star Ma said...

I don't know. I am familiar with the research, but just find it to be over-thinking the matter a bit much. Sure, if you are consciously gushing as part of a strategy to raise self-esteem, that's rather over the top. It is, however, my natural inclination to exclaim over my children and just to want to SQUEEZE them they are soooo cute and brilliant and wonderful...and I see no reason to restrain myself. I don't give them money for grades or anything like that, as I do strongly believe in kids learing to do their part in life, but I have no qualms about letting my praise out. No one but your mother is ever likely to feel that way about you so I see little harm in letting kids enjoy it while they can...the kids at school will be sure they know they aren't perfect after all.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

LSM: I think that's fine, both as your own parenting style and in general. I've just been hanging around too many parents and teachers who say, "Good job! Good job!" for every little *%$@#! thing. One of Lucia's teachers exclaimed, "Ohhhh, isn't it PRETTY. You did GOOD. Go show mommy!" and that would have been okay (smoochy, but okay) if it hadn't been for every line, circle and oblong. I also know kids Lucia's age who are addicted to praise. In the end, they won't do anything to exert themselves unless there's a prize/reward of some sort each and every time.

When Lucia was learning to walk (at 17 months), she would hesitantly take a step or two, and then someone watching would clap and say, "Good job!" She would immediately fall to the floor into a crawl. I had to ask my friends to stop calling attention to the walking (and they pointed out that with their kids, if you applauded and made a big deal about it, the kids would do it 10 more times). The day I saw her take more than a tentative few steps, Bede and I kept pretty quiet (inside, we were jumping for joy). By the end of the day, she was walking steadily.

TadMack said...

Came back to this post (oh, how did I miss THIS!!?) from your interview on 7-imps today. I am VERY MUCH in agreement with you; as a kid, I was told I was Such A Good Girl for so long that I began to wonder about the judgment of the people around me.

I KNEW I was NOT a Good Girl. I stole five raisins from the fridge when Mama said no, I couldn't have any. I thought mean things at people, and sometimes kicked or stomped. I was seven when I first articulated the thought that I was a liar and hiding inside, lying, and everyone thought I was good. It. Was. Terrifying.

When I taught school, I had to learn to put the gush on reserve, to filter out the other elementary teachers who spoke in tones of high-pitched enthusiasm, and just say to my class. "You're finished? Cool. I have another job for you," and they worked so hard to be able to help me with something else. I truly, truly, truly hope that when I blessed them with the words "Well done!" they knew I really believed it.

Wow. Thought-provoking, heartening post, Alkelda.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Tadmack: I'm so glad you read the interview! Jules was worried that with so many people on vacation, it'd fly under the radar. I want fame, people, fame! Ha. Anyway, I'm glad you like this post. This topic has provoked quite a bit of debate among my friends.

You sound like my favorite kind of teacher.