Stop saying good job to your kids!

Nikka Santos

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Praising a child is a powerful motivating force, but it loses potency when overused

MANILA, Philippines – Good job! I would say it when my son showed me his latest Lego creation, when my daughter started to read on her own, when he kicked a soccer ball, when she attempted a cartwheel.

On and on I went. Good job! It was like a tick. I am still a proud mama, but now I hold my tongue.

There is nothing wrong with letting our kids know we’re proud of them. We acknowledge their potential so they rise to challenges and they don’t settle for mediocrity. We want to build self-esteem so they would have the confidence to do things. We cheer them on… You’re so smart! Galing!

Yes, our kids are awesome. But if they hear that often enough they’re bound to become underachievers.

Research has shown how too much praise and rewards can actually undermine persistence – the one character trait all successful people share.

A Columbia University study examined hundreds of grade school students from New York City – kids from good schools and with involved parents. These were precocious children who awed adults around them. You’re only 3 and you can do that? They got more than their fair share of good jobs, gold stars and rewards.

Then in middle school, all of them were underachieving.

What happened? The precocious ones realized not everything comes easy. Handwriting needs practice. Scoring a goal is a struggle. Learning how to read was a breeze, but math wasn’t fun at all. The new teacher had higher standards and more demands. Grade school welcomed them with challenges and failure – and it hit them hard.

The overly praised child now classified work in two ways – work I’m naturally good at because it’s easy and work that’s just too hard, why even bother? Goodbye, persistence.

Praise vs encouragement

If you want to raise an achiever, experts advise parents to encourage rather than praise. There is a difference. Frequent, empty praise bloats the ego. Encouragement teaches your child to face challenges with a positive attitude.

You may have a wonder kid, but you can be sure that someday something won’t come easy. Instead of trying harder, the wonder kid whose ego has been over-stroked may opt to… opt out. But mom, I just really suck at math. I give up!

That’s your classic underachiever – afraid to do anything that could make them fail. Some are praise junkies. They do things for the attention and accolades they have been used to hearing so often. There is little internal satisfaction from a job well done. There is little passion for the work itself.

Positive conditioning

American Developmental Psychologists Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper of Reed College have analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise on children.

They offer guidelines on how to turn praise into encouragement.

1. Be sincere and specific. Praise only if you really mean it. Children can sense insincerity or pandering. When praise is deserved, don’t make sweeping statements like, “You’re a genius!” Express your pride with specifics, “You’re learning how letters form words. You’re starting to read!”

2. Praise kids only for traits they have the power to change. To the same child above, you can say, “The more you try to read other words, the better you will get, until you can read a book on your own.” Forget saying, “You’re so smart.” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck explains, “emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no recipe for responding to failure.”

3. Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic standards. Saying “I like how you put different shapes and textures in your collage” gives your child useful feedback. Her work was acknowledged and at the same time, you taught her what your standards were for a good collage. Saying, “you’re amazing!” or “that’s a masterpiece!” is not only vague, it sends the message, “I expect nothing less than perfect, missy!”

4. Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily. Once it’s well established your child has mastered a skill, scale down the wows. My daughter earned praise the first times she revealed her reading precocity. After that, I had to stop the wows for every road sign she decoded or every book she devoured. She once said, “Mama, look it says e-le-va-tor.” I was tempted to say “Wow, you read that with no visual clue of an elevator!” Instead, I just gave her a bright smile and acknowledged, “Yes, that sign does say elevator.”

5. Be careful about praising kids for doing what they already love to do. Your kid is a Lego brick master? Let him know you’re happy he works hard to build his creations. Do not call him Mr Fantastic Future Engineer or tell him he’s “just awesome” every time he builds something—no matter how awesome his creation truly is. There’s a simple rule for this—praise the process, not the person.

6. Focus on mastering skills and avoid making comparisons. If you dole out the occasional good job, emphasize effort rather than outcome. Sometimes, there is no other way to describe their work—Good! Fantastic! Great! Once in awhile, that’s fine. Just make sure you remind them that they could not have done it without putting in the time and effort. And beware of measuring against others. Your daughter won the Gold in Math Olympics? Do not to harp on the fact that she beat other kids. Social comparison praise creates poor losers. The motivation should be doing your best or improving your self, not clobbering the competition.

A certified genius speaks

Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

That may be over dramatic, as he was obviously very smart.

Einstein was in fact a genius, but Theory of Relativity did not magically pop out of his head. Years of research, struggle and rising above failure were involved. That’s the point we have to drive to our children. Einstein’s work ethos is relevant because how we praise them determines how they will hurdle life’s challenges.

Praise should not be completely withheld. It’s a powerful motivating force, but it loses potency when overused. Praise incessantly you end up eroding persistence.

Without that, even certified geniuses wouldn’t be able to make something out of all their potential. –

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