It’s a natural thing to do. Your child has done something that pleases you, and out pops that familiar phrase: “Good job!” We hear it all around us. For many of us, it becomes a particularly entrenched verbal habit, born out of our desire to be positive and supportive and make our child feel good. But, too often, it gets stuck in our brain like a broken record. Some of us who have vowed to banish it occasionally find ourselves bursting it out despite our best efforts.

So, what’s wrong with “good job?” Alfie Kohn wrote about this question in his books Punished by Rewards (1999) and Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005). Kohn says, “[Good job] is the opposite of praise. ‘Good Job!’ is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgment and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us,” not for our children’s efforts and accomplishments.

Kohn reports: “[S]cientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker or a “Good job!” It can create, as he puts it, a “praise junkie,” instead of a child who can assess his efforts and develop persistence.

What we can—and should—do is offer our child encouragement. While praise is judgmental and focuses on what the adult needs and feels, encouragement is positive feedback that focuses on a child’s own efforts. From encouragement, children will learn that what they think of themselves is of greater significance than others’ opinions of them. In addition, Kohn says, encouragement will “help a child to feel a sense of control over her life” instead of looking to us for approval.

So, you ask, “What can I say instead?” Here are some guidelines and specific phrases that can work well in a variety of situations.

  1. Give specific encouragement. Sometimes this is called “labeled praise” or “descriptive praise.” Describe specifically what the child has done, such as “You worked hard to pick up all the puzzle pieces.”
  2. Describe what you see. Use neutral terms to describe what your child has done. The point is to avoid both negative and positive judgment about your child’s activity. You might say, “You figured that out all by yourself!”
  3. Comment on specific behaviors you want to reinforce. Vague statements, such as

    “You’re being really nice,” set children up for failure. They know they can’t always “be nice.” Instead, say, “I see how you helped your friend clean up the spilled milk. That was very thoughtful.”

  4. Talk less, ask more. It’s easy to slip into too much explaining and lecturing. When you ask questions, this helps expand your child’s thinking and understanding. Rather than saying, “You shouldn’t take it all for yourself. You need to give everyone equal amounts of snack,” try, “I wonder how you can get the same amount in each cup?”
  5. Describe how your child’s effort affects others. This helps him develop the ability to read social cues about how others are feeling, such as, “Look how happy your brother is to have you share your toy with him.”
  6. Include your child in decision-making before offering your own ideas, such as, “How can we solve this problem? You want to go to bed at 8, and I think it should be 7.”
  7. Avoid comparing children. When you praise your child in a group, you may think you’re making her feel good, but you’re setting her up for failure—she can’t always be the “fastest” —and you’re inadvertently criticizing the other children.
  8. Make it about your child instead of yourself. This will help you avoid the message that it’s his job to please you. Instead of “I’m so proud of you,” use “You must be so proud of yourself.”
  9. Give nonverbal feedback. A gentle pat on the back, a smile, a wink, or a fist bump tells a child, “I see you are learning.”
  10. Finally, remember to employ the most important message of all: “I am so glad I get to be your father (or mother). I love you so much, no matter what!”