Why Saying Good Girl or Good Job is Not Productive

Don’t you just love it when you hear there is yet another thing you can’t say?  Do this, don’t do that.  Praise a child, but don’t say “good girl or good boy.”  And do you feel like you didn’t get the latest memo? Sometimes it feels like the world is going round in circles with all the political correctness rules.

Things seem to change all the time. Some of it good, some of it not so good.  Some of it makes sense, other times it makes no sense whatsoever.  But there are times when we say things without feeling 100% present when responding to children.

Do you answer sometimes without even remembering what you have said?  Of course you have.  We all do it. Especially when you are in a class of little ones and more than one voices are racing towards you. But there is one phrase (or a couple that are similar) that you probably say up to 50 times a day without even realizing it.  Those phrases are: “Good girl” “Good boy” “Good job.”

You don’t say it I hear you saying?  I dare you.  Just listen to yourself and see how many times, when you really aren’t thinking about what you are saying, you catch yourself actually saying it.  It is mind boggling.

And if you do say it, what is wrong with it anyway?  While it may seem like praise and a “good” thing, research has shown that it isn’t.  Parents in my classes will swear they never say it, but then catch themselves saying it a few minutes after we have had the conversation in class.  I still catch myself saying it if i am not careful and i have spent decades trying to irradiate it from my vocabulary.

So why is “good” so bad anyway?

Think about it from a child’s point of view.  What is good?  What does that even mean?  How do they measure good? It is pretty non-descriptive, especially to a child, and in the absence of “good girl” does that mean she is not good but bad?  Do bad children even exist?  I am not talking about behaviour here, about the child.

Consider if you were having an appraisal of your skills as an educator.  If your report read “good job” or “good woman” how much feedback would that actually give you?  To improve on and to know how you are going, you need more precise feedback, something that actually addresses and describes your skills adequately.

For a child, they learn what language means by linking it to actions.  If you use “good girl, good boy or good job” for everything, they learn nothing about the meaning of the words or the actions that led to them.

Diana F Cameron

A child’s world is filled with attempts and failure much more than success.  Think about all the things they learn to do in the first 3 years of life.  Learning to sit, crawl, walk, eat, talk, control over their limbs etc.  They try and try failing most of the time until they master the skill.  If we say “good girl or good job” when they are trying and failing and still use “good girl or good job” when they succeed, they are unable to distinguish between the two.

Those phrases tend to focus on outcomes rather than processes.  We tend to give encouragement when they are learning skills and trying but reserve the “good girl or good job” words for when they accomplish something. Isn’t the effort of trying just as important and worth just as much praise?

I am not saying never to use those phrases but to learn the best time to use them and how to give appropriate praise using positive language that your child can learn from and feel good about.

When To Use The Phrase “Good Girl or Good Boy” Appropriately

Try using these phrases when they aren’t attached to any action.  Use it in relation to how you feel about a child, not in relation to an action they have just completed.  

For example “You’re such a good girl.  I love you very much.”

Using it in this way, doesn’t attach meaning to performance.  It is how you feel all the time.  Those feelings don’t change because of an action they do.  Using it in this way eliminates the performance based expectations from the child.

What To Say Instead of “Good Girl, Good Boy or Good Job”

Think about detail here.  This takes a little more effort and thought, but the rewards will far outweigh the effort.

Praise or comment on the effort or the accomplishment itself.

“Thanks for helping me tidy up the toys.”
“I can see you are really concentrating on trying to tie your shoe.  It won’t be long before you can do it.”
“You are singing beautifully.  Can I hear that song again?”
“I am so proud that you won that race.  You ran really fast and I know you tried your best.”
“You sat so still while we had story time.  It made me so happy that you listened to me.”

Using more detail and actually describing the action or behaviour, gives our children the information they need to process the language and attach it to something meaningful.  It gives them something to build on, with clear expectations of what their behaviour or actions needs to be without negatively affecting their self esteem in the absence of the phrase.

It is important to remember that children cannot be praised too much.  Sometimes we find ourselves in the never ending “negative” conversations trying to correct behaviour. Praise is necessary for children to build self-esteem and confidence.  If you find yourself in this cycle, it is a good rule of thumb to try for 10 positive comments to every negative one.

5 Things To Remember:

1.  There is no such thing as bad children so use “good girl, or good boy” in relation to how you feel rather than as a result of actions or outcomes.
2.  Attention to detail.  When commenting or praising children, describe or comment on the specifics of their actions or accomplishments.
3.  No child can receive too much praise.
4.  Try to give 10 positive comments to every 1 negative comment.
5.  Start by trying to catch yourself saying “good girl and good boy” and realizing how much you say it in a day.  Then replace it with more appropriate language.

Diana Cameron

Diana has over 32 years in the early childhood industry and has been a guest lecturer and workshop facilitator both nationally and internationally for the past 20 years. She has a passion for inspiring educators to use creativity and imagination in their teaching.

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