The Harm in Praising Kids

In my son’s classroom, the teacher praised a child’s roundly perfect cursive o’s. “Good job, Sienna.”

At Little League, the coach told the boy who caught the ball, “Good job, Timothy.”

Today, I heard “Good job” at the grocery store when the girl stopped throwing her Cheerios, on the playground when a boy hit the wall with the ball instead of his sister, and in my son’s theatre class when the children put away the costumes.

We want our children to grow up as proficient, able-bodied people who have high self-esteem. What’s better than an enthusiastic, “Good job”?

Then I read Alfie Kohn’s article, “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job,” ( I began to take a closer look at how I praised my son.

Support and encouragement is what I wanted to convey. Why not say “Good job”? What could be more encouraging?

According to Kohn, we often use “Good job” as a way to get our kids to do what we want. We praise them. They want more praise. They do the behavior to get more praise.

Instead of saying something external to them to get a result, what about engaging them by working with them to create internal learning?

Take the drama class example of picking up the scattered costumes. Instead of a pat few words, a discussion of teamwork and what it takes to have a smooth class experience created the same results. That conversation is much more meaningful than a few cheerleading words. And the best news:  he kids’ internal learning will transfer to other experiences.

When Zed put away all his Legos that had turned our dining room into a Stop-Action movie set, I didn’t say what a good job he did. I looked at the empty, shining pine wood of the table’s surface and told him it gave me a sense of peace. I also looked at the clock and told him while he cleaned up, I got an article written and now I had time to go shoot hoops with him. What he gets to take away from this is the good feeling of cleaning up without relying on me to give him that good feeling.

Notice how many times a day you say “Good job” or something like it. What would it take to give your child that experience of feeling good about what they did from the inside? Go easy on yourself. “Good job” is a common practice entrenched deeply in our society’s norms of parenting. It won’ change overnight.

Let me know how this goes. If you find it creates positive results, you can be the one to tell yourself, “Good job.”


17 Responses to “The Harm in Praising Kids”

  1. Right on, Annie. I read Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” book many years ago and embraced his ideas. I’ve fallen back into the “good job” trap and will work my way back out. It takes some effort to break a bad habit, but well worth the effort to encourage children’s internal motivation. Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights. Love the blog!

  2. Valerie Stuart

    Wow, I am so grateful to be reading this, especially since the Alfie Khon books have been out for almost 20 years! i can’t believe we haven’t heard more of this in teacher inservices, parent groups, etc- You would think there would be a national movement of Stop the Praising madness! by now because it so obviously doesn’t work! i am really glad you bring up this powerful topic: we just can’t get over the illogicalness of not praising our kids, but if we look at our own childhoods, we usually can compare with our parents’ rather minimalist involvement in our lives. The funniest and most helpful book i ever read about parenting was by Muffy Mead-Ferro called Confessions of a Slacker Mom- hysterical and totally apt. I think the over-praising may even have something to do with the 20 year old phenomenon of kids staying home or returning after they turn 18: they are sort of praise junkies and can’t leave! We have more friendly and sometimes much more supportive relationships with our children in this generation of parenting, but what can be lost with that is their independence and desire to fly that comes naturally around 18 years old. It’s so comfy at home now, kids don’t leave or they come back and stay. I know that there is a huge job market component unique to today, but i really feel like the bigger problem is we might have too close a relationship with our kids to make them really feel like growing up. They feel taken care of, their laundry’s done, they might get small jobs that let them play on the weekends, they have few chores to do at home- who would want to grow up? And i know my own children felt the over-praise of parents who were just so damn happy to have them that we really couldn’t shut up about it! So, here’s to making life a little less comfy for our teens and a little more accountable. And more chores around the house and outside jobs are the best way, along with only praising them when it really counts. It might have the searingly wonderful added affect of reducing their ten angst, depression, and feelings of meaninglessness so rippingly prevalent today! Nice call on this, Annie!

  3. Thanks, Anne, for mentioning “Punished by Rewards.” It has many useful concepts for parents and teachers, especially those who have lived most of their life within the culturally acceptable reward/punishment model. There is strong evidence that neither approach is very effective at motivating people or providing learning opportunities. Reward does create a certain type of motivation, but children often need bigger and better rewards to movitivate them. And instead of teaching any new desired behaviors, punishing a child teaches them power over others. The bigger focus becomes on not getting caught.

    As a teacher, I look for ways to engage my students so their learning comes from the inside out instead of external reward. As a parent, I continually work to wean off the habit of responding to the moment rather than using well-thought out big-picture themes (like not using praise as a reward). The benefits so outweigh the temporary relief that is offered by a threat or bribe.

    And, Val, interesting points about the possibility of praise addiction tempting adult kids back home. I will check out “Confessions of a Slacker Mom”. I’ve heard it’s really good. 🙂

  4. Heather B

    Gosh, I read his books years ago, along with John Gatto and others challenging conventional authority and outlook… I agree to a point. I think rote or empty praise is counterproductive but I think thoughtful and deserved praise can be beneficial. Where I divided with Alfie K. was when he talked about adults and the workplace. I remember thinking-it’s nice to get recognition sometimes, which is a form of praise, for a variety of reasons. One is, we don’t always know if we’re on the right track. Sure I am internally motivated. But sometimes I am particularly trying to please or take care of someone else, and since that’s my goal, I want feedback. Along the same vein, sometimes I’m trying to learn something, at work or elsewhere, and since I’m new at it, I’m interested in my “teacher’s” comments. I agree that “great job” is pretty bland and over-used, but encouragement that is sincere, whatever the words chosen, is a good thing in my opinion. I also felt, back then, that since I got paid for my work (which in some ways is external motivation, though perhaps not exactly praise)it was unreasonable to expect my children to do all their “work” without some sort of payment. I would do lots of my “work” for free because I love it, but not all of it; in the same way my children did lots of their work (homeschool and ranch management) because they loved it, but there were some parts that needed encouragement. All that said, I totally agree that the goal, at the end, and along the way, is to help, then get out of the way, so our kids can follow their own stars, fueled by their own internal motivation.

    • Such food for thought here, Heather, around payment, reward, praise, feedback, and encouragement. I love your last sentence. A wonderful goal.

      Zed really likes something to look forward to after completing a hard task, like practicing a tough piano piece or math homework: he wants to do something fun like kick the ball outside together or read his comic book. These could be considered rewards – or maybe they are a balance of scheduling difficult and easy. I have tried to pay attention if he will only do the harder tasks with the fun afterward, and so far, that’s not the case.

      A lot of what I gleaned from Alfie K was how we use our words. With my students I like to use “thoughtful encouragement” as opposed to manipulative praise in order to help them stay engaged. I am upbeat and excited about the course work and I try to encourage students to find where they might also experience this with the material. Then I find I can interject motivational encouragement that resonates with their internal experience. Praise often carries a judgment. I have tried to be careful when Zed shows me artwork or a new Lego Creation. “Mom, what do you think of this drawing?” he asks. And instead of “Wow, that’s really good,” I can discuss details of what I see and ask questions. Here’s a reminder article specifically about the encouraging words we use:

  5. Eileen

    how do i “Like” this on FB!? I’d love to and I’ve heard this before, but Annie, the way you convey it really drives the point home and I”m looking forward to noticing how many times I say “good job” etc…

    • Thanks, Eileen. I know you’ll do a good job of noticing when you say “good job.” Ha – Kidding! And thanks for wanting to LIKE my FB page. In the search box of Facebook, type Parenting Groove and there will be a LIKE button right on the screen when the page comes up. 🙂

  6. I love this post, Annie. Even though I know intellectually and heartily agree with avoiding the pat phrases, I find it is so ingrained in me. After so many years of parenting practice, the words “Good job!” jump right out of my mouth quite regularly. And then I cringe and try to downplay it. I’m curious if you or your readers might have strategies for skillful follow-up to unskillful blurts like I’m describing?

    • That’s a great question, Laura – how to follow up an unwanted blurt-out. I kinda love this and my son gets a kick of it: Just as we can ask our kids to have a re-do, we can back ourselves up as well. What a great opportunity to let them know that WE need to do a “do-over” – in this case, a second chance to re-choose your words. My son loves that it’s not just him that should try re-doing something a better way. (See more on Do-Overs in the Quick Start Guide you can get in that little red box up on the right.) 🙂

  7. Hi Annie, really interesting. I’ve read about praise in it’s different forms, and I agree with some commenters…. depends. Several years ago I read how we are wired to fulfill what others believe about us. That’s why teachers (good and bad) can have such a huge impact. So, if we say “good job” to things they should be doing anyway,it empties it out. So, what I’ve focused on is effort. If they poured a ton of effort into it, I be sure to praise that, “Hey, you worked hard for this, nice work!” Reminds me about the studies out there that show that kids praised for their effort rather than how smart they are leads them to knowing that their contributions matter, and that they can do what they set out to do. Thanks for the post!

    • Craig, that is a great comment concerning “what” we praise and how that can be helpful for kids (as opposed to an overall value judgment). I resonate with looking toward the effort and not the outcome. Thanks so much.

  8. I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of this. When I worked in Special Ed, one saying really stuck with me: “Catch ’em being good!” I thought that was profound! I pretty much still do, but I’ve suspected for some time now that I’ve overdone it – I’m always sincere about my praise, but still – it just feels like it may be too much. BUT – I’ve been concerned about the effects of fading it. Will Jesse perceive it as something he’s doing wrong? Good to know that slow and steady will win the race. I’m glad I read this – thanks!

  9. Hi Annie, I am so touched you reached out to me! This post really spoke to me. I have been a people pleaser all my life and finally realized about 3 years ago how my need for affirmation and approval hindered my ability to be free and content. I have thought about that when I praise my children. I don’t want them to feel their actions (or whatever is in question) must be validated by others. I want them to feel an inherent peace within themselves no matter what anyone else thinks about them or their actions. I will definitely think about your wise words. I look forward to reading more. Thank you for the kind message you sent me! I would be honored if you link to my blog. Thank you for asking!



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