Telling Your Kids They Did A Good Job

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We all want to be told we’re doing a good job, not only because it makes us feel really good but also because with this seal of approval, especially when it comes from authority figures, uncertainty around how we are supposed to behave dissipates. Behind every ‘good job’ is the implicit message ‘do more of that’.

This is the most important thing to realize as a parent, that telling your kids they did a good job is a powerful positive reinforcer. It doesn’t just point towards the present or past but also towards the future. A reinforcement always makes the behavior being reinforced more likely to occur. When you say ‘good job’ as a parent you can expect a lot more of what you’re ‘good jobbing’, and you are the one who is pulling this behavior out of your kids.

Therefore like any good trainer you’ve got to resist the urge to positively reinforce behaviors that aren’t good enough, to say ‘good job’ when it wasn’t a good job. By ‘good job’ we mean scaffolding within the zone of proximal development where the behavior is challenging but doable for the child, something within current developmental capabilities. Withholding praise when it is deserved is as detrimental as doling it out when it’s not. It’s finding that happy medium that is the art of training.

The key in the context of parenting is understanding how reinforcements work, remembering that some of the things you say are meant to elicit behaviors while others are not. It’s tempting to tell your kids they did a good job because it makes them feel loved, but you’re not doing them any favors when you set the bar low. You can make your kids feel loved without reinforcing this or that behavior. In fact we would argue that love can and should come before any discrete behavior, that your main task should always be to make kids feel loved for who they are not what they do.