Monday, April 11, 2011

Being "Good"

This article was previously published as a guest post at Hobo Mama. I'm posting it here now because I feel so strongly about it that I wanted to say it all again (I've also added additional reading at the end):

I believe that the language we use to talk about things not only says a lot about how we really feel about something, but also further reinforces those underlying feelings and makes us feel more that way. I think this is why we shouldn't use combative language when referring to difficulties with our children ("choosing your battles" "winning the war"): it sets us up against our children, instead of with them.

I think language is equally important when talking about our kids' everyday behavior—the day in and day out of it. I've noticed that, when it comes to my son, others often refer to him having been "good," when what they really mean is that he has been being quiet or sleeping. ("Was he good last night?" "He's being so good right now!" "What a good baby!") I think it's tempting to talk about those things as being "good," because it's certainly easier when Daniel is sleeping or being quiet when we're out for a meal, appointment, or activity. But I think it's dangerous to be calling those things good, because even though maybe we don't think that a crying baby is bad per se, that is what's implied when we label the opposite or other more desirable actions as good.

My husband and I have gently tried to suggest that others not label our son as good or bad by saying things like, "I think he's always good!" But it seems to be such an ingrained thing in our society to expect "good behavior" from children. What that really means is that we want them to act like little adults all the time, and be able to understand social convention and conform to the status quo. Only when it's convenient for us (and then, is it ever?) are they allowed to act like children.

Just as I wouldn't expect an infant to be able to wait to eat as long as an adult would, I would not expect him to be quiet for hours at a time. In the same way, I wouldn't expect a toddler to be able to make it through the day without testing her limits and getting upset when she can't have her way, or a preschooler to eat a food he doesn't like at someone else's house just to be polite.

The fact is, we would never say that an adult person was being "bad" if he or she was upset and needed to cry. Preverbal children have the added hurdle of not being able to communicate their needs and feelings with words; crying is all they can do. I don't want my son growing up thinking the adults in his life think he's bad when he's crying, that it's bad to cry, or that he should pretend to be happy and sociable and perfect all the time.

Can't we give the same respect to our children that we would expect from another adult friend? I would argue that his expression (through crying) of his desires and feelings has little to say about his character, whether or not he's a good person, no matter how inconvenient it is for us to manage when we're out to dinner. Without getting into too much of a philosophical or theological discussion of human nature, I believe we're all inherently good.

My son is a good person just because. So let's stop labeling our children as "good" or "bad" based on their behaviors.

By way of some further reading discussing labeling, praise, examining our own motivations and intentions, and exploring different ways to talk to and about our children, I'd like to suggest:
  • Why "good kid" bothers me, a response from Lauren of Hobo Mama to my original guest post on her site (and the source of several of the following links):
    By labeling me a "good kid," they were saying, in my mind at least, that I was compliant, quiet, accomplished in school, and so forth. I don't think my parents meant when they said, "You're such a good kid," some twisted ulterior subtext of "We love you because you make life convenient for us, and we wouldn't love you if you didn't" — but I fully knew, even as a child, that my label as "good" was due to my overall pleasant behavior and temperament. If asked, I could have gleefully pointed to several "bad" kids I knew, again based on behavior.
  • Labeling Kids as "Kind" from Dionna at Code Name: Mama:
    [W]hen we label something as “kind” or “unkind” – or to take it a step further, “good” or “bad” – a child might hear us saying “I like (love) you when you are kind/good. I do not like (love) you when you are not kind/bad.”
  • In Psychology Today, Parenting: Don't Praise Your Children:
    Unfortunately, trying to convince your children of their competence will likely fail because life has a way of telling them unequivocally how capable or incapable they really are through success and failure. ...Research has found that students who were lavished with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers, were less persistent in difficult assignments, and less willing to share their ideas.
  • To Praise or Not to Praise (Part 3), by Naomi Aldort:
    Love is the water of the human soul; evaluation is not. One of the ways love shows up for the child is through the experience of knowing that her life makes a difference and touches the people she loves. Ask yourself what touches your heart, when someone says to you, “you are great”(evaluation) or when she says, “Being with you, I feel inspired.” It is the emotional connection that matters to us the most.
  • Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!", by Alfie Kohn:
    It can seem strange, at least at first, to stop praising; it can feel as though you’re being chilly or withholding something. But that, it soon becomes clear, suggests that we praise more because we need to say it than because children need to hear it. Whenever that’s true, it’s time to rethink what we’re doing.
  • A true story from This Woman's Work, On Needing to be Seen:
    Praise is easy but seeing someone is hard. It’s much more effortful. You can toss off a compliment (“Nice shoes!”) much more easily than you can stop a minute to focus and see the shoes. I think about this a lot. ... It feels lousy when no one sees you. It feels lonely. We all want people to see our metaphorical shoes, really see them and see us wearing them and note that we are HERE.
  • 7 Alternatives to Telling Your Child "Good Job!" from Dionna at Code Name: Mama, a list of alternative suggestions, to help us break the reflexive habit of "good job!"-ing:
    [E]xcessive and meaningless praise can backfire by making children lose interest in activities, by reducing achievement scores, and by creating praise junkies (that is, children become so dependent on our feedback that they become insecure without it).
  • Praiseworthy from Amber Strocel, confessions of a praise-dependent parent who decided to intentionally stop praising her children on auto-pilot:
    When I decided to stop using praise, it shocked me to see how much a part of my daily life it was. I said, “Good job!” every few minutes, and not in a conscious way. I praised on auto-pilot. I praised Hannah for sitting on my lap, for listening to a story, for not throwing a block. She was a pre-verbal child, an infant. She didn’t need my praise, and she probably didn’t even understand it. I was praising her simply because I was in the habit.
  • Parenting as a form of refugee acclimatization: A lens for seeing your children through, a guest post by Lauren (Hobo Mama)'s husband Sam. Tangentially related to this topic (except for the excerpt below), but in my opinion, a surprisingly accurate metaphor and a profound way to approach raising children:
    I try not to stunt his process of learning by telling him the end result I'm hoping for. I would never tell an adult person "Good job!" when he's working on something, as if he were doing the task for my approval. Nor would I jump in all the time with a "No, not like that, like that!" while she tried to figure things out. Discovery is a process of exploring options and permutations, and part of the exploration is not working toward someone else's end.

How do you feel about all this? How do you show your kids you love and approve of them without labeling them as "good"? Are you highly motivated (maybe even a little too much) by external praise like several of the bloggers I linked above (and me)? I'd love to hear your perspective!

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Carnival of Gentle Discipline!  

This post was selected as one of the Crème de la Crème of gentle discipline blogging! Click on the image to view more Crème de la Crème posts!


  1. I've tried to stop saying "good job" and just let her know that I noticed she did something. My husband tries, too. I don't feel it is appropriate, though, to scold my 12yo for telling Sasha she did a good job. She is only here part time so I just hope that it doesn't cause problems that she communicates with Sasha differently than we do.

    It has been a hard transition to make. I agree, though, we need to give children the same respect that we give to adults, without expecting them to behave like adults.

  2. And that is such an adorably sad photo you posted, too.

  3. @Momma Jorje: I definitely agree with you, that scolding your older daughter isn't what I would do, either. It seems like if the majority of the interactions are the desired kind, then that's what they experience most and therefore is what has the most effect (does that make sense?).

    And thanks, about the photo. I also found his crying face to be so sweet and heartbreaking...I just had to take a photo.

  4. Loved this article then, and love it now. And I started scanning your additional links from the bottom up and was, like, "Ooo, I love that one! And that one! And that one, too!" So I guess I've already done a lot of reading on the subject! And Sam will be happy you've plugged his guest post. :) He kept saying to me, "Why don't I have more comments? Is this normal? I think I should have more comments." Cracked me up.

    This subject is one of the topics that most often gets people saying "huh?" to me on my blog. Not all the commenters, but definitely some. Particularly when it's not a post about the topic, but I just throw it out there, in the midst of talking about something else, that we try not to praise — it's just so ingrained as a good thing to say "good boy."

    @Momma Jorje: My sister-in-law totally agrees with us that empty praise is not helpful … and then she does it constantly. Oh, well! She initiated the conversation about how we try not to use that type of phrasing, but we definitely don't feel like we can chastise her every time she comes over, asking her to change her language habits. As I was just saying, it really is so ingrained, and I'm sure people could catch me at it plenty as well.

  5. I totally agree. Thanks for all the links. I haven't yet been able to adequately explain this to my husband and offer concrete alternatives; hopefully these will help!

  6. @Lauren: I really do love that post by Sam. I read it when you first published it, and then I sent it to my husband to read. That's cute that he's so worried about the comments...maybe I should go leave him one!

    @Amy: You're very welcome, and I hope it helps conveince your husband. =)

  7. Thanks Amy. I totally agree with you here. My son often gets labelled as a good baby, as he is generally a happy and friendly child, but what irks me is when he does cry or fuss... then is he a bad baby? I have enjoyed all your links too :)


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