My daughter and I were finishing up lunch in a diner. As the waitress cleared my empty plate, recently the scene of a large pile of greens and grilled chicken, she said, "Good job on that salad!"
"Right?" she then said to my girl, who gave that polite smile kids do when they're expected to respond to the adult speaking to them, but don't know what they're supposed to say.
"I learned how to ride a bike last year, Dad. You can stop saying 'good job!' now."
When we got outside, I asked my daughter, "What did you think when our waitress told me 'good job' for eating my lunch?" Meanwhile, I'd already quickly made the sanity-saving decision to mentally suppress any possible subtext in our waitress's comment (something like, oh, I don't know: You slob).
My daughter shrugged and said, "I thought it was weird."
Weird. That's what I thought, too. It was my lunch. I ordered it. What was I supposed to do, if not eat it: stare at it? I'd smiled at the waitress politely, too, in lieu of I-don't-know-what she expected me to say ("thanks?").
Yet we say "good job" to our kids all the time, for things they're supposed to be doing anyway, even routine, unspectacular stuff. We say "good job!" to them for getting their shoes on or for drinking their milk or for scaling the monkey bars or for using the toilet paper. Yet research shows all this praise isn't really helping kids. Overpraise may even undermine kids' efforts and commitment to whatever they're doing, according to experts like Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck, a pioneer researcher on kids and motivation, and author of Mindset, and Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: the Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. Rather, children should be motivated by their own enjoyment of the task at hand.
I recently had another occasion to hear I was doing a "good job!" during a group training class at the gym. No sooner had we pushed the start button on the treadmills when the buff, baby-faced trainer in charge—let's call him Zac Efron—said, "Good job, everyone." Excuse me, Zac? I haven't even started walking yet. How could I possibly be doing a good job? Throughout the one-hour class, he must have said through his mic "good job!" no fewer than 30 times. No doubt Zac meant well, but I felt irritated. Irritated because I knew his praise was not sincere, which of course must be how kids feel when they're being good-jobbed everywhere they turn. All of a sudden, my youngest child's cranky retort after I had told her "good job!" for going down the big slide—she said , "No, I'm not!"—made sense to me.
That's not to say I'm above a lift from praise. Who doesn't like a little pat on the back once in awhile, something I remember felt especially in short supply before I returned to work full-time, when I was instead home day after day doing the demanding, sometimes-lonely job of raising little kids. But praise feels good only when it's special, and deserved. When a trainer at the gym tells me, just once, I've (finally!) achieved good form on my running-man, I feel he means it, because I know how ridiculous everyone looks trying to get the hang of running man.
I'm about to embark on vacation with my kids, and if I can get them through a week of new adventures, from sampling clams to paddleboarding, without overpraising them, maybe then, and only then, I can look in the mirror and say to myself, "Good job."