Think Twice Before You Say “Good Job!”


A child's hand holding a crayon

Good job!  How could saying something kind be cruel?  It turns out that praise has a dark side; its effects have been studied extensively in children, but I believe praise can have negative effects on adults as well.

In a recent New York Times article, writer Paul Underwood says parents have been told for years that “it’s better to pre-emptively praise (and reward) the behavior we want our children to demonstrate, rather than waiting to condemn them for misbehaving.” But all the “good job!” praising makes children more likely to develop performance anxiety, which can have long-lasting effects .

I’ve written about perfectionism and performance anxiety before. Millions of people suffer from fear of failure, which can make them reluctant to try new things and saps the joy from their accomplishments. Performance anxiety is often rooted in a “fixed” mindset – the idea that your talent, intelligence, or ability is limited to a fixed amount, presumably what you were born with.

People with fixed mindsets believe that they can’t get smarter or get better at anything.  People with “growth” mindsets believe that with hard work, they can improve their performance at anything they’re willing to try.

As adults, when we praise something a child has no control over, such as being pretty or being smart, we are reinforcing a fixed mindset. Even the ubiquitous “good job, buddy!” may start to connect “good” performance with parental love. They may start to wonder if their parents will love them as much when they fail to deliver “good” work. The fear of losing their parents’ or teachers’ approval can start to make them anxious about the next test, class assignment, or refrigerator-worthy drawing.

Young children may also become more motivated by praise than the actual work, which begins to take away the pleasure and fun of creating. If future tests, assignments, or drawings, don’t receive the same level of praise, children may stop performing altogether.

Researchers studying the effect of praise on children in the 1990s found that “children were afraid to challenge themselves out of fear of letting down their parents.” Dr. Grolnick, a professor of psychology at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education who conducted one such study, said praise can be controlling — “undermining a child’s enjoyment of and motivation for certain activities by shifting the goal to pleasing a parent.”

This doesn’t sound much different from what I’ve observed in college classrooms and just about every office setting I’ve ever worked in. The highest performers in a group are likely to be the most anxious about failing, and in some cases, the most risk averse. “If I’m at the top because I did well at this assignment, will I be at the bottom if I mess up the next one?” They begin to worry more about making mistakes doing the right things – which inevitably erodes their performance.

How can you avoid this effect as a parent or a boss? Psychologists recommend praising the process, not the outcome. Instead of saying “you look so pretty tonight,” tell your 5-year old “I really like how you matched your socks to your outfit,” or “I see you put two barrettes in your hair – that was a great choice for holding back your bangs.”

Instead of labeling a drawing (or a technical report) as good work, take note of specific techniques that show effort or progress. “I see how well you captured the detail in the leaves of the trees; you really paid attention to how they look.”   “The way you added graphs to the narrative makes it much easier to follow the complex data in this section of the report.”

When you notice and praise effort or technique, you reinforce the idea that if they continue to work hard, they can improve. You’ll be building confidence and encouraging them to take risks. You’ll also increase their pleasure in the task and the process of learning and take the emphasis off the end result, which may be out of their control.  

Praising what someone has control over, like the choices they make in solving a problem or creating something, also helps them connect to their sense of autonomy and the intrinsic pleasure of the work. Paul Underwood writes that “crediting innate traits such as being smart, rather than demonstrable choices, like persistence,” can actually do more harm than good. So let’s put “Good work!” and “Great job!” on the shelf for a while and make more thoughtful choices about how we praise our kids  – and each other.

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