Thursday, December 01, 2016


A couple years back I taught a boy who would, upon the completion of just about anything, turn to me and ask, "Is that a good job?" I would answer, "You worked hard on that," or "You sound proud of it," or something else that I hoped would help turn his search for validation inward instead of outward. I wouldn't say that he was a praise junky, however, given that he was generally a very internally driven boy, but he had apparently come to expect the automatic "good job" the way the rest of us expect the automatic "Thank you" or "You're welcome." In fact, he would in turn offer his friends a hearty "good job" whenever one of them completed something or seemed particularly proud.

Most of us know by now to avoid the sort of empty praise of "good job," "well done," or any of the other regular ways adults misguidedly attempt to bolster self esteem. If we want children to be self-motivated, the general rule of thumb is to avoid external rewards and punishments, verbal or otherwise, and instead focus on observable things like a child's effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time"), feelings (e.g., "You look happy about that"), or simply remarking on observable facts (e.g., "You pried the lid off that can"). 

During their three years at Woodland Park, this boy's family tried to pull back on "good job," even as they found it a hard habit to break: it can become so woven into how we interact with our kids that it's almost impossible to eradicate entirely. There are a lot of semi-conscious things like that in how we speak to not just our children, but with the rest of the world as well. When I lived in Germany, my German friends would return from travels to the states, every single one of them complaining that Americans were obsessed with telling everyone "Have a nice day," something about which I'd never given much thought. It irritated them, however: "They say it, but they don't mean it," or "Who are they to tell me what kind of day to have?" Of course, Germans have their own automatic niceties that I found every bit as grating. And that's what most of these things are for us adults, conventional courtesies that we rely upon to make our public life run more smoothly. I think that's where "good job" had migrated for this boy.

Earlier this week, I was hanging out with a group of kids, most of whom had just created various kinds of weapons from construction paper and masking tape. As they showed me their handiwork, explaining, often in detail, how it could defeat a villain, I was responding by saying "You worked hard on that." I like to think I've become quite good at avoiding the empty praise. Then one boy pushed to the front to show me his creations. He shoved them into my face, beaming with pride, saying, "Teacher Tom, look at my hard works."

It appears that "You worked hard on that" has become my own personal "good job," an automatic nicety, at least for this kid. It's a risk whenever we find ourselves interacting with others without being fully conscious or present. Sigh. I guess I'll need to work on that.

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