Parenting Criticism vs. Praise and the “Good Job” Jockey

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

As people get older, our interactions with them start to change. We tend to criticize more often and forget to praise the good things that are done. The assumption becomes that everyone should do good and be reminded when they don’t. The research does not bear this out as we need praise at all ages, but especially as children. Researchers have identified a general ratio of praise to criticism that appears to make a big difference in children’s lives.

That ratio is being praised five times for every criticism. This is not to say that we should never criticize as criticism can help the child learn how to do things the right way. However, we also need to recognize the many times when children are doing the right thing. In the next couple of days, we encourage you to take an hour and count the interactions with your child that contain praise vs. criticism to see how you are doing on the 5:1 ratio. You may be surprised by the results. Of course, we can take things to extremes as parents and become what we call “good job” jockeys.

The words come almost reflexively out of parents’ mouths, “good job.” Little Mary has finally put her clothes away, “good job.” Now, she has finished eating her food, “good job.” She has put on her pajamas for bed after the third reminder, “good job.” This or some other variation often becomes a mantra for parents as they try to praise their little ones’ good behaviors. This is a commendable goal as children need positive interactions with their parents and encouragement to continue to do as their parents ask.

However, there is a problem with being a “good job” jockey. You can ride that horse into the ground. The “good job” starts to become meaningless to the child or at least confusing to them. Since the same generic term is used over and over, children can become confused over what exactly they are doing a good job on.

The solution is to continue praising a child for doing what they are supposed to or encouraging good work but to be more specific. Borrowing from the examples used above, a parent should say, “Mary, I like how you put your clothes away so nicely.” When Mary finished eating her food, a parent could say, “Wow, you cleaned your whole plate! I knew you could do it.” This type of specific and positive praise makes it much easier for children to know what they have done well. It also makes it more likely that they will do that behavior again. So make some efforts to recognize and praise your child when they do well and do it in a specific manner. You might find that your relationship with them has improved.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in January, 2011.

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