Good Job – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Another beautiful Saturday, so I’m not surprised I didn’t have many callers. I hope you are all out doing marvelous things this afternoon.

A comment from a parent this morning got me thinking about language again today. If you’ll recall, last week I talked a little about “Are you okay?/You’re okay,” as a part of recognizing there are some phrases we want to try to weed out of our vocabulary, but ultimately, language and the way you use it with your child is part of the authentic expression of this work. Talking to children is a huge part of RIE, but we all do it in our own unique voices…which can be hard when you are also getting the message to stop saying things like “I’m leaving now, okay?” “you’re okay” “shush/don’t cry” “be careful” and “good job”…these are all part and parcel to interacting with infants and toddlers, so pulling them out of your vocabulary is challenging. It helps to know why we say what we say (or don’t).

On that note, I’ve been thinking about praise this afternoon. A Mom I chatted with today mentioned that “good job” just kind of slips out when she is talking with her child…it’s something she grew up hearing, and it’s part of her vernacular, but she’s read Alfie Kohn’s 5 Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job and she wants to break the habit.

I won’t completely rehash his article, but I appreciate his comment that good job is conditional, and I’d go farther as to say it’s almost transactional: “It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.” Good job can be a placeholder word for us, an indirect way to coerce or encourage behavior…Kohn calls it manipulative. Rather, simply be frank and open: Instead of “you’re doing a good job staying in your seat during dinner” say what you mean: “thank you for staying in your seat during dinner; I appreciate it.”

And indeed, taking it to the next level, using rewards and sticker charts to elicit good behavior comes with its own set of issues…including creating “praise junkies” or worse, directing children’s sense of achievement and pride outward, instead of inward (like in last week’s “RIE Win”…we want children to say “I did it!” not “Was that good?”). Further, “good job” is a valuation statement, and what’s the opposite of ‘good’? Yep: bad. But both are judgements, and none of us like to feel constantly judged…and some things just don’t need to have a judgement placed on them…I brushed my teeth this morning. It might make my dentist happy, but ultimately that’s a task that simply is part of life and living: it doesn’t need a valuation.

Over time, praise and rewards can cause motivation to dwindle…the object shifts from the activity to the praise, and if the praise isn’t coming, there’s less interest in the activity. And perhaps most critically, “Good job!” can undermine independence, pleasure, and interest, it can also interfere with how good a job children actually do.” It can literally sap creativity…did you know that Georgia O’Keefe’s mother, Ida, knew that intuitively: “There is one aspect of Ida’s parenting approach that today’s over-eager parents would do well to emulate: While she made sure that her daughters had painting and drawing lessons, she ‘neither encouraged nor discouraged her daughters, thereby teaching them that their art was their own, and that they should aim for excellence only because they wanted to.’ And while Alfie’s ideas may have been intuitively understood, they were pretty revolutionary 20 years ago…and more studies have followed, backing him up.

Yet, “good job” persists. You hear it all over the place. You might even say it…I know *I* still do. Like I said earlier, it is a shorthand phrase…we use it to get children to do (or continue doing) something, we use it to express our pleasure succinctly at times when we maybe aren’t totally connected or dialed in…and, of course, we use it when we are overwhelmingly excited and joyful about our children’s achievements. And you should absolutely be excited and joyful about your children’s achievements, and share in their joy and pride…just try not to be the source of that joy and pride. I mentioned that Alfie brought this up 20 years ago, but we’re still talking about it today. Here’s a really lovely contemporary article that talks about what to say instead of good job…it goes a little beyond “say what you see” and “talk less, ask more.” And if you want a simple ‘say this, not that’ sheet, here you go.

But keep in mind, “it’s not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say.” The reason ‘RIE lingo’ is so challenging isn’t because it is a secret language, or even because it is unique to every educarer…it is because RIE always asks us to be thoughtful and specific in our language with children. To be honest and clear. To be direct and present. And when you’re engaging with someone as present and open and absorbent as an infant or toddler, well, that’s daunting. But it’s important, and it does get easier…after all, the goal of your language…of this Educaring Approach…is relationship. And it’s easy to talk with people we’re in relationships with, right?

54. Create Clarity and Encourage Freedom

Virtue comes from within your children.
It is a natural part of their being.
It can never be taken from them.
It follows them wherever they travel.
It guides them in all circumstances.
It will cause their life to flourish
and be filled with joy.

Amidst the hundreds of voices
clamoring for their attention saying,
“This way.  No, that way,”
your children will learn
to trust their own hearts.
Thus they will act wisely.
You need not worry.

How can you keep from worry?
Look inside yourself.
We don’t trust natural goodness.
We think it must be imposed from without.
But all foolish decisions and choices
grow from confusion and fear.
And confusion and fear are amplified
by constant pushing and preaching.
Is there a way you can help
create clarity and encourage freedom?