“Good job,” “Be nice,” and Other Meaningless Things We Say To Kids

Mom says, “Now play nicely.”

Dad says, “You boys stop fighting.”

The babysitter says, “She was such a good girl today.”

Teachers write on student papers, “Good work.”

Just what does good mean to a child?  Or, for that matter, what do, nice, kind, fight, naughty, bad, and any other broad and, to a child, meaningless words mean?  We know what we mean, but children, and even adolescents, respond more responsibly when we “define” what the behavior we expect looks like and sounds like.

My 4- year-old granddaughter packs up and puts away her play dough. What does that look like?  It looks like just what I observed, so I can describe that to her.  “I saw you repack all the playdough into the containers and then stack the containers back on the shelf.  That’s a good job.”  (fine to say it after we’ve described it).

Your teen has had to be reminded to mow the lawn for the last two weeks, but this week he remembered on his own. Rather than, “Good job,” describe what he did: “I see that you remembered to mow the lawn without reminders, and it’s all even and smooth too. Great Job.” You can even then name the specific characteristic this work evidences, “That’s taking responsibility.”

Your student has written an essay that demonstrates s/he met the writing objectives for this assignment. Describe your specific observations.  Your essay demonstrates that you understand paragraph structure.  I see a topic sentence in each. You’ve developed your paragraphs with specific examples and with facts.  Your citations are ….  Then s/he knows exactly what to do again.    

A lot of children have trouble keeping their voices down when they’re in the house as opposed to outside.  Practice with your child the difference between indoor and outdoor voices. Then, rather than saying, “Quiet down.” Or “You’re being too loud,” you can describe by saying, “Indoor voices, please.”  Specific behavior is most helpful for children learning to become responsible for their behavior.

Why is describing so important?  This tells the person exactly what to repeat to be successful the next time.

Now the other side of this coin­—the word bad—along with naughty and any other label is a conclusion rather than a description of the behavior. When we’re emotionally upset, we have a great deal of trouble merely describing. We tend to say, “He’s a disruptive kid.” or “You’ve become a liar.”  Or “You’re so mouthy.”  Or “You don’t appreciate anything we do for you.” These are all conclusions, thus in reality, only our opinion.

What did the child/adolescent do or say?  Does she yell at you and say, “I hate you.”?  “Do your two grade school kids fight over and over? Does your adolescent son sneak out when you think he’s in bed for the night?”  “Have you discovered your child is lying to you a lot?  The list goes on. Describe this behavior, rather than drawing a conclusion such as telling your child s/he is bad or a liar, or lazy, or selfish, or any of the other conclusions we might draw. Describe the exact behavior you want to work with your child or student to change.

When your kids are fighting, you might say, “I expect the two of you to take turns with….”   When you son sneaks out at night, you might say, “We expect you to stay home unless we agree you can go out.”  When your child lies, you might say, “We expect you to tell us the truth.” When you leave your children with a babysitter, “These are the things we expect you to do when there’s a sitter….” No, this isn’t all you say. The description of behavior in these cases is the opening of a conversation. The goal is to clearly describe behavior rather than drawing a conclusion or using one of those vague words. (See “Shall We Fight or Solve a Problem?” dated 12/8/18)

When we describe, we avoid labeling a child or student; when we describe, we provide specific behavior for kids to repeat or for them to stop; and when we describe, we promote positive self -images for children and adolescents.

For additional guidance with examples of how description of behavior looks and sounds in a whole conversation, please go back to the following blogs: “Words Matter – a Lot” (10/2019) and “Shall We Fight or Shall We Solve a Problem?” (12/18)

Copyright: Judy Harmon Holmes 2020

One thought on ““Good job,” “Be nice,” and Other Meaningless Things We Say To Kids

  1. Creating Responsible Children & Adolescents - A Website for Parents & Teachers

    What I like best about this blog is that you give specific examples of conversation openers with our children that produce positive outcomes. Describing behaviors rather than criticizing them, followed by reasonable expectations, is a much more productive way of reducing those behaviors in the classroom as well as in the home. Good job!


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