Monday, February 8, 2010

Good boy or good job?

My wife and I are currently finding great humour in a general societal trend we’ve just noticed.

Our little two-month old, for whatever reason, seems to be a very happy baby. If he’s not sleeping, he’s happily gurgling away, either to himself, or to a doting parent or grand-parent. More than once, when we’ve been out in public—at a movie or a restaurant—we’ve had people come up to us and say, “Oh, what a good baby! He hasn’t made a peep.”

It makes us wonder, if he’d been crying the whole time would people say, “For heaven’s sake, what a bad baby you have!”?

This leads me to think about good and bad. I have never uttered the words “good boy” to my sons, and I never will. Why?

Well, let’s say my son does something positive—picks up his coat, takes his plate back to the kitchen, or even hits a baseball. If I say, “Good boy” then what is implied when he refuses to pick up his coat, doesn’t clear his plate, or strikes out? Surely, if doing those aforementioned things makes him a good boy, not doing them makes him a bad boy. I think we teach kids about good and bad early enough that they can easily make that interpretation.

Early childhood educators will tell you to praise or condemn the behavior, not the child. One study I came across aptly illustrates why that is sage advice. In the study, kids were divided into two groups, divided as equally as possible across academic, cultural and socio-economic lines. Each group was given a test. As you would expect, the averages panned out to be more or less the same. Then, for two weeks, one group was told, “Wow, you guys are so smart” with the emphasis being on intelligence. The other group was told, “Wow, you kids must have worked so hard for that test.” For them, the emphasis was on effort. After a few weeks of this pattern, the kids were given the same test again. The group that had been praised for effort saw their average mark go up. In the group where intelligence was lauded, the marks went down.

The researchers came up with two hypotheses. The first was that the praise for smarts made the first group complacent. The second was that, while children could not control how smart they are, they can control how much effort they put out. Praising effort, in other words, was an act of empowering these children.

We all want our kids to succeed. As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of posts, we dads sometimes push our kids hard to achieve, particularly in the hyper competitive world of sports. If you are one of these dads, try to adopt terms like, “great work,” “good job” and “super effort.”

Calling your child a “good boy” when he hits a baseball, by default, means he is a “bad boy” 70% of the time.


  1. Hey your logic a child has done a bad job or had a bad effort 70% of the time. I think a young child is not as sophisticated as you give them credit for. At a young age the comment "good boy" can be taken to mean behaviour and the child will probably make that connection and not think of himself as being bad.

  2. Hey Anon,

    Thanks for commenting and good point.

    Let me start by saying I am not a child psychologist--I just play one on TV...seriously, I read a lot about it, but I don't pretend to be one.

    However, there is one flaw to your logic as I see it:

    "At a young age the comment "good boy" can be taken to mean behaviour and the child will probably make that connection and not think of himself as being bad."

    Does your example not only require a child to make a sophisticated interpretation? They have to take "good boy" and translate that to "good effort." With the example from my post and the example from yours, both require the child to make an interpretation.

    Even if they start to see "good boy" as behavior, I think there will come a time when the opposite behavior will be interpreted as "bad boy."

    Perhaps I'm over thinking it, but I'll give you an example of why I feel the way I do.

    Let's say, when I change my 2 month-old’s diapers, I ask my 3 year old to get a clean diaper, the wipes, whatever. Then let’s say, each time he helps, I say, "good boy."

    Then, one day, my 3 year old is in a mood. Maybe he's feeling a little pushed out of the nest by his baby brother and doesn't feel much like helping him at all (a perfectly normal sentiment for an older child, I think we can both agree.) When I ask if he will help out, he gives me a grumpy, "no."

    Now, some of us might then slip into, "aren't you going to be a good boy and help me?” which isn't a far leap from "if you don't help me, you aren't a good boy." But even if the parent says nothing at all, if the child has been conditioned that helping change his brother's diaper makes him a "good boy" (and makes his parents happy), how is he feeling if he decides he doesn't want to help (after much pleading or even ordering from his parents?) Do you think he's feeling like a good boy, or do you think he feels like he is disappointing you or making you upset for not doing the trick that makes you call him a good boy?

    Now perhaps the very young don't pick up on this (though I think they do) but as parents, we are creating a pattern, and we all know, patterns are hard to break. Maybe your two year old doesn't pick up on the subtleties, but your 8 year old might (especially after 8 years of the pattern.) If they've been told 'good boy' every time they get a hit, what happens when they strike out 3 times at their little league game? My feeling is that they will have a sense of disappointing mom or dad for not being a good boy...for not eliciting a positive response.

    My feeling is if you praise effort (as long as it's genuine) you can never go wrong.

    Please feel free to counter. I welcome your opinion.