Empowering New Parents

“Good Job”! Choosing Appropriate Language for our Children


Over the last 23 months, since my son was born, I have had an increasing fear of public places. What I’m fearing most are other parents. I’m finding it not so much fun at parks, playgrounds or any  mommy and me type class because of some parents I’m encountering. I notice that these parents are constantly parenting. They never step back and just let their kids figure out how to play. On top of the helicoptering, the language they use with their children is really starting to get to me.  Some of the words and phrases I hear all the time are:

  1. SHARE.
  2. Don’t do that.
  3. Be Careful
  4. If you don’t stop you are going into a TIME OUT.
  5. You’re going to hurt yourself.
  6. Do you want to go on the slide?
  7. Stop running.
  8. Keep your voice down.
  9. Say Thank You.
  10. Say Please.
  11. Say you’re Sorry.
  12. GOOD JOB.

And so many more…

These are all phrases my husband and I do not use with our son. We believe that each and every one is basically meaningless. I’ll explain.

Manners: We believe that manners should come from an authentic place. They should mean something. My husband and I model this for our child in hopes that he will see that when we say ‘thank you’ we are actually grateful.

Sharing: We don’t tell our child to share. We let him resolve his own conflicts. If I was starving and eating a sandwich and someone grabbed it out of my hands, I would be upset too. Why can’t we let our child decide when he’s finished playing with something? Just because someone else wants to use it? By not making him share our son seems to be frequently giving things away to other children.

Time Outs: A temporary fix that teaches children absolutely nothing about their actions. And shames them. According to the book ‘Unconditional Parenting’ by Alfie Kohn, the Time Out concept initially comes from a study on rats in the 1950s that was called ‘Time Out from Positive Reinforcement’. What positive reinforcement are you giving a time out from? Love, attention, connection? That seems awfully dangerous.

Options for playing: They’re children, this is what they do best. They don’t need us showing and taking them around a playground- and constantly introducing ways they should play. This essentially cuts them off from their imagination and natural curiosity.

Saying ‘Sorry’: We never tell our child to say sorry. We want him to be able to cultivate real empathy for others. When a child is forced to say sorry, it is completely meaningless for them. For example, if our son hurts someone (which has rarely happened) we say to him, “Do you see how he feels when you stepped on his toe?”

Good Job: When I hear this used, which is all the time, I cringe.  A child can be doing the most mundane of things and not have a care in the world about it, and a parent will use ‘good job’. This sets the child up to feel like a failure. I say this because if a parent isn’t saying good job to EVERYTHING, the child will internalize that when the parent isn’t saying it, they must not be proud or love them. This is seriously setting your child up for some issues around love and acceptance. Just think about it. There are ways to acknowledge what our children are accomplishing without using ‘good job’. The English language is loaded with words! We like to mirror what we see for our child, that way he gets acknowledgment- but we only do it when we see that he’s looking for it. For example, if he’s jumping on one foot and he gets really excited and looks at us for acknowledgment, we say something like, “Look, you’re jumping!” We mirror rather than praise.

We call ourselves ‘Idle Parents’. We read the book, Idle Parents, by Tom Hodgkinson before our first son was born and we both exclaimed, “Yes! That’s us! We strongly believe in letting a child have a real childhood. If our son is disgustingly filthy by the end of the day we know that we haven’t interfered too much in his play. We stand back and let him be, while keeping him safe and giving him TONS of love. The language we use with our child is deliberate and we always think about how our words/actions could affect him later in life. We are not perfect parents by any means. However, we strongly feel that by consciously parenting, and not reacting on automatic, our children have more of an opportunity to be and do who/whatever they are supposed to be in this life, and feel unconditionally loved and develop real empathy for others. That’s our goal.

About Randi Levinson

I'm a dedicated Mama to my toddler and pregnant with my second. I have a virtual Marriage Family Therapy practice (phone and skype sessions) so that I can be a full time Mama and my clients don't have to find child care to have therapy. I am truly passionate about pregnancy, birth and parenting.

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Wendy G says:

I disagree with not teaching your children manners. My parents always gave me reminders to say please and thank you. They always said please and thank you but usually had to remind me. Modeling is great but I see nothing wrong with also reminding your child about proper etiquette.

Also, if your child hurts somebody it is good to show them empathy but again, what is wrong with asking the child to apologize? See, the little girl is sad because you hurt her. It would make her feel better if you said sorry.

Your parenting style obviously works for you. That is great. I think your post comes off as a little judgmental on other parents. You “fear other parents” because they ask their children to say sorry or please and thank you? Isn’t that a little extreme? Don’t you want your child to be surrounding by people that are different from him and you? I might not agree with other parenting styles, but I will respect them and try and takes bits and pieces from everyone. I’ll never shield my child from other parents, children or judge them because it’s not how “I would do it.”

Michelle says:

This is definitely not lazy parenting … It’s actually quite difficult to keep oneself from falling into what the author calls “automatic” parenting (empty praise, relying on threats like time out). And children do learn manners if we use them ourselves. Mirroring can work both ways — exemplifying the manners we wish to impart as well as to offer meaningful reflections on our children’s activities instead of the constant “good job.” It’s a tough parenting model and requires a lot of self-awareness, empathy and attention. I hope to get better with practice and appreciate your reminders and examples from your family.

Thank you Michelle and Jaime. It does take a lot of effort to parent this way- but I know that not only my child benefits, but I’m becoming a better human being because of it. I appreciate your comments.

Jaime says:

There are a lot of good points in this post. I don’t think it is lazy parenting at all. I think it probably takes more effort to actually stop and think about the language you are using with your child and to take a step back and not intervene in certain situations. My daughter is 27 months and I never formally taught her to say “please”, “thank you” or “I’m sorry”, in fact it felt really artificial to prompt her to do so. However, she uses all three daily in her interactions with people; my guess is she hears me use these words and the context in which I use them. I think one of the biggest learning tools for our children is the example we set for them. You can teach a parrot to say any word or phrase, but it lacks meaning when there is no feeling or comprehension behind it.

I completely disagree. A child is not going to learn manners if they aren’t taught when to say “sorry” and “thank you”. A child is not going to magically figure out how to properly function in society without guidance. I was almost offended by this. Idle parenting or lazy parenting?

The way we parent is the opposite of lazy parenting. We think about nearly every word that we use with our son, as well as with each other. We strongly believe in these principles and we are witnessing our son becoming a person who treats others with respect. He doesn’t grab or hit; and he shares, without us telling him to. He watches his parents express real gratitude when he hears us use ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ and by our modeling our son consistently says Please- even when he’s asking to breastfeed. I can only speak from my experience, but this seems to be working just as I thought it would.