“Good job” and other generic phrases: rethinking how we praise our children

By Alex Sutherland

Positive reinforcement is essential for a child’s development. However, the seemingly harmless act of using generic phrases, for example “good job”, “well done”, and “you’re so smart”, to praise children may not be the best practice for children’s holistic development. Here’s why:

‘Fixed’ mindset vs. ‘growth’ mindset: Generic phrases can imply a fixed judgement, suggesting that an action is
inherently positive or negative. Rather, encouraging a growth mindset involves praising effort, perseverance, and
learning from mistakes as opposed to labelling outcomes as strictly ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Lack of specificity: When we use generic phrases, for example telling a child they did a “good job”, it can leave them wondering what exactly what was commendable. Instead, providing specific feedback helps children to understand their strengths and identify areas for growth, fostering a more nuanced understanding of their actions and

Encouraging external validation: The frequent use of generic phrases may inadvertently teach children to seek external approval. Instead of relying on their own intrinsic motivation, they may start performing certain actions solely to receive praise, potentially hindering the development of mastering learning dispositions and skills.

Overuse dilutes impact: Constantly hearing generic phrases could dilute the impact of praise. Children may become desensitised to the verifiability of them, making them less meaningful over time.

Opportunities for learning: Using more specific language allows adults to turn moments of praise into opportunities for learning. Instead of a generic phrase, such as “good boy” or “good girl”, providing detailed feedback may open the door for new learning, for example “thank you for helping me. We finished cleaning quickly between the two of us.”

Building resilience: Constructive criticism is a crucial aspect of cognitive and emotional growth. Shielding children from feedback beyond generic phrases may impede their ability to handle constructive criticism, potentially impacting their resilience and adaptability in the face of challenges.

“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be
intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning”
– Carol Dweck

Strategies for positive praise
We have grown up under the presumption that ‘good’ children are those who are cooperative. However, we know now that the language we use as adults can contribute to more enriching and meaningful learning experiences for children. The Montessori approach to education emphasises employing a variety of descriptive phrases to ensure that praise of positive behaviour remains meaningful. Some examples include:

Instead of…Try…
“What a great drawing”“You worked really hard on that drawing. I like the
colours you picked.”
“Good job!”“Wow, I didn’t know you could hop on one foot. That
takes a lot of balance!”
American psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck finds that using descriptive praise supports children to develop a ‘growth mindset’ – and in return children are more likely to work towards mastering important learning dispositions and life skills, including resilience, problem-solving, and perseverance.

Other descriptive praise phrases you may like to try-out:

I noticed how hard you worked on that. Thank you for waiting.
It must feel great to be able to do that all by yourself.You’re being a really good friend.
Thank you for helping.Tell me about what you did/made.
You didn’t give up, even though it was hard.You did it!
What do you like best about your work?I can tell you really enjoy dancing/jumping, etc.


  1. This advice has made me think more about how I praise my child.
    It’s not just about making them feel good in the moment, it’s about helping them grow. By being more specific in my compliments I’m aiming to boost their confidence and curiosity, making learning and tackling challenges something they’re excited about. It’s a small change in how I communicate, but I’m hoping it’ll make a big difference in encouraging my child to be resilient and eager to explore and learn.

    Thanks Alex,


  2. Just read and loved this article.
    Thank you Alex for your contribution to Hamilton Child Care. You are are an exceptional, and valuable member to Early Child Care Education l. The children love you😄

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