“You did it!”

Abundant Life Children posted about “4 Small Changes To Enrich Your Journey with Young Children,” including using the words, “You did it!” in place of, “Good job!” To some this may seem like an insignificant difference, or even semantics, but there is no question that the words we choose to use with children, and the real message behind them, really matter.

Being honest with children is a necessity that cannot be overstated. Small children are incredibly perceptive, so the intent of your words and the feelings you have underneath are obvious to them. When you say, “Good job!” while barely glancing up from your email in response to a picture they hold up, you may as well have said, “I’m bored.” Likewise, when you lavish their picture (and only the picture; the product of their labor) with praise that does not come from an honest place, you may as well have said, “It looks like every other picture you’ve done for the past three weeks.” Too much praise can quickly shift children’s focus from their intrinsic motivations (for example, painting for the joy of painting) to a need for approval. “Good job!” puts a gold star on the top of their work. “I can tell you worked really hard on this!” shows an appreciation for the (good, thorough, wonderful, difficult, all-around amazing) job they did. “You used so many different colors! Tell me about this picture,” can prompt a child to articulate and explore their own creative process or work (and, from a teacher standpoint, can promote a rich and wonderful exchange that unveils language and literacy skills). To me, it’s a measure of respect for children.

When students of child development are learning about working with small children and they’re being taught the theory and practice of why we encourage them rather than praise them, they often become self-conscious in their exchanges with children. When a child does something fantastic or shows them an example of their work, the college students may become completely tongue-tied as their brains quickly rattle through everything they know NOT to say. This is where I think honesty really comes into play. When a child shows me something they have created that strikes me as beautiful, I tell them so. I may tell them why it strikes me as beautiful or what I most admire about what they did, in the most genuine and specific way possible.

What about when a child shows you a picture they’ve done that’s honestly not-so great? Consider why it’s not their best work. Did they rush through it? Being honest with them does not mean being unkind. “It looks like you drew this really quickly!” you might observe. “What were you thinking about when you made this?”

It is easy to lose your footing in the encouragement versus praise debate, or to throw up your hands and decide that much too much thought has been put into a seemingly minor issue. At the end of the day, here is the way it all breaks down for me: Do we want children to do things because they’re seeking a gold star and the approval of other people outside of themselves or do we want children (future adults) to do things because they feel inside that it’s what they want to do? My goal for all of my students is that they know they’re good and smart and wonderful and beautiful and valued ALL THE TIME from deep inside themselves, not just when someone is there to see what they’ve done and stick a sticker on their shirt.

What a world we can create if we raise children to carry those feelings within themselves all the time and to realize how to cultivate that goodness and motivation from the inside! Think what they would pass to all those around them. Think what they could accomplish with the kind of persistence and courage that come with intrinsic motivation.

I’ve mostly given examples of encouragement versus praise as it relates to children’s artwork, so I wanted to share another kind of example, just for fun.

The other day I was with a group of two-year-olds as they were getting up from their naps. One of the things they do as they’re getting up and preparing for the rest of their afternoon is to get their shoes and socks back on. One of the children marched over to me, shoes and socks in hand, and proceeded to sit directly in front of me, saying, “Watch this.” She stretched her leg out in front of her and laboriously pulled on one inside-out sock. “See?” she asked me, with the beginning of a smile. “I see,” I said, “You’re putting on your socks.” “Yep,” she replied, and very slowly pulled on the other one before sliding her feet into her shoes (on the wrong feet, I will mention, only because it seems relevant to my story) and jumping up from the floor. “LOOK!” she cried triumphantly, a huge smile on her little face, “I DID IT!” I smiled back and echoed, “You did it!” Beaming, she ran to the snack table and sat down with some other children, filled up to the brim with satisfaction for her own (fantastic) accomplishment. I walked away with a big smile on my face for having witnessed one little girl who KNEW from the very tips of her toes to the top of her head that she was pretty fantastic. She needed nothing more from me than to have me beside her as witness to her work. She didn’t need to hear that she was good and smart and independent because she feels all that and more from within.

This will serve her well as a teenager, we can all agree. Let’s go ahead and foster that intrinsic motivation so that small children who grow into bigger children and adolescents and adults will know how to face doubt and uncertainty within themselves: strong and head-on. With honesty.

There is an ever-increasing body of scientific research surrounding this subject, which may be of interest to some. A few links in that direction follow:

A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation [pdf]
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions [pdf]
Motivating Learning in Young Children [From National Association of School Psychologists]
Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Early Childhood Classrooms [pdf]
Alfie Kohn explains praise as a way of “doing to” rather than “working with” people.

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2 thoughts on ““You did it!”

  1. Thank you for this! I had a discussion with a group of care providers last week, and this is some of the specific language they were looking for. Do you have a facebook page connected to this blog? Best! Emily

  2. JG says:

    Thanks, Emily, I really appreciate your feedback! I don’t have a Facebook page for this blog yet because it’s all pretty new 🙂 Hopefully soon! – Jenn

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