I sometimes wonder how many times in a day small children hear "good job." It is so ingrained in the way we talk to kids, but in the Montessori classroom, you will not hear that phrase.
This is not to say that we don't offer positive reinforcement and encouragement, but our language is different. Montessori teachers try to use phrases of encouragement that protect the child's intrinsic motivation, and that focus on the child's process rather than the end product of his efforts.
"Good job" implies that we are the ones who judge our children's work and behavior, rather than empowering them to reflect upon their own efforts.
There are many ways to offer positive reinforcement that help your child evaluate themself. Here are 10 to try!
1. “You worked for a long time on that.”
When your child brings you a picture or shows you an elaborate block creation, try focusing your comments on their process, rather than the final product.
Let them know you saw how long it took them to make the creation and how hard they worked. This emphasizes to the child that creative process, concentration and their willingness to try new things are what matters, not how their final work looks.
2. “What was the most fun part of making that?”
Asking your child questions about their work shows them that they are the one who should be judging what they create, not you. It keeps their process from becoming adult-driven. The goal is for them to make and create things for the joy of it and to challenge themself, not to please you, or anyone else for that matter.
3. “What do you like best about your work?”
Prompt your child to be their own critic. Ask what they like best about their creation. Help them build the habit of reflecting on their own progress and skills, rather than always looking to others for praise.
4. “Tell me about your picture.”
Often when children bring us a piece of art they've made, they just want to share it with us and talk about it. They don't necessarily need or crave any real feedback from us. Simply asking your child to tell you about what they've made will show you're interested and give them a chance to tell you about what they've been working on.
5. “How did you choose what colors to use?”
If your child is a bit older, ask more specific questions about their process. Ask how they decided what colors to use in their picture, or what type of blocks they used for their structure. Show that you're genuinely interested in their process, and help them think through it on their own.
6. “You used so much detail!”
If your child isn't satisfied without some sort of feedback from you, find something specific to praise, rather than a general "good job." Comment on how they painted the whole page, covering every inch in color. Notice how they used so much detail that you really can tell it's your house they painted.
This type of comment lets them know you really see what they've done and helps them appreciate their own work in a deeper way.
7. “That was so helpful.”
Good behavior is another time when it's so tempting, even automatic, to say "good job." Try saying something more meaningful and commenting on what exactly you liked about your child's behavior.
"That was so helpful," or, "Thank you for helping" are good phrases to use when your child cleans up, opens the door for you, or helps you with household tasks like folding laundry or putting away dishes.
Children love to be part of the community and to feel like they are helping in a real way, so let them know!
8. “You got dressed right away today and we had extra play time, that was fun!”
Commenting on the positive results of your child's good behavior can be a powerful way to cement in their minds what a positive experience it was to make good choices. Help your child notice all of the positive effects of their actions.
9. “Your sister looked so happy when you read her that book.”
When your child is kind to someone, help them notice how it makes the other person feel. Let them know that their hug or kind words made your day. Tell them how happy their friend looked when they gave him a turn with his bike or how proud their little sister looked when they showed her how to water the plants all by herself.
We often comment on how our children's negative behavior makes people feel, but it's just as important to help them notice how their positive actions impact others.
10. “You put all of your toys away, everything looks so nice and neat.”
Comment on the specific thing your child did that you appreciated, and how it was helpful. This is a much more meaningful way to show your appreciation for your child's efforts than a blanket "good job."
There are so many meaningful, sincere ways to show our children that we appreciate what they do. The hardest part of branching out beyond "good job" is breaking the habit.
We are simply used to telling children "good job" for every little thing they do. While this is certainly meant to be kind and supportive, it can, in reality, take away from their sense of accomplishment and over time, can encourage them to seek out adult approval.
Try noticing when you say "good job" and start thinking about something more specific, or less adult-driven, you could have said instead. With practice, you will form new habits and ways of encouraging your child. It will feel more and more natural each time you try it.