Why “Good Job!” Doesn’t Cut It: A Montessori Perspective On Praise

Woman Showing Praise

First of all, who doesn’t say “good job!” to their kids? It’s a catch-all sort of praise that you can easily blurt out while you’re also skimming the news, chopping vegetables or peeking out of the bathroom to watch your child do some sort of jumpy twirly move that he’s obviously very proud of. Yet, praise can do so much more than prove that you’re watching what your child does. How?


Use Descriptive Praise

Rather than evaluating our children and defining their whole worth around one task or action, why not describe the positive behavior and encourage them? This is called descriptive praise.

A comparison of evaluative and descriptive praise helps clarify:

Evaluative Praise Descriptive Praise
“Good boy!” “Thank you for helping me. We finished cleaning quickly between the two of us.”
“What a fantastic drawing!” “You worked very hard on that drawing. I like the colors you picked.”
“Good job!” “Wow, I didn’t know you could hop on one foot. That takes a lot of balance!”

In the left hand column, evaluative praise is used. Here, you can see how the words determine whether the child has done something “good” or “bad.” There is judgement in these phrases. Especially with “good girl!” and “good boy!”, the child as a whole is evaluated for one single action.

In the right-hand column, the praise is much longer and describes the actions completed. Positive aspects are mentioned in a descriptive way. This is helpful for the child because they can recognize the benefits of their work. In the first example of descriptive praise, the adult points out that because they helped, a task was completed more quickly. In the second example, because the child worked hard, they were able to create a beautiful picture. Adults can even expose children to a greater vocabulary by using words like “balance” in their praise.

In the Montessori classroom, external rewards, including excessive praise, are discouraged. This is because the child should become internally motivated, recognizing the benefits and innate goodness of the work they do. This doesn’t happen automatically. Parents and teachers must guide the process and help the child learn to see the importance of each task performed in the classroom and at home, from chores to art, to math.

However, this goes against what society has preached for years. Somewhere along the way, parents and teachers began to believe that praise was very important, necessary even, to develop self-esteem. In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers published reports showing that children could perform much better academically if they had greater self-esteem. And praise was the way to get there. Many parents believe this today…

Isn’t Praise Important for Self-Esteem?

Children need to be built up and become confident in themselves. It is the work of the parents and the community surrounding the child to help them develop a healthy self-esteem. As indicated by Dr. Gwen Dewar, research shows that the youngest children, below the age of two, thrive on lots of praise and should be encouraged to become independent. But, after this point, praise becomes more difficult for parents to manage effectively.

Older children are much more suspect to the motivations of adults dishing out praise. They may wonder if the adult is trying to manipulate them. Additionally, praise for one completed task creates pressure for the child to maintain an equally excellent performance, causing them to choose easier tasks rather than challenging ones.

Some research even shows that excessive evaluative praise can result in narcissism. As opposed to encouraging a healthy self-esteem, they come to believe they are better than everyone else.

The Key is How We Praise

While evaluative praise has been shown to have negative effects, descriptive praise has not. Descriptive praise that focuses on traits children have the power to change (such as their effort, choice in strategy and attitude) has a positive impact. Children are more likely to take on challenging tasks and feel motivated to do so. Additionally, children grow to have a healthy sense of their abilities says Lauren Lowry, Speech Language Pathologist.

When we praise children for things that they don’t have control over such as their intelligence or being “good” (which is usually determined by an adult and is quite arbitrary), they lose motivation and feel helpless when a project or activity doesn’t turn out just so.

So, in order to help our children develop healthy self-esteems and learn to recognize the benefits of their efforts, use descriptive praise. Although it may take a bit more effort on our part, the results are worth it.

As you start using descriptive praise, be patient, it takes some practice. Read some more examples of descriptive praise and post them on your refrigerator. Soon enough you’ll be an expert.

How do you praise your child?

**Looking for more parenting advice? Read these posts about holding your ground and saying “no”. Also check this one out about avoiding mealtime tears.

24 thoughts on “Why “Good Job!” Doesn’t Cut It: A Montessori Perspective On Praise

  1. I’ve just recently started reading a book about Montessori methods so I love finding out more things about her principles. There’s a lot of sense in what you say here. When I was growing up my mother was always so supportive of us and she oozed pride in us, but I always lacked self confidence. I’d actually shy away whenever she talked about my achievements and I think it’s because I always felt it was too excessive. To me, there was always someone clever/funnier/prettier than me so anything she said always felt too… unbelievable I suppose. It means I’m quite careful about how I praise my own children. They’re still both young (eldest 2 and youngest 6 months) so I do praise them a lot without going into detail (mainly as if I speak too much my eldest just doesn’t take it in). But I do also spend time focusing on the how and not just the what. I think it’s so important they know it’s about the effort and process than the finished product. #fortheloveofBLOG

    • Thanks for reading! Yes, I think for the very youngest, simple praise makes sense. But it’s also important to consider the effects our words have on them as they grow.

  2. I have long since tried to align my parenting with Montessori, with varying degrees of success (Montessori bed was not a winner for us!). This post really made me think about how I praise my miniatures. I will definitely pay more attention to my words from now on, thank you! #fortheloveofBLOG #KCACOLS

    • Thanks for reading! Yes, I think everyone has to find their own path when raising their children. Glad you found it helpful!

  3. This post is so helpful. I have read before about the different kinds of praise, but I often still fall back on the ”oh what a lovely picture!” kind of response. I think it’s just laziness and not really been focused and engaged. Thanks for the reminder to be a little bit more thoughtful with my praise! #fortheloveofBLOG

    • Thanks for reading Kate! Yes isn’t it hard to remember? As moms we’re trying to do so much and taking the time to really engage means we have to think a bit more.

  4. Love this… and so clearly explained, thanks. My daughter has recently moved back to Montessori after trying kindergarten in mainstream education. I love learning more about it so I can be consistent at home. #bigpinklink

  5. This is a great post! I can see the points you make and it does make a difference. I am afraid that I tend to fall into habit of just saying “Good job” kind of praise. I am going to think about what you have written and make a real effort in using descriptive praise more. Thanks for sharing with #bigpinklink

    • Glad you enjoyed the read! While I don’t think the occasional “good job” is bad – it slips out! – it’s good to be a bit more conscious about what we communicate to our kids.

  6. I need to start implementing these! Right now, I tell my almost 2year old “good job” and he loves it! He even does a little happy dance when I say it. However, I know that later on, the phrase “good job” will become old and I’ll need to start telling him exactly what I’m proud of and why.

    I never thought of it this way, but it’s just like us adults. Sometimes we need to hear more than a “good job” after working our butt off to complete a task. We sometimes need someone to notice what we did that made the end result of our efforts so wonderful.

    • Definitely! And focusing on the effort involved is a great way to help our kids focus on their ability to influence how their work turns out.

  7. Hi Rachel, I do try and be thoughtful when dishing out genuine praise as it is all too easy to say ‘good boy, or ‘well done’ without giving it a second thought and children are not daft. However, I do give a sarky ‘good girl’ to my sixteen-year-old daughter when she finally does a chore she’s been putting off. It makes her smile and wrinkle her nose, but it also clears the air, if I’ve got cross.

    Thank you for linking up to the #MMBC.


    • Haha yes! I think every has their specific needs and if a “good girl” joking praise works for you and your daughter that’s great. But yes for the majority of the time focusing on the effort involved and the specific steps our children have taken really helps them see what they’ve done well.

  8. I’ve become increasingly interested in the Montessori way of things, but more and more because my son is leading my in that direction. He is very independent, and loves doing things for himself, so why not?! Haha, seriously though, this is such a GREAT article!!
    I really need to be working on HOW I praise my son, because I am totally guilty of just saying the generic “good job” when his accomplishment deserves so much more. Thanks for sharing!! <3

    • Thanks for reading! Feel free to check out more posts. I think you are already on the right track if you have allowed your son to lead you in the direction of Montessori…because Montessori is all about following the direction of your child. Of course, you must also guide and create boundaries, but noticing his needs and interests is a main component that will help you both enjoy learning! Glad you found this post helpful!

  9. This is so true! I try to give description praise but sometimes the good job spills out and I inwardly cringe! Still working on it….thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub with this x

    • Yes – it is definitely something that requires work on our end, and lots of practice. Thanks for reading!

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