translated by Alissa Evans
There are dangers hiding in the ordinary, there where everything appears normal, and sometimes even necessary.
“Good job,” “good girl/good boy,” “great work,” “you’re the best…” – they are just words, simple phrases. They seem completely harmless, even nice, friendly.
However, they mask a threat.
From the moment a child is born, she is aware that her survival depends on the grownups around her, the ones she will call mom and dad as soon as she has the tools to do so. And then there are all of the others – aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers etc.
Every child that is born knows perfectly well that the most important fight for their survival is carried out in the field of love.
In order to survive, one must be loved, in order to be loved, one must create a lasting bond with the person she or he loves.
In order to do so, a child is willing to do anything.
From the moment she is born, the newborn baby modifies her behaviors and actions based on the signals she receives from her surroundings.
When I do something good, they tell me good job.
When they tell me good job, the grownups around me are happy.
When the grownups close to me are happy, I have a tighter grasp on life.
In other words: gratifying adults leads to survival, love is earned through how I act, if I am good, I am loved.
And when we tell them good job?
In most cases, the possible outcomes are the following:
– we reinforce a behavior that we believe to be socially acceptable (“good job blowing your nose instead of licking your dripping snot!”);
– we encourage progress (“good job starting to read”);
– we triumph as parents (“good job staying quiet and sitting still at the tenants’ assembly”) TRANSLATION “thanks for not being pesky and for making me look good – like a GOOD parent – in front of the others”);
– we highlight positive episodes that we hope will be repeated in the future (“good job eating all of your broccoli”).
The actual and rather serious problem with using these words (and all of their synonyms) is that we skip right over the important step of the action. In other words, by reinforcing, highlighting, or pointing out a behavior, we are judging the other person and this triggers a dangerous and lethal mechanism of confusion between doing and being.
Between being oneself and that which others want you to be.
Between doing something because of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.
And please do not start in with the story about how “we all grew up one way or another”; on the contrary, this should just be more proof that something went wrong somewhere.
Perhaps it is just my impression, but I believe that today’s adults suffer from fear of judgement, they stonewall themselves for fear of failure, they look for love where they are actually just looking for recognition, they confuse themselves with their work, their failures with their self-identities.
Barraging a child with praise, good jobs, enthusiastic applause, creating for her an inflated self-image, a sense of infallibility, is the best way to ensure she will become a fragile adult, insecure, scared, neurotic, plagued by a sense of inferiority, an inability to meet the standards that were constructed for her.
The fear of not doing a good job is then directly linked to the fear of not being loved and therefore of not surviving.
Take a look at the book “The Drama of the Gifted Child – The Search for the True Self”, just two pages a day, no more. Alice Miller explains in detail the possible consequences of being “good” kids, that is, extremely sensitive children who have come to the aid of their fragile parents.
Count how many times a day you tell your child good job, then count how many good jobs you seek for yourself.
And now what?
Easy, start to change!! Practice at home: every time you are about to say good job, stop to think about what led you to say it and verbalize the mental process you have gone through. For example:
– Julia shows you her drawing. Instead of praising her, try saying, “It looks like you had a lot of fun, am I right?”
– If you are about to say good job to your child for progress she has made, try using her name and expressing your proximity, i.e. Luke has just done a somersault after having tried for a very long time. You could say to him, “How wonderful that you succeeded in doing a somersault after so much practice. You must be very proud of yourself!”;
– In the morning when you drop your child off at school, instead of telling her, “be a good girl today”, try saying, “I hope you have a wonderful day. Be yourself.”
And remember, don’t confuse the need for recognition and to be seen with a need for gratification from an adult.
It is very easy to lead a child where we want; it is very difficult to bring a lost adult back to where she started.
When life was pure, driven by the desire to be.