Mother with two children

If “good girl” or “good boy” is not the right thing to say, what is?

If “good girl” or “good boy” is not the right thing to say, what is?

By Emma Daniels

Throughout my career as a Kinder Teacher, there have been phrases and ways of teaching that have come in and out of vogue. As more research is conducted into early childhood development, our understanding of children and how their development is impacted by the things they do, see and hear has expanded. And as such, we adapt to give them the best chance for positive outcomes. But with all this new understanding, there have been a few things that have not changed;

  • Children thrive with freedom
  • Children are born curious
  • Children will get into everything the second your back is turned
  • And saying ‘good girl/good boy’ is not an effective behaviour management tool

So what’s so bad about ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’?

It’s not so much that it’s a ‘bad’ thing to say, but more the message that it sends when you do say it. This could be a whole research paper and I am sure there are some floating about, but for today let’s just look at a couple of reasons why ‘good girl’ and ‘good boy’ is not the most effective or inclusive phrase to use. And let’s look at some alternatives.

Inclusion

What is it? No matter your race, gender, ability, medical or other need, everyone has the right to be included. Included in activities, included with language, included in decisions. Do you see where I am going with this? The phrases ‘good boy’ and ‘good girl’ do not lend themselves to inclusion. The language is inherently exclusionary. In saying them, you are assuming that someone identifies in a particular way. But also, what makes a good boy or good girl? If you have said good girl to one child and not another, does that mean the other child is a bad girl?

Impact

This one is the biggest one for me, personally. Saying good girl or boy with no context doesn’t really mean anything. It teaches children to seek out external validation and praise. It creates the belief that they have not achieved something to be proud of unless they get a ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’ from an adult figure. Over time it loses its impact and just becomes something that is said, an everyday phrase.

So what do you say instead?

“Bobby, I really like how you put your plate in the dishwasher, thank you!”

“Frankie, I can see how hard you tried to do your laces today, you are getting so good at that first knot! You must be so proud of yourself.”

Notice how in these examples I am talking about what I have noticed, letting them know what I appreciate or have noticed about what they have done. This allows them to begin to form an understanding of expectations, which they can then transfer into other parts of their life.

Or don’t say anything at all. Does it really require you to say anything? I encourage you to sit back and observe what your child is doing, watch as they grow and explore. It is far more valuable, long lasting and impactful for children to be intrinsically motivated. Behaviours are far more likely to be consistent when you are not there guiding them, when children are motivated to make good choices on their own, not for the ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl.’

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