When I was a kid, you heard “Good job” pretty much. Successful double in small league? “Good work!” 93% on a math test? “Good work!” In contrast, the phrase “Good effort” was reserved for… minor things. You hit, but… you tried hard. It’s a good effort, but not a good job.
However, the world of childhood roses has changed dramatically. Saying “Good job” has approached taboo status. The social media reports from parenting experts are full of advice to avoid this type of praise, in all its forms – nothing “Fantastic!” or “You’re so smart.” Instead, we encourage you to applaud effort, not achievement: “It’s great to hear you’ve worked hard on it.” Often parents are told that it is better not to say anything at all.
This advice is well-intentioned, but it can be yet another for parents to feel that we are failing. It can also be crippling. A few months ago, my daughter told me how she fared on a math test. Worried about saying the wrong thing, I just said “OK.” Which also did not feel quite right.
The underlying cause of the rose shift is more or less based on data. Perhaps the most famous and most cited paper is “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998. In this paper, Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller report the results of a series of fifth-grade experiments in which the students experimented with different tasks and were praised for either their intelligence or for their efforts. In general, they found that those who were praised for their efforts were more interested in pursuing more difficult problems and more likely to feel that they could improve.
Based on this and related research, Dweck introduced the world to the idea of ”growth thinking.” It is broader than this one element, but a key aspect is the idea of focusing on children’s efforts rather than their abilities.
This research is interesting and compelling. It is a strong argument for encouraging a growth mindset in school and helping children see the value of perseverance. What it does not – at least not directly – is to suggest that you never tell your child “Good job!” That leap – from interesting research to parental controversy – is a leap that the parent-industrial complex has taken entirely on its own.
The industrial parenting complex has a long track record of this type of overreaction. Think about the advice to talk to your baby all the time. It stems largely from the work of two academics in the mid-1990s. They worked with 72 families in Kansas across the income spectrum and found that the number of words children heard at age 3 were very different – by maybe 30 million words – across the socioeconomic spectrum. They and others argued that this exposure to language was the key to academic and social development.
These are extremely interesting results and they can suggest paths to why we can see inequality arise early in life. Of course, it is extremely difficult to separate coherence from causality here – there are other differences across families – but this evidence certainly suggests that it is important to talk regularly with our children. What this research does not say is that you need to tell about every diaper change. And that certainly does not mean that quieter parents do anything wrong.
I am generally a huge fan of the use of data in parenting. There are situations where good data is hugely valuable. An example is early allergen introduction. Within the last decade, new research on the question of how best to reduce allergies has made it clear that the introduction of common allergens – peanuts, eggs, dairy products – at very young ages dramatically reduces the risk of developing allergies. Exposing children to peanut products after 4 to 6 months instead of waiting until 12 months lowers the risk of developing peanut allergy by perhaps 70%.
This is an example where the effects are important, compelling and great. But there are many places where the data is just less useful. They are suggestive, but not crucial. Or the impact is minimal. The size of the possible benefit to your child of telling diaper changes is vanishingly small.
Despite this, so many data-driven parenting councils fail to distinguish between things that can make a big difference and things that should be determined by our preferences, our limitations, and whether we actually want to discuss poop with our infant. The result is that parents feel pressured to do things that could never have more than an extremely small benefit.
Sometimes our desire to use data – to over-consume it, in fact – is further confronted with the reality that data can simply be wrong. Do you remember the study that suggested listening to Mozart help students perform better in tests? How many people played classical music to their womb or bought Baby Mozart videos? How many parents played Bach in the car whenever they wanted the Beatles?
Although the results had been repeated, this was an overreaction. And in the end, the investigation did not hold up. It turns out that music may improve test results a bit – perhaps because it relaxes students before a test – but it does not matter if it is classical or not.
So sometimes we overinterpret data. So what? We skip the Beatles, talk more than we want to, and sometimes we lack words in response to a math test. But in reality, it’s small impacts.
Where I think they get bigger is when we start to distrust ourselves, when data-driven counseling generates anxiety. We all want to be good parents and we do not want to ruin our children. “Following the data” seems to lend a reassuring hand. But as parents hear more do’s and don’ts, there’s more pressure, more ways to fail.
Parents do not need more ways to feel like failures. Sometimes we just need to hear “Good work.”
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University. She is the author of “Cribsheet” and “Expecting Better.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion