Why saying 'good girl' or 'good boy' to kids is a big no-no
I can clearly remember the first time I heard that you shouldn’t say “bold girl” to your child.
I was chatting to a friend who has children around the same age as mine – they were toddlers and babies at the time. She said, “You know the way you’re not supposed to say ‘bold’ anymore.” I hadn’t heard this parenting newsflash. I was quite taken aback.
“Why not? Who said so?” I asked.
She told me one of the minders in her child’s crèche had said it. Neither of us could work out why. We’d grown up hearing the word “bold” (not about ourselves of course, ahem) and it was a word that tripped off the lips whenever a child threw a toy or hit a sibling. So at the time, I dismissed it outright as political correctness gone mad, although I wasn’t quite sure how it was even politically correct.
But something must have lodged in my brain. I found myself less and less inclined to use the word bold, even without being sure why. I guess instinctively, something told me that maybe there was a reason for it. I told the story to my husband, and he stopped using the word bold too. And actually, we didn’t miss it. Things ticked along perfectly well without telling our small children they were bold. It forced us to focus on actions rather than labelling – unconsciously, I guess, we had figured it out. So whenever someone threw a toy or hit a sibling, we explained why they shouldn’t do it, rather than telling them they were bold. It felt good, and it made sense. We were doing okay at this parenting business.
Then I discovered parenting on the internet – blogs and websites and experts and forums and Facebook groups. Article after article about how to bring up baby. Suddenly, there was reams and reams of new information out there; some of it confirming what I was doing right, some highlighting what I was doing wrong, and some making absolutely no sense at all.
The one that surprised me most was the news that we shouldn’t be saying “good girl” or “good boy” to our children. What? I could see why telling them they’re bold isn’t helpful, but surely telling them they’re good, is, well, good?
I ignored it for a while, but just like first time, something lodged in my mind and I became more conscious of it. Unfortunately (or fortunately) cutting the “good girl”, if I was going to do so, would be much more difficult, as it’s a much more frequently used term. I counted one day last week, and in the few hours between homework and bedtime, I said it 17 times. If Operation No More Good Girl was going to happen, it would take some work.
But first I needed convincing. Why on earth shouldn’t we tell our kids they’re good? Parenting coach Val Mullally (Koemba.com), author of Behave: What To Do When Your Child Won’t explains:
“It’s not just the bold type label that’s unhelpful in parenting, but likewise the so-called ‘positive’ ones are unhelpful for the child – labels like ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’ – because we use labels when the child is going along with our agenda. So does that mean when we’re not using them that the child is not being good? In other words, maybe right now he wants to play with his toys and just because you want to do something else, that doesn’t make him not good.”
Reading further online, there is also a school of thought that says “good girl” or “good boy” has become an empty, meaningless term but could at the same time create praise addicts. Indeed, I see that in my own case – I say it constantly, for any random act, which could forge a situation where my children crave the “good girl” comment, and grow into adults who constantly need affirmations from others.
On the flip side, they may become fearful of criticism and afraid of failing. We all know a perfectionist who needs validation for every small thing they do – I don’t want my kids to grow up like that.
It is also arguably manipulative – I say “good girl” when my kids get into the car, or put on their shoes, or tidy up their school books. So it’s not because they’ve done something amazing that took huge effort – it’s because they’ve done what I want them to do. Does that mean I’m using “good girl” to mould them into compliant children who do my bidding? Maybe not consciously, but actually, speaking for myself, there’s a little bit of that in it.
So what can we do instead? The general consensus in articles I’ve read seems to be that if we want to comment or praise, we should focus on the action and the effort, rather than labelling the child, Val Mullally explains.
"Notice when the child is being helpful but avoid direct praise – I think it’s far more helpful to comment on what they’re doing. So rather than saying ‘good girl’, say ‘thank you for putting the lunchboxes in the schoolbags, that’s what I call being helpful’ – I would comment on the actual task they do, so I’m noticing when they’re trying to cooperate and I’m commenting on that.”
Recently I’ve been trying “I like how you picked those colours for your drawing” or “You put so much effort into learning your spellings – well done” instead of “good girl” for everything.
And I fully intend to try “Thank you for putting on your shoes without being asked” – the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet. We’ll get there. Like so many other parents, I live on optimism and coffee.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working in financial services, or looking after the kids, Elissa, 8, Nia, 6 and Matthew, 4, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.