Specific Reinforcement

Stop Telling Your Kids Good Job

Why specific feedback can change the way your child is reinforced 

How many times have you said to your child, “Good job!” Usually with exuberance because you’re excited about something they did. I’m not saying this is wrong. By the way, I don’t like describing things as right or wrong — Nothing about parenting is binary. We all know it is far more nuanced and complex. 

Good job is vague and there are better ways to reinforce your child. Consider how many times you say good job and ask yourself, what are you acknowledging? The more specific you can be, the better your child will be at recognizing the specific actions that are desirable.

girl keeping books
girl keeping books

For example, parents will often tell their child, good job, after they have cleaned up. Consider being more specific. What if you said,

“I love the way you took care of your toys. That is really responsible of you and it shows me you can take care of your things!” 

Another example — specific to older children — is how you compliment a good grade. “Mom guess what, I got an A in math.” The response is something like, “Awesome, great job!” Again, consider what you’re complimenting or recognizing. In this case, I always compliment my children’s work ethic or study habits. I don’t ever make it about the grade (I will share more of my thoughts on grades in another post). When my child says, “I got an A.” My response goes something like this: 

I’m so proud of the hard work you put into learning that tricky material. It’s amazing how you face a challenge head-on. Way to go!” 

This conveys a very different message. It’s important to highlight the reasons why they achieved success. If we only compliment the result — in this case the A — we miss out on the opportunity to highlight the process required to attain the desired outcome. 

Consider being specific when your child demonstrates an act of kindness. Avoid saying, “That was so nice. Good job.” Think deeper. For example, let’s say you observe your preschooler sharing toys. Specific reinforcement might sound like, “That was really kind that you shared your toys and gave your friends a chance to enjoy them!” Or more simply, “I love how you chose to share!” Again, you’re highlighting their decision to share with others. That is what you are reinforcing — the act of sharing.

Dad and son picture
Dad and son picture

My children love, and I mean LOVE, playing soccer. If they ask for feedback from me or their dad after a game, we highlight moments from the game. I always compliment their effort. A good work ethic is extremely valued in our home. After their effort is recognized I might say, “Your decision making in this game was incredible!” Or, “I love how you recovered after you lost the ball.” 

When you provide specific feedback to your kids, they are more likely to generalize the positive choice or action in a different situation. For example, think about the feedback I suggested when your child gets a good grade. We focused on their work ethic and how they address challenges. These characteristics are required of us in a variety of ways. Next time they’re facing a challenging moment — unrelated to school — remind them of how they have faced challenges in different aspects of their life.

Interestingly, with my own children, what started to happen was they began to do this without my guidance. Over time, they learned how to give themselves a pep talk and draw from previous experiences. 

Behavior management wo shame
Behavior management wo shame

These examples highlight the importance of recognizing the process. We are a results-oriented culture and I would like to see this pattern disrupted. The process — even if the desired outcome doesn’t happen — is where all the good stuff lives. When recognized, it is home to the most optimal learning. You can check out my post, process over product to explore this idea further.  


Try this out at home, and give your kiddos specific reinforcement. Share what you learned. How many times you were about to say, good job? What did you substitute instead? With younger children, keep in mind, it can be short, sweet and specific. I can’t wait to hear from you!


Hi, I'm Albiona!

I have over 20 years of experience working with children and families, first as an early childhood educator and currently as a pediatric speech and language pathologist. I’m also a mom of two amazing humans, a writer, and life long learner. My hope is to help parents reframe the way they interpret their child’s behavior while reflecting on their parenting journey.


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