It seems we adults have lost faith in children’s ability to play without direction, reinforcement — whether it’s positive or negative, approval or admonishment. Society encourages a non-stop barrage of observations and anecdotes that I suspect may be driving kids a bit crazy.
Imagine setting out to do a task, perhaps gardening. Before you even get out the door the other half jumps in and suggests you put on a different pair of shoes, but compliments you on your choice of jacket. The person trails behind you as you head to the shed.
“Well, dear, I know you want to do some weeding while you’re in the garden so you’d better choose the long, sharp tool — you won’t have much use for that spade… Why don’t you put that one back and use the green-handled weeding fork?
“You’ll probably want to kneel on something. No, not that. Now, I wouldn’t dig that one up — you’ll want to leave that. Here, this is a nasty one. Be sure to get this one out. Good job!”
Good job? How long would you last? Honestly, my spouse would be lucky to escape without a trowel hurled in his direction.
That’s only a small variation of what you hear on the playground today.
“Sweetie, now jump this way and you’ll be able to reach the monkey bars much easier. Yes! GOOD JOB! Now if you just twist your body while you swing… that’s it. No, that’s NOT it. See, now you fell. Well, there you are on the ground. Dust yourself off. Do you want to try again? Do you want some juice? How about the swings? The swings look more safe.”
It’s this eternal dialogue that takes all the fun out of play. There’s no room left for experimentation, wonder, joy, or a feeling of pride at having achieved something — particularly if it’s on the 10th or 11th go.
Children who are endlessly “good jobbed” will either cease to hear your words and the intent behind them or grow into people pleasers — unable to complete a task, chore or artistic activity without looking for external validation. Consider where a conversation can go after you “good job” a child. Nowhere. Instead, try commenting on what you see — how hard he/she worked to reach the top of that tree, the colours in that painting, or the energy behind that cartwheel. It may sound funny to your ears initially, but what you’ll get in return is engagement and connection.
Children need time to try, fail and try again. They need mental space to process their pleasure or dismay, to formulate ideas and strategize how they will conquer that hill, handspring or skateboard stunt. The joy should be in the doing, not in the appraisal.