The good news is that Harper’s hearing test went swimmingly. Although the line on the machine was still flat (no pressure in the system means no pressure peak to test), she turned her head to see the puppet at even some of the quietest sounds. She also said a bunch of words, showed that she knew where the doors were and bits of her body and so on and so forth. The audiologist was thrilled. And kept saying “good girl”. Which brings us to *that* post… about unconditional parenting and the enervating jabbering of “good job” that is a constant hum in the background of modern childhood.
We first heard about unconditional parenting on an attachment parents community on LiveJournal. Shortly after that, I tracked down and read Alfie Kohn’s “Five reasons to stop saying good job”. I still haven’t actually read the book he’s written. This was enough for me. With a mammoth effort, I started resisting my seemingly innate impulse to praise every minor effort my daughter made. I slipped frequently in those first weeks.
For those of you who are reeling with horror right about now, we’re not talking about some flat world with no love or affect. We’re talking about removing the drone of “good job” and the awful implications of “good girl” and “good boy” (that there can be a bad girl and a bad boy and that your actions make you one or the other, forever). My niece (let’s pretend her name is Jessie), when she was only three, did something — I can’t remember what — and then in a tiny voice said, “Jessie’s a naughty girl”. It was heartbreaking.
What we wanted to replace it with, ideally, was a narrative of the world our daughter was growing up in. For one thing, this would give her access to a variety of descriptions to understand her abilities and actions. We said, “You put the blue block on the red block! Which block would you like now?” and “You turned the light on! And you turned it off! You did it by yourself!” and while we were at it, we said, “Oh look, you’ve spilled your water. Now we’ll have to mop it up!” rather than “Silly girl! Your water is everywhere!”
I’m more likely these days to say, “that was clever” or “you’re very strong” because it’s so very tough not to fall into these patterns. When my mother came to visit, I couldn’t help but notice that she said “good girl” about eight times in 15 minutes. I only noticed this because I’d stopped saying it. During our trip to the US, I noticed that everybody says “good job” constantly. It becomes a litany. If the child only ever hears these two words, how will they have nuance to describe their lives?
I deliberately chose an ungraded undergraduate degree for myself because I knew that I am someone who will perform for raw scores if they are available rather than exploring and experimenting which I will do given the freedom. I thought I would underperform and not challenge myself if all I had to do was sit an exam and get above 80%. It’s a lot harder to get detailed critiques from a teacher where they have been drawn into your work, where you have made them think and question and engage with what you are attempting.
That’s what I’m aiming for with my daughter. I want her to aim higher than “good job”. I definitely want her to understand that none of her actions make her good or bad, no matter how “well” she “behaves” or how often she scratches my face because she didn’t get what she wanted. I want her to engage me and for me to engage her. She generally tries to scratch me when I’m falling down on that latter one, when I’m not on my game.
And don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame our favourite audiologist one bit for saying “good girl” a few too many times. In this culture, there are parents who would see her as cold if she didn’t.