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My mother keeps calling my 9 month old daughter "Good girl" when she does something that pleases her. I was initially fine with this, having had it in my own upbringing, but my wife pointed out its not good for her self esteem etc.

I asked my mother not to say it and she was at first indignant, but relented. However it keeps 'slipping out' and really annoys me and my wife. My mother claims she has had 50 years as a teacher using it as praise. She also tries to negate it by saying that my daughter will understand the intention. I'm pretty sure children take everything literally.

I don't want to raise my daughter thinking that she is only a good person when she does things that impress us. It also just sounds weird, like something you would say to a dog.

How can I address this situation?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.Any further discussion should take place there, not in comments. – Rory Alsop May 13 at 13:31
  • It seems to me you and your wife are making a big issue out of nothing – user May 18 at 16:46
  • @user I recommend heading to the linked chat for this kind of comment, where that concern has been discussed in almost unplumbable depth. Nobody should want that tedious and tendentious conversation to end up back on this page. – deworde May 25 at 6:39

11 Answers 11

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The developmental science on not using "good girl" is, as I understand it, pretty nascent and theoretical; I can find a lot of blogs about it, but anything with actual research beyond the "Buy my parenting book" leads back to a single 2013 study which makes the fairly intuitive point that if you want your children to work hard, you need to praise them for work.

It's not clear from that study how much this applies to a nine-month old, nor is it clear how much the effect of second-degree caregivers such as grandparents has an effect compared to parents, nor, to be clear, is one study of ~50 toddlers showing correlation proof of causation. It may be that the kind of parents who use "well done" are also the kind of parents who focus on effort as role models.

Nor does the study actually show that you shouldn't praise individual characteristics! The only measured effect is that if you don't praise work, they'll struggle more with working towards solutions when struggling.

The researchers didn't find that focusing on individual characteristics stunted the children in any way, so there's nothing wrong with a kid believing she's the smartest, prettiest, best little girl in the whole wide world (right?). - Atlantic summary of the article

So you really have two issues:

  1. The impact on your child of random praise from her grandmother:

  2. The tension between your parenting styles and your mother's.

From literally everything I can find, this is not a meaningful effect as long as you and your wife are praising sustained effort and concentration. A lot of the information I found on this says that it is impossible to overpraise a small child and you should be actively looking for opportunities to do it, while even later on, it's more important to praise throughout the process than to limit praise.

Your mother's also not wrong that if you're praising the effort as well as the result, it doesn't matter what words you're using. Yes, children take things literally, but they learn the literal meaning from how the words are used. You are their role model for this stuff, their behaviour will be far more impacted by what you demonstrate than what you say.

A crucial thing to note is that, unless your mother is acting as primary caregiver (e.g. your daughter is living with her for the full week), the impact of your behaviour and criticisms is going to bury whatever effect Grandma has when she visits.

So I wouldn't worry too much about it undermining your own policy. What's more important is that your mother respects your parenting style, but from what you've written, it seems like she is, even if she slips up some times. A lot of grandparents would have taken offence at the implied criticism and ignored it completely.

If you can find a way to assuage your own and your wife's anxieties about the impact (hopefully the article above will help), you can hopefully grant her the slack she needs to be able to interact with her granddaughter on her own terms, while you structure her development the way you want to.

Also, be comforted that you can teach your daughter these values directly..

It's taken practice, but [the author's daughter] responds to this comment now with ease. "I'm always good," she'll say with a coy smile, "sometimes I just misbehave.

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It's very hard not to praise a child you love when they're pleasing you; I still do it, and I'm in my seventh decade and know better. So, empathy.

But your wife and you are right that praising the person - not the product or process - has negative outcomes. This has been studied extensively, especially in childhood education. In teaching, there's a saying: "Praise the process, not the person." (E.g. "That took a lot of effort on your part, and it paid off. Great work!")

When Parents' Praise Inflates, Children's Self-Esteem Deflates shows that there is, indeed, a lot of research on this topic.

In one paper on learning, 2 relatively small groups (N~300 each) were studied from 1st to 8th grade. One study was strictly about educational goals and isn't helpful in this case, but the second was:

In Study 2, perceived parent process praise was the only significant (positive) predictor of children’s learning goals, whereas perceived parent person criticism was the only significant (negative) predictor of incremental theories of intelligence. [emphasis mine]

When you make it person oriented as opposed to process, it doesn't help, and it may cause harm.

TL:DR: Motivation to try things can be affected by the type of praise a child receives (person or process.) Praising person hampers the motivation to work hard at tasks perceived to be difficult.

Many papers, including this one from 2013 have shown that person-praise leads to something called entity theory of intelligence, that is, the child believes that one's abilities are fixed, so if the child's perception is that they are likely to succeed at a task, they'll try, but if they think it's outside of their ability, they won't. This is opposed by the incremental theory of intelligence which assumes that abilities aren't fixed, but are instead malleable, and can be improved by effort and hard work. As a result, the child who thinks effort/hard work is the key to finding a solution is more likely to attack a task they perceive as difficult, since it's not about their ability, but about potential.

This research examined if mothers’ day-to-day praise of children’s success in school plays a role in children’s theory of intelligence and motivation.... mothers completed a 10-day daily interview in which they reported on their use of person (e.g., “You are smart”) and process (e.g., “You tried hard”) praise. ...The more person praise mothers used, the more children subsequently held an entity theory of intelligence and avoided challenge over and above their earlier functioning on these dimensions. [emphasis mine]

This page has lots of articles listed that examine the effects of person-praise in children as young as 1 year of age.

How can I address this situation?

If your mother respects research and (soft) science, show her the abundance (and it is abundant) of research about this subject. If you can convince your mom to keep most of her praise about process, then you can forgive the occasional slip up of person-praise.

Use google scholar for your searches, including key words such as "praise", "process", "parenting", "motivation", etc. You'll find plenty of support.

Edited to Add: It's not wrong to praise the person when they actually deserve the praise (e.g. you know your child is a kind person. "You're a very kind person. It's one of your many good qualities.") It's an observation, it allows your child to be seen and appreciated by you for who they are. What we're discussing in these answers is equating a child/toddler's value with pleasing us. That's not a very good thing.

My eldest child, now in his 30s, recently confessed to me that he still fears displeasing me, not because I react badly, but because it makes him feel bad about himself. This broke my heart; I want him to live the life he wants to live, and I love my all my kids unconditionally. My oldest was already beyond toddlerhood when the first study of this kind came out, but I did praise the process often; it seemed intuitive. I also praised the person. As Robert Burns said it best, "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley/ An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!" We are damned if we do and damned if we don't, but it doesn't mean we should not try our very best.

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I'm pretty sure children take everything literally.

Taking things literally actually requires quite advanced linguistic skills. Young children learn most meaning through context. At the age of 9 months, 95% of the message is going to be coming from the tone of voice, visual cues, and situation.

"Good girl/boy" is an idiom that most of the time does not mean "you are a good person" but rather something along the lines of "I am impressed/pleased by your behaviour". One of the human brain's main processes is taking both external and internal indicators of success and using them to make beneficial changes. Saying "good girl" is much more valuable than saying nothing at all.

I'm not saying that wording has no impact. It can, especially as a child starts to become capable of more complex reasoning. But trying to control your mother's wording is, in my opinion, over-engineering. It's really not that important that she should be fighting her nature, not to mention 50 years of experience.

If your child had particular self-esteem issues that seemed to be inflamed by your mother's approach, that would be something to address. But as it is, I don't think there's anything to be concerned about.

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    A heartfelt "good girl" from the grandparent would be better than a 'thought about' other comment. Your daughter is nine months old at that point... the more people she feels loved by the better. If she were six+ years old, it is a different conversation. – J. Chris Compton May 21 at 14:16
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I personally have used a bunch of phrases in congratulating my daughter on her success. I think the important thing is not the exact phrase used, but the relationship with the child and that their efforts are acknowledged and that they feel safe to be able to try, and loved no matter what.

If the particular phrase bothers you, instead of telling your mom to stop, encourage her to use another phrase in its place, and model it yourself. Some of the ones I like:

"Well done!"
"That was a good choice!"
"There you go!"
"Thank you for your help"
"You're so helpful!"
"Well done for persevering!"
"Thank you for listening"
"Thank you for cooperating"

When she was younger I stuck with a couple of simple ones (I used "There you go!", or "Wow, look at you go!" a lot. It is a word commonly used in my home language for this purpose, I don't know if it's used much in other countries). I did also use good girl, but I don't really like to use it a lot for the same reasons as you do.

She probably won't remember anything from this age, so if your mother does slip up, it's unlikely to be something she'll really be influenced by. The most important thing is that your daughter feels safe to try, feels loved and accepted as herself no matter what, and that the non-verbal part of the praise (hugs, smiles) is there too!

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  • yes hand her a list if she says the same thing too often. Nice work, good going, well done, wow great, fabulous, fantastic, super..." – DeltaEnfieldWaid May 11 at 21:42
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    Another alternative would be something like "You're being such a good girl!" Might be a decent compromise. – Andrew Brēza May 12 at 13:54
  • Children do better with repetition (if you disagree look into the show Blue's Clues and why it is formatted the way it is). Pick one or two, consistency is a good thing for children under 2 years. – J. Chris Compton May 21 at 14:20
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"Good girl"/"Good boy" are statements of affirmation. Let your poor mother praise her benighted granddaughter if she wants!

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    @T.E.D. I stand by my answer. It's the only one that gets to the heart of the issue. Perhaps it might even do some good. – TonyK May 12 at 20:01
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    @TonyK - no. Personal attacks are not allowed, hence the edit. You may stand by the answer, but this site will not. Please read our tour and How to Answer pages again to understand how we expect members of this community to behave. – Rory Alsop May 13 at 7:55
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    @RoryAlsop - Neither are frame challenges unless invited by the OP. – anongoodnurse May 13 at 17:02
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I don't have an answer addressing the developmental science or pedagogical aspects, there are other answers doing quite well on that front. What I can add is informed insight fed by personal experience. Please bear with me while I get to the point:

My mother was a teacher, and was very diligent at guiding us to acquire skills growing up during the 70's: from the simple "yes!" and "no!" encouragement or discouragement as small kids, progressing up to reading along, flash cards, reading comprehension, critical thinking, debate, and so on.

Feedback was clear and unambiguous, and as we grew up it became more and more detached and objective. I give her credit for bringing us up in a way that has, for all my life, helped me be a dispassionate analytical troubleshooter. It has formed my character and given me a modicum of success in my chosen career.

But what it lacked was warmth. Independent of her parenting style, she had difficulty expressing intimacy; she credited our fabulous babysitter with teaching her via example how to be an affectionate mom, because she didn't grow up with it.

Lacking that warmth, I grew up also not being very good at expressing it, and the lack of "good boy!" was part of that. I grew up craving that personal approval that wasn't expressed.

I'm not saying that you should parent your kids only with personal encouragement on acting well (and, as another answer here says: praise the process, not the person), but I feel that you should do it together with also hugging them frequently and telling them that they're good kids just because.

If you also teach them to laugh when they screw up, they'll learn that they're good kids because they do well, and because they're themselves, and that mistakes are a fun part of learning and living.

That has been my parenting style through five kids. I think I've done well: a few of them are supremely confident, a few have anxiety issues, but they've all learned that they're lovable, that doing things well cause pride, and that doing things badly can be fun.

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Yes, as a young woman I was told this many times as well. It's good that your wife is taking a proactive stance. But I have a strong enough sense of self now that I don't take the comment too seriously and I reserve judgment on the person saying it to myself.

Both your mother and your daughter (now right now, but later) are intelligent enough to make their own choices and understand their feelings and emotions. You can speak to your daughter and teach her that it is not what people say to her but how she reacts internally that gives her strength and growth.

Now, if she does not like what her grandma is saying to her, she can explain it to her grandma herself when she is older. I am sure her grandma will respect that rather than you trying to 'shield' her from realities of life. Not every one is going to say nice and perfect things to you. i.e., Teach her how to stand up for herself when she needs to.

You are trying to control your mother's speech and this method of 'attack' is only going to cause you both frustration and anger. This is not wise. You may or may not be right, but it is not going to solve the issue.

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During her childhood, and continuing all her life, your daughter will receive feedback in a wide variety of manners. Some will praise/criticise her as a person, based on perceived features, some on her effort, some on her outcomes, some on random stuff nobody can predict. Over time, with luck, she will develop her own internalised sense of when shes done well or not, and this will support her future life and wellbeing.

The exposure to many styles is unavoidable - parents, relatives, parents friends, nursery people, doctors, her own friends, religious organisations (if any), bullies, overheard stuff, things she sees and hears in media. But she will largely look to you, her parents, to contextualise it and give her clues how to "really" feel about it, how to process or deconstruct it, what is good or poor feedback, what the "real" feedback is.

She doesn't understand that verbally yet, but even young, she knows who is closest to her, and that what matters is your consistently and support, and that you can help her feel good.

Later, when she reaches an age that she is judged for her actions and gets feedback on actual choices (being angry or not, crying or smiling or not, sharing or not), that is much more when feedback style of the kind in this question starts to matter. When its important to separate feedback on a process and choices, from feedback on looks or innate static qualities. But by then, you'll be able to say to her, your own style of feedback and it'll be more common and more the norm. Even later, in a few years time, you'll be able to explain after leaving grandparents, that this wasn't really good feedback, because what matters much more is (that she tried, that she was kind, that she was thoughtful, whatever it may be). She will get it, by then. And your guidance will be what pervades her feedback context.

So what of all the other feedback I mentioned at the start?

She will get that, all through her life, from others. If her core feedback is healthy and caring, it will guide her well, and all this other feedback will provide necessary flexibility, because it's going to happen anyway. She will ultimately need to learn to handle it, shrug it off, not let it in (if harmful/damaging), contextualise it and so on. She needs that skill. Like so many harmful things, trying to avoid all of a damaging thing, can cause more damage than accepting and mitigating it, or using it to learn healthily from.

So don't worry that one problematic feedback area will distort her life and scar or harm her. At this age it isn't likely to do much, and your feedback will be far more pervasive and meaningful. Right now this is more about your discomfort much more than anything your daughter gets from it. Later, when she can understand nuance of feedback, you can explain that actually, this wasn't a good comment, and why, so she can internalise that, too.

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  1. Stop assigning your own meaning to it.
  2. Let go of it, your are only giving the action power. The emotions you feel are your responsibility.
  3. Allie your mother to be who she is and accept and liver in whatever form she is in.
  4. Have the realization that you are creating the outcome in your head. You cannot predict the future or read anyone’s mind. If you think other peoples view of igloos girl is addressing a dog, you are incorrect. Some people might. Many others won’t.

It’s a false narrative you have created where you look into the future and pretend to know what will happen. Your mind seems to be in a nervous anxious state.

Live in the here and now and allow your mother be who she is. Give up the control you don’t have and live in the here and now. Appreciate this time with more mother and begin to feel deep gratitude that she is in your life now because it’s temporary. Like everything.

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  • I think this is the best answer. If there really were a problem with saying "good x" we'd have a serious societal problem, which is not evident. Point 4 is especially important. – Lee May 14 at 7:58
  • @Lee - Look around you. We don't have serious societal problems? What country do you live in? My country (the US) has more problems than sea otters have hair (100,000–400,000 hairs per square centimeter, if you care to count)! – anongoodnurse May 14 at 17:13
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I've been adopting the principle of praising the behaviour or achievement rather than the person in my parenting and I can see the logic in this.

To me this debate can obscure a more important concern - making sure that I also provide unconditional acceptance and praise outside of any good behaviour or achievement. If most of my acceptance and praise is in response to good behaviour, I can still give the unintentional message that my child is only loved when they behave well.

Giving praise that isn't linked to behaviour can feel unnatural and awkward but it's very powerful if we can find a way to do this - e.g. "You are still the best cuddler in the whole world!" (parent cuddles child).

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I can't say I know anything about the good girl thing and there are lots of great answers that address that BUT I do know of the strife between parenting styles of a mother and grandma. So I'll address that here.

The first thing I want to say is as your daughter gets older they will be exposed to multiple caregivers, from teachers to grandmas to parents of their kid friends.

Being a new parent is hard and I can not stress how important it is to have support and alternate caregivers but also I understand the desire to want a consistent parenting style and for that style to be well...yours. Try and be sympathetic to your mum and your wife** in this situation. This will not be the last area of "friction" when it comes to parenting style.

Some examples of our parenting style that have caused/causes occasional friction "laughing at 'hitting'". If one of the kids 'playfully' hit my mum, she would just laugh as long as they were laughing. Another we had was "amount of TV", we had a 0 screen policy at our house at the time and mum would just let them watch what they wanted. We are also very strict on the amount of sugar they can have in the house. We also happen to be vegan and our kids happen to have a milk allergy.

As you can see that's a mixed list, there are somethings we occasionally have to let go of for the sake of our sanity and others you will not want to for the sake of your consistency / child's health and others were we absolutely have to teach the children to take responsibility too.

Decide which of those categories this issue falls into because I'm sorry to say you 100% can not have everything in the "we will not budge on this" category. You will drive yourself insane or push away every possible caretaker or possibly even worse push away potential child friends.


A: We will not budge on this

So obviously one thing that falls into this is for us "they can not drink milk". I've learnt the hard way that overloading another carer can lead to a slip up on this, most important of things.

Another would be the hitting. For this I made it very clear why it was important to us, in terms she would understand. "We don't want them to think hitting is acceptable, you laughing re-enforcing that hitting might be acceptable".

B Willing to let go of

For us, for a while this was telly and sugar. The kids didn't stay at grandmas much (due to ongoing conversations about other things in category A) so we felt it counted as a "treat", something we could allow. But as we got through those in cat A, and visits became more frequent it became more important. Then we started to again explain why it was important to us. We also explained to the kids that if they wanted to be at grandmas they had to accept that they couldn't ask for telly and they understood and after a few visits everyone formed the new habit of leaving the telly alone.

C. They can be somewhat responsible

Sugar, at Grandmas there are still more "treats" then at home but we still make a point that they are low sugar. However if they go to a friends house or a party we leave it up to them. They have been taught to always ask us if its ok to have X (forced by the milk allergy) so we get more control here then most, but we are still flexible (so they still have agency). We feel agency is important so for example with sugar have explained why too much sugar is a bad thing and allow them to choose. Another example would probably be veganism but at the moment they feel the same as we do and choose not to eat meat or lollies with gelatine etc but they know they have the choice each time and other care givers respect their choice.

So as it happens if Grandma does something like let them watch telly, they always let us know. For me I think this is why C is so important. If your kids know what is important to you and why, they tend to follow what you want (in early years anyway :) ).


So that's a bit of a ramble with examples, the point is you can't put everything into category A any more then you can put everything in B or C. There are caregivers we allow to "pillow fight" with our son for example, we feel this is just over the border of category A into B. When it comes to specific speech or action, we know how hard that is to police and we tend not to make it a hill to die on unless its really, really important. Remember for a long while yet, you and your wife will be the main people they look up to and take influence of. Even with regular visits from family.

Personally particular phrases (for example we try not to say our daughter is "so pretty" as a frequent complement) is something I would push into category B and over time I will teach her how to process that in the best way but only you can make that decision.

So in short

  1. Figure out what things you will let go of and the things you wont
  2. Whatever rules you want them to follow, teach them the importance
  3. In how they get treated / what gets said to them, teach them how to process it in the most positive way

**I get the feeling this particular issue is more important to your wife then to you, there are always going to be issues like this and times when its reversed and its always good to take the time to understand why a particular issue is important to the other. For example amount of screen time is more important to my wife then to me and (contradictory) teaching them computer skills is more important to me then to my wife.

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