At three-and-a-half years old, Maya* is an absolute delight. Wearing polka dot rain boots, she splashes in parking lot puddles, her ringlets bouncing, and a smile of sheer joy spreads across her face. Before the day’s end I am in awe of her thoughtfulness, creativity, logic, and imagination.
“Good job!” I tell her almost continuously, sometimes from a place of true amazement but other times simply out of habit. On the third day of my visit, one of Maya’s moms teases me, “G-o-o-d j-o-b,” she says, spelling out the phrase like she does for not-approved-for-children words. Gently, she asks me, “Have you noticed that we don’t tell Maya ‘Good job’?” No, I hadn’t noticed. She explains that they don’t use this phrase because it is results-oriented rather than process-oriented. At first, this is tough for me to wrap my head around. Isn’t saying “Good job” encouraging? Isn’t positive reinforcement, well, positive?
In the realm of Christian parenting, parents know that they are called to love their children unconditionally and that in doing so, they mirror the unconditional love that God demonstrates toward us. In the article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’” author Alfie Kohn also identifies the necessity of loving and supporting children unconditionally. The fundamental problem with the phrase “Good job!” then, is that it is conditional. It sends the wrong message.
Maya’s moms might explain their parenting philosophy like this: Maya’s worth is not measured by what makes us pleased; her value is simply and solely based on the fact that she is our daughter. We don’t want to control or manipulate her in order to get her to comply with our wishes (even if that is what’s best for her), we want to engage her in conversation and strengthen our relationship with her. We will not burden her with the pressure of “keeping up the good work” but rather will seek to reassure her that there is nothing she can do to make us love her more and nothing she can do to make us love her less.
Just as Maya’s moms love their daughter unconditionally, my parents also loved me unconditionally. However, they had a different parenting philosophy. When I was little, my dad gave me my fair share of spankings and time-outs, which mostly taught me that obedience was presumed. Despite having inherited his stubbornness, I eventually started to be on my best behavior the majority of the time. Throughout elementary school, we went to family camp for a week each summer. I remember how my dad was my number one cheerleader shouting “Good job!” when I made it to the top of the rock climbing wall. I knew he was proud of me. As far as grades were concerned, my parents always said that the grades didn’t matter as long as I did my best. It was rare that I didn’t get an A. Like all parents, mine had both strengths and weaknesses. Looking back on my childhood, I now realize that much of my upbringing was performance based. Nevertheless, I was confident and secure in my parents’ tremendous love for me. Because they loved me through all the mistakes I made and introduced me to Jesus, at a young age I knew both conceptually and experientially that God loved me unconditionally too.
Even though Maya’s moms aren’t Christians, in some ways she is still benefiting from godly parenting. I imagine God explaining to Maya how He feels about her (and about each of us): Your value is simply and solely based on the fact that you are my child. Your worth is not measured by what makes me pleased. I do not want to control or manipulate you in order to get you to comply with my wishes (even if that is what’s best for you). I want to engage you in conversation and strengthen our relationship. I will not burden you with the pressure of “keeping up the good work” but rather will seek to reassure you that there is nothing you can do to make me love you more and nothing you can do to make me love you less.
Does that sound familiar? It is the same message that Maya’s moms are sending her by encouraging her with phrases other than “good job.”
Before Jesus even began his public ministry, God declared over him, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17). Jesus hadn’t even done anything yet! But God is pleased with the relationship – Jesus as his son. We too are invited into this relationship; God longs to embrace us as his sons and daughters. Of course, just like children, we need guidance, and as Maya’s moms have discovered, it is impossible to entirely avoid value judgments. That being said, before any list of commandments is spelled out in the Bible, God always first reminds us of who we are – chosen and beloved children. It is this relationship, this identity, that is a Christian’s foundation.
Without expressing it in any religious terms, Maya’s moms are showing her the kind of unconditional love God has for her. Thankfully, God graciously reveals Himself through any who will be open to let that kind of love flow through them, not just through the lives of those who wear the label “Christian.”
* Maya is not her real name.
photo credit: Nico Cavallotto via Flickr, cc