By Annie Garrett, M.Ed. (Estimated reading time: 7 minutes)
When I started taking infant parenting classes back in 2017, the first thing I learned about was Descriptive Commenting. The technique was deceivingly simple: instead of saying “good job” to your child all the time, narrate what they’re doing. Why? Because vocabulary. Because intrinsic motivation. Because growth mindset. You know, good things. So I tried it. At first, it felt a lot like playing that game at the baby shower where you can’t say “baby” or “shower.” Prior to this, I had no idea how often I said “good job.” As I’ve observed other parents over the years, I’ve noticed that the overuse of “good job” is pretty common amongst those of us raised in the US.
Six years later, I still find myself using Descriptive Commenting more often than not – on a daily basis, even. I can’t exactly say I’ve “canceled” good job. It’s ingrained in me still and comes out here and there. But I’ve learned to follow it up with descriptive commenting, and I truly believe my daughter, now six, has benefitted.
When we discovered that my son’s language development was mildly delayed at age one, we began working with early intervention. Through this, we discovered Rachel Accurso, better known as Ms. Rachel, mother of a language-delayed child turned “educational” Youtuber, whose story was told by the New York Times this past July. Her content is packed with the specific techniques our coach recommended, so we began cowatching it with our son. To my surprise, she regularly concludes her vignettes with a big, hearty “GOOOOOOD…. JOOOOOOB!!!!!!”, and I realized it might be time for a reset. Parenting science, like all science, evolves.
Is descriptive commenting still recommended, and what else should the modern parent know about language development?
For insight, I reached out to Jazmin Rambeau, pediatric Speech and Language Pathologist at the Seattle Therapy Network. Below, background on the topic and highlights from our conversation.
First of all, what is descriptive commenting?
Descriptive commenting is a form of communication in which the adult simply narrates what the child is doing, kind of like sportscasting. The technique is used by speech therapists to build language; it is used by play therapists to encourage child-directed play, and it is useful to parents, too.
What are the benefits of descriptive commenting?
Descriptive commenting helps to build vocabulary and expand upon a child’s conceptual thinking. “Kids learn by hearing you, making comments, and labeling things in your environment,” explains Rambeau. Because descriptive commenting requires the adult to observe and narrate, it has similar benefits to engaging in child-directed play. Because it is about observation rather than evaluation, descriptive commenting is felt to build intrinsic motivation in place of external motivation. The term “praise junkie” often comes up here; descriptive commenting aims to build connection between parent and child while also being an antidote against creating a dependence on external validation in your child.
What does this have to do with saying “good job” or not?
While descriptive commenting is much broader than one phrase, it promotes the practice of replacing a nondescript, evaluative phrase with rich, authentic commentary. Explains Rambeau, “While you could say ’good job,’ you could also say ’Wow, you worked hard, you put that block on top!’ Your tone of voice is helping them to feel the way they want you to feel when you say good job, but you’re giving them the rich language and telling them what to do more of. It also helps kids to be resilient, because if you praise the hard work, that applies to anything, instead of isolating a single action. Like saying ‘Wow that was really brave of you,’ instead of saying ‘good job’ for kicking the ball to another child on a playground.”
What does the research say?
Research conducted by the renowned psychologist Carol Dweck over multiple decades has linked descriptive commenting to growth mindset. This is because children who are encouraged in their process rather than judged on their outcomes are more likely to become intrinsically motivated, persistent, experimental. Those who are praised for their intelligence are more likely to develop a fixed mindset, the belief that they either are or are not intelligent, which has been linked to a lack of intrinsic motivation and an avoidance of failure.
But why is it SO HARD to practice something SO SIMPLE?
Many current parents were children during the eighties and nineties, when the “self esteem” movement was in full swing. Educators and parents were told that if they only praised their children, they would become competent, confident people. Constant praise became ingrained in our interactions with children. However, longitudinal research has not supported this practice. And like any habit, it’s hard to break. “This is hard!” adds Rambeau. “Even this week, I caught myself saying this and it takes a lot more effort… I think it’s okay to say good job sometimes, we just fall into ruts and such with automatic statements. It’s a filler like ‘um’ and ‘like’ and ‘you know.’”
So how about Ms. Rachel? She bases her lessons on her own son’s speech therapy, so how can I make sense of this?
It is not by accident that Ms. Rachel is currently one of the globe’s most successful creators of infant/toddler content. “Ms. Rachel,” says Rambeau, “is not as visually stimulating as other kids programs. She does a good job of modeling short phrases and helping engage the kid. I’ve heard from parents it can be a nice supplement, but nothing will be as effective as that 1:1 time with the child in that focused play scenario. So while I’d rather it be Ms. Rachel than the typical show, she isn’t a speech therapist, and isn’t as aware of language development as a professional. That’s important to be aware of.”
You said that Ms. Rachel is good at modeling. What is that? Tell me more!
“Modeling is matching your child’s language level” explains Rambeau. “I hear parents putting too much focus on asking questions to get their child talking, especially with focus on academic concepts like colors and shapes. It’s still beneficial to ask questions to support understanding, but putting more focus on modeling 1-3 world phrases will help your child hear how to put words together and then copy you. Instead of “What’s this?” and they say ball, and we say ‘good job,’ an example would be to say ‘Oh, I pushed the ball!’ Or even just ‘push ball’ if the kids is only saying two words, especially if we want them to copy us… As they get older you want them to learn more advanced concepts so you can ask questions, and I think parents jump to questions too early, so we coach parents on modeling.”
So how do I learn more? And what do I do if I need support with this?
To learn tips on descriptive commenting, look for articles that translate the research of Carol Dweck into parenting practice, such as this one on better ways to praise kids. And if you, like me, are concerned that your child could be delayed and are interested in getting professional support, consider exploring Early Intervention and/or calling up a speech language pathologist, such as The Seattle Therapy Network. Says Rambeau, “A major development in the field is the importance of early intervention. The old school way is the ‘wait and see’ approach. If you’re not hearing first words by 12 months, seek early intervention, if you’re not hearing 15 words by 18 months seek early intervention. It’s really accessible, there are a lot of providers, and it can help make a difference early on.”
As for my son, one year into speech therapy, he is now communicating at age level. It has taken a lot of 1:1, regular visits with an early intervention coach, plenty of descriptive commenting and modeling, and even a little support from our friend Ms. Rachel, who is perfectly imperfect, just like we are. And for all that, I will use a two word phrase that I’ll never give up: thank you.
Annie Garrett, M.Ed.
Annie is an Infant Parent Educator at South Seattle College and the Manager of the Early Childhood Education Bachelor of Applied Science Degree at North Seattle College. She is a rather passionate fan of tiny humans and the not-so-tiny humans who support them. She also volunteers as a PEPS Group Leader. Reach out to her if you or your PEPS Group want to learn more about this topic or Infant Co-Op (one of Seattle’s best-kept secrets!) at firstname.lastname@example.org.