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I have a neighbor who is a non-native in English. When she sees my little son playing around, she often exclaims: "Good boy! Goooood boooy!"

It always feels inapropriate. This phrase seems to be used exclusively for dogs by native speakers.

Do native speakers ever use "good boy" regarding a child?

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    People say good boy/girl referring to their male/female pets because they see them as their own children.
    – user 66974
    Jan 24, 2023 at 19:19
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    "I'd think 'Good boy' sounded patronising or very dated nowadays (UK NW)" ditto here (US NW). I'm the parent of a small child and only use and hear "good job". But I also don't know what kind of resources we could find that would prove this better than anecdote.
    – Juhasz
    Jan 24, 2023 at 19:26
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    In the UK we say "Well done!" rather than "Good job" - at least, I do. Jan 25, 2023 at 9:20
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    @Chenmunka Only if said sarcastically, and comparable phrases like ‘good work’ or ‘well done’ work the same way. If someone says to me without sarcasm, “You’ve got all that done already? Wow, good job!”, then it’s neither patronising nor offensive – just an Americanism creeping in. Jan 25, 2023 at 16:21
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    May be less awkward in a sentence than as an expression on its own. Similar examples to "Were you a good boy for Nana while Mummy was shopping?" are common enough and don't sound patronising.
    – mcalex
    Jan 25, 2023 at 17:21

5 Answers 5

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Yes, it's still in use. However, in my experience, it's used most often alongside baby talk, only sometimes with the youngest school age kids (5–9 or so), and very rarely with kids older than that.

Around Christmas time, when Santa is working on his lists, it's pretty common to ask kids if they've been "good boys and girls". See for example these letters to Santa from four and five year olds.

"Good boy/girl" is not, however, universally accepted as a good thing to say to a child. See Study: Praise Children For What They Do, Not Who They Are.

The article The English Expressions Good Boy and Good Girl and Cultural Models of Child Rearing provides a very thorough review of the subject and its historical origins. Apparently it doesn't really have parallels in other languages.

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    I can't hear a person called "good boy" without thinking of the Teen Queens hit single from 1958, "You Good Boy, You Get Cookie."
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 25, 2023 at 4:52
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    I used to hear it all the time in a private school in Sommerset, UK where I worked. It is true that the teachers use it as a compliment for younger aged students. Sometimes though, the children were giggling and joking about the similarity with what your say to your pet :-)
    – fev
    Jan 25, 2023 at 14:08
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    I would add that it's not unnatural, just not common. To me it connotes a sense of old-school/old-timey paternalism that can come off as heavily patronizing or condescending. Certain select situations or characters can avoid some of the negative feelings (Santa, as mentioned, as he's an old, jolly, grandfatherly figure and it's something of a set phrase for him) but for most others, at best, I would imagine a somewhat stiff, old-fashioned authority figure (e.g. Ron Swanson).
    – Aos Sidhe
    Jan 25, 2023 at 16:11
  • "The English Expressions Good Boy and Good Girl and Cultural Models of Child Rearing" is weak on the historical theology of Puritans -- preferring what other people said about their theology over what their theologian wrote, and reversing cause and effect.
    – david
    Jan 26, 2023 at 7:36
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I'm an American native speaker of English. I have four children and have never in my life said "good boy!" or "good girl!" to them. It sounds like you're talking to a dog.

I have said things like "were you a good boy for Grandma", but not recently: that's baby talk and I probably stopped saying it around the time they could respond in full sentences.

Any non-native speakers of English, I would recommend that you not use it with children that don't have fur. :-)

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The expression appears to be still in use, especially for the reasons stated below.

As per MacMillan Dictionary:

good boy​/​girl

used for praising a child or a pet when they have done something correctly

Have you done your homework? Good girl.

As per Merriam Webster

that's a good boy/girl/dog (etc.) idiom

—used especially to praise a child or animal for obeying Please pick up your toys. That's a good girl. Sit. That's a good dog.

As per Cambridge Dictionary:

there's a good boy/girl/dog! idiom (mainly UK)

used to show approval or encouragement: Tie your shoelaces, there's a good girl!

Examples from the Corpus (Longman Dictionary)

• I am Pa's best boy.

• Randolph worked his hardest, pulling away, while Santa delivered all the presents to the good boys and girls.

• He's a good boy, and he's very strong.

• I tried to be a good girl and stay out of the way.

• He coughed, told Oliver to dry his eyes and be a good boy, and walked on with him in silence.

• Good boys, good boys, good boys.

• He had been a very good boy indeed.

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    There's also "Be a good boy and get me my eyeglasses."
    – Barmar
    Jan 26, 2023 at 17:05
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    Rather telling that all three dictionary examples about humans picked "good girl", not "good boy". For some (patriarchal / sexist?) cultural reason, "good girl" is used a lot more widely and for much wider age ranges of girls/women. (Laurel's answer has links to some articles about the history and effects on a child's self-image.) Jan 27, 2023 at 15:01
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Native speakers often use "good boy" for children, but only for the very young, and only in response to some accomplishment (such as eating vegetables, picking up belongings, etc.). So the phrase may be "inappropriate" use of colloquial English, but not necessarily "inappropriate" in the sense of "creepy." Though that could happen, too.

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As mentioned in the other answer, it's certainly not incorrect for someone to use refer to a child as being a "good boy" or a "good girl". However, one thing that the other answer doesn't mention is context.

There is a level of ambiguity as to when "good boy/girl" becomes inappropriate, however, this ambiguity comes from the ambiguity surrounding when exactly a child is no longer a child.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a child in the following ways:

Child:

  • 1a: a young person especially between infancy and puberty
  • 1b: a person not yet of the age of majority
  • 2a: a son or daughter of human parents
  • 3a: an unborn or recently born person

Therefore, whilst it is true that the description is appropriate for a "child" is up to you discretion whether or not this is an appropriate description based on the circumstances.

With all this said, given the fact that you describe your son as a child, I would say that it is fine in this case. This is especially the case given the fact that the woman in question does not speak English and so there is unlikely to be any malicious intent here in any case.

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    Well, one crucial thing appears to be clear. The expression is still used.
    – user 66974
    Jan 24, 2023 at 19:35
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    It is still in use, but I would say that it's ambiguous at what point is becomes unacceptable as there is no clear cutoff point @user66974
    – FD_bfa
    Jan 24, 2023 at 19:37
  • I agree but it is hard to draw a line in that respect. I’ve always heard it used for small children and pets.
    – user 66974
    Jan 24, 2023 at 19:41
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    I think we agree for the most part. I would just emphasise the point that for older children it's less obvious whether or not it's acceptable. I think another good point (that I didn't mention in my answer based on the context given in the question), is that the tone also plays a large role in whether or not it's being directed as a compliment or being said in an inappropriate way @user66974
    – FD_bfa
    Jan 24, 2023 at 19:45
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    If you say “Good boy”, and the child says “you’re so cringe”, then you know it’s time to stop using it.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 25, 2023 at 21:39

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