Her hair glistens auburn and I think, You’re so pretty.
She cracks a clever joke and I respond, You’re so funny.
She completes her assignment and I smile, You’re so smart.
On the surface these are words of love meant to hold her close. But digging a little bit deeper and thinking a titch more long-term, these are impossibly high standards that no one –no one– can live up to.
I learned this lesson in college when I studied how efficiently words mold.
I learned it again in graduate school when I read everything that I could get my eyes on about self-esteem.
I learned it yet again as a teacher when I took courses about building student confidence.
And I forgot it all once I became a mother.
Intoxicated by newness and adoration, I fell in love with my babies more than I ever thought possible. They pulled at my heartstrings and brought out the protector in me that I didn’t even know was there.
I wanted to build them up. Toughen them up. And love them up. I needed to surround them with nothing but goodness and strength.
What I knew as a teacher, I forgot as a mother.
My friend Dana, a phenomenal teacher and mother, reminded me to keep learning and continue practicing parenting when she posed, “People read and learn everything they need to know about jobs and hobbies, but when it comes to parenting, when was the last time that most people read a book? Heard a speaker? Changed what they did simply because it wasn’t working?”
So I did exactly what Dana suggested. I heard national speaker Erin Walsh, author David Walsh‘s daughter, speak about teaching our children respect and self-discipline in the 21st century. And among the many gems that I gleaned, the information about helpful versus hurtful compliments really stuck with me.
Sometimes we just want to snuggle our kids and tell them that they’re loved to the moon and back again. We should give into that desire. Often.
But praise is different. When it comes to flattery, there is a technique to be used. Below are four tips to compliment our children in order to build their self-esteem.
4. Praise specifically. Use praise to point out exactly what you saw that was good. You’re so pretty tells my children what I think of them, which is only moderately important. I can tell how much you brushed your hair tells them about grooming, which to me is an important skill.
3. Praise sincerely. So often we compliment as a reflex. Look your child in the eye and mean what you say. As an adult, I can distinguish between thoughtful and “just saying it” compliments. I bet that you can, too. Which one means more to you?
2. Praise intermittently. That’s nice, I love it, great job just aren’t always necessary. Love all the time, praise with a purpose.
1. Praise the effort, rather than the ability. Look for repeatable actions. You’re so good at baseball-cooking-Math– is not repeatable and feels impossible to attain if a new skills is difficult to learn. You worked really hard on that! is repeatable and actionable. When you give this compliment your child will know exactly what to do next time in order to do well. She or he will know to do their best.
Teaching the value of working hard was by far my biggest take away from the evening. It’s not always a choice to be good at what you try. But, it is always a choice to try hard and work hard. And, that is a value that we can teach our children via compliments.
What do you think about purposeful compliments? Have you tried this method? Has it worked for you?
This is an original World Moms Blog post by Galit Breen. Galit is a Mama of three writing her first book about raising children spiritually outside of religion. Galit can be reached regularly at These Little Waves, by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter, and Facebook.
Photo credit to Lori Davis.