Thursday, May 08, 2008

compliments that count

I'm reading about the debate on complimenting our kids. The controversy involves educator Alfie Kohn 's assertions that some forms of praise used by parents and teachers are harmful. I don't agree with a lot of Kohn's tenets and arguements but I do agree with him that there are preferred ways to use compliments as positive motivators.

And I hope Paula Abdul is reading this. As an American Idol viewer, I cringe each time it is her turn to give constructive criticism and feedback to the contestants, especially those who know they didn't give such a great performance. Her gushing, global praise, "You are just you and you are beautiful!" is an excellent example of what not to do.

So for Paula and parents and teachers who are trying to be a help and not a hindrance to the emotional wellbeing of those we are granted influence, here are some tips.

(1) Be sincere. Find something, even if its the smallest, most seemingly insignificant behavior that you believe belongs in the plus column of life skills and praise that with a genuine feeling of joy. Find that joy and convey it in your words and voice tone. It's there, even if its buried beneath a pile of frustration, fatique and disappointment. If its phony, stale or token praise, its not effective.

"Thank you for telling your sister there is gum on her seat. I feel so much pride and relief when I hear you looking out for your sister."

(2) Praise about a specific behavior or intention, not larger, global aspects or traits:

"This hand stitching on the hem is so neat and even."

NOT: "This skirt looks wonderful! Good job!"

(3) Praise what your child is actually doing, not what you believe she is overall or personality wise.

"You are picking such pretty colors for your painting! I'm so excited to see how it all comes together"

NOT: "Well done! You're a wonderful little artist!"

(4) Compliment about growth and process, about the small steps and effort toward an achievement.

"Its great seeing you studying in your room with your door closed. You are really putting in some effort on doing well on your test tomorrow. Hooray for you."

NOT: "You are so smart. You are going to ace the test tomorrow!"

(5) Avoid praise that induces competition.

"What a nice dive! Your legs were straight that time."

NOT: "What a dive! You're almost as good as your big brother!"

(6) Praise something you believe is important to the child. Something meaningful to THEM. Sometimes we focus too much on things that mean very little to the child but mean a whole lot to us. The bookworm who is praised for their batting average, for example. Again, we're not helping the child increase their feelings of positive self worth when we make it clear something they are NOT doing is more valuable to us. In an indirect way our message conveys, "you're not good enough the way you are."

(7) Try indirect praise. Start by asking a question instead of issuing a statement. "What did you do differently to make the eyes in this drawing look so real?" Again, the effort and progress is noted.

I know that my kids have picked up on my distracted attempts and phony praise and have let me know it. "You don't really mean that, Mom." Or "Yeah right, Mom! You didn't even look at it!" This happens more often than I'd like to admit.

Kids may feel demeaned when they are given a half-hearted, blase "good job" instead of our full attention. And the goal is not giving our child our full attention at all times. Not at all. We parents have busy lives with our own interests and obligations. Kids can get saturated with or grow too dependent upon too much attention. So for those times when we cannot (and don't need to) give our undivided attention, we can instead say, "I don't have time right now to appreciate what you've done. Please show it to me later when I'm able to look more closely at it."

A nod to Coert Visser for his Solutions Focused suggestions on complimenting effectively.
In addition, Carol Dweck, PhD at Stanford University has also researched and written about the effects of praise.


Anonymous said...

omg.. just let paula critique how she wants. just because she is nicer than simon (who btw is getting paid to be mean, which means, he is just playing a character) doesnt mean she isnt being honest! anyway, it is obviously working since idol is nr 1 for 7 years in a row.

Mary said...

I will come back to this post regularly as there are several lessons in it for me! Particularly the one about asking the kids in a positive way to show me something later.

(PS I watch American Idol here in Australia and agree with you absolutely about Paula! For what it's worth!!)

Anonymous said...

I have to say I agree -- as the parent to a kid with low self esteem many teachers think what they say is great -- but many many times it has crushed my kid

and i have learned many of these tips the hard way too.


shrink on the couch said...

anon, I don't doubt she's being honest. Just that her gushing is not terribly helpful to the contestants.

mary - I will join you in revisiting this post many times over. I need constant reminders.

jeanne - yep, btdt the hard way. p.s. is there an easy way?

HP said...

Having been on the end of such gushing praise where it was absolutely unbelievable - I KNEW I hadn't done well - I have to agree that it is counterproductive in that it does sounds insincere. It would be so much more valuable if the praise highlighted something specific as Coffeeyoghurt suggests..

Having said that, I've done it myself...thanks for such a useful post, Coffee Yoghurt, it's made me think twice before I open my mouth...

Fabulous blog CY ;)



shrink on the couch said...

"Fabulous blog CY ;)"

you're crushing my self-esteem, HP

Dr. Deb said...

I think it is always best to compliment the behavior not the child. "Good girl" always feels wobbly to me. I prefer," What a good listener you are."

Know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Kids need to work a little bit to earn their praise. I think it does a disservice (don't know that I would go as far as to call it damage) when you praise EVERYTHING, even their half-hearted efforts. They need to feel worthy of the praise for it to be genuine.

Anonymous said...

That was an interesting and practical list. I have copied it as it is a very useful reminder. I suspect I am guilty of thoughtless methods of praising my children on many occasions. My mother was not big on praise so I have to be very careful not to overcompensate with my children - they spot it immediately when I am just saying stuff and don't really mean it.

Being Bipolar Sucks said...

I don't think there IS a easy way coffeeyogurt

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I've also done some research into motivation and praise and you make a lot of good points. We really don't want to thwart the move toward intrinsic versus extrensic motivation--and too much praise and reward can definitely do that.

JCK said...

I always find this a facinating subject. And I have a hard time doing the right thing. I'm hopeful that by working on 2,3 & 4 my kids will be earning the right kind of praise by the time they are on to me. :)