My Kids Grow and So Do I


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Paying Compliments

How to Effectively Praise Your Kids and Steer Their Behavior

"Let me help you with those shoes" 
"Hold my hand tight" 
"We have to wait for the traffic to pass" 
"Do you want your blankie?"

     In much of our interaction with kids we’re on automatic. In our responses, instructions and questions we usually come from an every-day-type of consciousness, as illustrated by the examples above.

     Don’t get me wrong: most of the time it’s absolutely fine to be on automatic; life would become quite tiresome and unnatural if each and every comment had to be mulled over extensively before being expressed. There is an aspect of parenting, however, where deliberately planning and timing what you say greatly enhances your child rearing practice. That aspect is paying compliments. Ideally, a compliment is a positive reinforcer: a compliment motivates the recipient to increase the frequency of the behavior that called forth the compliment.

     When you, the parent, know how to pay compliments effectively, both your kids and you stand to gain tremendously.

     Literature on bringing out the best behavior in people and specifically in kids (see references below) shows quite a bit of agreement on what works and what doesn’t. Here I’ll share some of the strategies that have proven most effective in my life while raising three boys.

Six Features of Effective Compliments

Compliments reinforce desired behavior when they are immediate, specific, frequent, singular, relevant and genuine.

1. Immediate
Compliments are most effective when given immediately following the desired behavior.

2. Specific
Describe the desired behavior, or the accomplishment, and what it means. See examples below. 

3. Frequent
Make your appreciation count by expressing it often. 

     When kids are not told they are appreciated they are likely to assume the opposite. Do not overdo it, though, and try to stick to a 1:4 ratio, meaning: for every corrective comment you make, say something positive, such as a compliment.

4. Singular
A compliment is most effective when it stands alone, when it gets the full limelight. 

     Don’t mix positive and negative comments. As soon as you add "but + (critical note)", you have negated thecompliment's positive effects. Corrective statements have their place for sure. When offered at an appropriate moment and within the context of an open, honest conversation, they help clarify goals and motivate your child to perform at their best level. Expressed this way they actually increase the impact of your compliments.

5. Relevant
Only pay a compliment when it has been truly earned. Praise offered routinely will desensitize your children, or even worse, make them dependent on your constant approval. 

6. Genuine
Mean what you say. Faked appreciation is not going to cut it.


Consider the following examples:

"Thank you for bringing your plate and cup to the kitchen. That helps make my task easier." 
"Thank you for playing quietly while I was on the phone. I could give my full attention to grandma and I know she appreciates our courtesy." 
"You played the part of shepherd very convincingly. Aren’t you proud of yourself?"
"I noticed you waited for Gina. That was considerate of you." 
     These comments convey your appreciation much more convincingly than would a mere routine "Thank you" or a general "You were great!". They go a long way in fostering behavior that is appropriate and desirable. 

Read More
If you’d like to learn more about bringing out the best in your child, just google the phrase or one of the following phrases: ‘praising your child’, ‘encouraging good behavior’, visit the sites below or check out the book Bringing Out the Best in People, by Aubrey Daniels. 2000. McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-007-135145-0.

Image courtesy of


  1. There was a really interesting youtube video about this suggesting that it's also important to, how to say, maybe upscale the compliment?

    Like not add a but but add some challenge, some way of upgrading it to encourage the child to do even better, also praising the process, not the outcome, so in your great example above:

    "Thank you for bringing your plate and cup to the kitchen. That helps make my task easier." *note the process praise 'helps make my task easier' not just 'the table is clean'*

    You could maybe add...and it would be amazing if you could clean the table too!

    Or maybe a better example:

    ""You played the part of shepherd very convincingly." + the work you did learning your lines (process praise) really showed. Why don't you try playing some different roles? We could read/write a play together!

  2. The video is here!

  3. Thanks SBC for posting your comments and the link. I watched it with interest.

    Apart from being aware of the effects of praising for intelligence/being a genius versus praising for the process, I think effective praise includes feedback on what the activity means to the person offering the praise. That goes with no.2 above: Be specific.

    By focusing on the process the way the lady in the video does (hard work and future hard work), she dilutes the compliment, thereby compromising its singleness (no.4), in my opinion.

    Still, very interesting research. Thanks for sharing.

  4. It's something my partner and I perhaps struggled with a little bit in watching the video - how to give praise like this. Watching it again I think the key part is the 'yet' part - simple and implementable.

    I don't think the focus on process dilutes the compliment - certainly not in terms of intelligence. I remember getting praised a lot for being clever as a kid and I also remember my response was genuinely one of 'what am I supposed to do with that?' - getting praised for playing football well meant something because I'd worked to get better, there was praise for the process, praise for the hard work or specific actions I'd done, not because the match was 'won', if that makes sense.

    So I think both can be integrated - not by diluting with a but - more something like 'I noticed you waited for Gina. That was considerate of you, you really thought about her feelings didn't you?'

    That and the task bit with Harry Potter I found really interesting - not 'good score' but 'good work', and then children wanting to engage with a harder task.

    This is a really nice blog by the way - not my usual reading but how you present your spiritual ideas with a certain matter of factness and practicality which I really like, all too often these ideas are dealt with in a rather wishy washy way that doesn't actually link to real-life situations. I've found it useful to read so thank you.

  5. @ SBC: Thanks for the kind words. When it really comes down to it, I think everyone will have to find a way of praising that fits them and their kids, keeping the bits of research in mind that particularly speak to you. You seem to do just that! Kudos to you and your partner.