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Parenting from the Heart: The Power of Compliments

Teaching children to compliment can set the tone for a lifetime of positive interactions.

A child who announces “Look, I drew an awesome rocket ship” may well receive critical analysis from his peers. The reflex reply from young children might be “That doesn’t look like a rocket” or “Rocket ships aren’t shaped that way.” The part of our nature that wants to be right or assert superiority pokes its head out of the personality at a young age. Expressions of “I can do better” are an expected aspect of ego development. However, it’s helpful for children to be taught not to crush someone else in order to value themselves. We are all happier when we appreciate and aid the efforts of others.

I recently read a long piece by a man who traced his inability to give compliments to anyone to his childhood role as eldest of five children. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe, his mom was overwhelmed by having so many children. From his child perspective, saying anything positive about his littler or cuter siblings would steer the last drops of his mother’s attention toward them. As it was, he learned by the time he was seven not to expect any time from her. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if his mother had given him positive feedback for saying something nice about his siblings or playing with them? Appreciating a child’s ability to appreciate others can set the tone for a lifetime of positive interactions.

We can all keep in mind that positive feedback doesn’t have to come from adults. Some families (and classrooms) play games that invite children to say something that they like about another child. One compliment exchange involves throwing a beanbag back and forth in a circle and having the thrower offer a compliment to the catcher or vice versa. Parents and teachers can also intercede when a child shows his drawing or construction, asking other children to say one thing that they like about it.

One antidote to siblings fighting is making a sticker chart for times children sincerely say something positive to each other. We can also coach children to learn when compliments are appropriately offered—receiving a gift, responding to someone with a new haircut or outfit. Girls often seem “mean” when they haven’t learned to not criticize someone else’s outfit or hairdo. They blurt out opinions without awareness of the impact. We can teach children to respond to others’ newness with something they like, leaving out the part that would hurt the other child’s feelings. Adults also need to be careful not to over-compliment girls on their clothes or appearance as if those are their most valuable characteristics. What about commenting on their running ability or confidence in asking questions?

When a child is putting effort into a project, compliments reduce her uncertainty about how she is doing and encourage her perseverance. “You sure are working hard” works a lot better than “It looks like you’re not checking your work.” We also want to teach children to acknowledge positive feedback by saying “Thank you.” Learning how to compliment allows us to connect with others and form satisfying relationships—especially in our culture, where being able to make new friends quickly is a cherished tradition.

Susan Isaacs Kohl is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.