When a Compliment Is a Bad Thing
If your sympathy becomes immediate fuel for more teacher-bashing, your child may learn to defensively reject all future suggestions for improvement.
Viewed through doting-parent lenses, your kids are the most beautiful, talented specimens of humanity to ever grace their age group. And it’s fine to tell them so—with discretion. Unrestricted praise tends to have either of two detrimental effects:
- The kids develop delusions of entitlement and learn to scorn any idea of trying harder or improving. This is a particular risk if you’re too quick to offer sympathy when the rest of the world isn’t as appreciative as you. When your kindergartner comes home complaining that the teacher said he draws crooked lines, before you become indignant on his behalf, consider whether the teacher’s high standards are that unreasonable. What would you think of the picture if anyone besides your “baby” had drawn it? Was the teacher really harsh, or could she have wanted to encourage your child to do better? If your sympathy becomes immediate fuel for more teacher-bashing, your child may learn to defensively reject all future suggestions for improvement.
- The steady diet of “you’re just perfect” actually leads to the child’s developing an inferiority complex. Sooner or later, she’ll learn through her own observations that others draw more public admiration and do more effective work. Then she may start to interpret your praise as poor judgment or even mockery. Even if she’s doing well by objective standards, if you fail to acknowledge effort and room for improvement she may develop a dread of showing any
So if you want your children to appreciate themselves as they are and still continue to improve (and enjoy the process of improvement), what’s the best approach to compliments?
Offer Plenty of Unconditional Love
It’s important that children know you accept them, not for what they can do or how well they behave, but simply because they’re yours. Tell them that. And assure them that no matter how badly they screw up, they can always come to you for support. (You needn’t save them from every consequence; they just want to know you won’t reject them for even a major mistake.)
“I love that color combination you picked out” or “The man you drew here looks particularly realistic” rings truer than the more generic “Great job!” (One caveat: If you’re transitioning to specific after a long period of generic, lead in with “Great job” the first several times, or compliments on the man may trigger worries about “What’s wrong with the rest of the picture?”)
Praise Effort at Least as Much as Results
Stopping at “That’s a beautiful piece of work” (even if it is) could give a child the idea that success should come easily. Besides, everyone likes to be acknowledged for a hard job well done. And even if the result is less than stellar, you can still deliver sincere compliments for the courage to try something new, the perseverance to finish it, and the willingness to put forth a best effort. A child raised on that sort of compliment will grow up to be the sort of hard worker who naturally attracts compliments not just from doting relatives, but from the larger world.