I haven’t often responded well to praise in the past— and until recently I thought this was entirely my fault. However, I see now that there are common problems with the way that praise is usually given. This page outlines what’s usually amiss, and suggests how we can do better.

The following is excerpted from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, which has been able to precisely outline the difficulties I’ve had with how praise is typically communicated.

For each situation below, feel out what your inner reaction would be if it occurred to you.

Situation I: You have an unexpected guest for dinner. You heat a can of cream of chicken soup, add some leftover chicken, and serve it over Minute Rice.

Your guest says, “You’re a great cook!”

What would your inner reaction be? Pause before reading on.

Situation II: You just changed out of your sweater and jeans into a new outfit to go to an important meeting.

An acquaintance approaches you, looks you over, and says, “You’re always so beautifully dressed.”

Your inner reaction?

Situation III: You’re taking an adult-education course. After a lively class discussion in which you participate, another student comes up to you and says, “You have a brilliant mind.”

Your inner reaction?

Situation IV: You’ve just started learning how to play tennis and, hard as you try, you still aren’t making any progress with your serve. The ball usually goes into the net or off the court. Today you’re playing doubles with a new partner, and your first serve lands where you hope it will.

Your partner comments, “Hey, you’ve got a perfect serve.”

Your inner reaction?

You’ve probably discovered for yourself some of the built-in problems of praise. Along with some good feelings can come other reactions:

  • Praise can make you doubt the praiser. (“If she thinks I’m a good cook, she’s either lying or knows nothing about good food.”)
  • Praise can lead to immediate denial. (“Always beautifully dressed! . . . You should have seen me an hour ago.”)
  • Praise can be threatening. (“But how will I look at the next meeting?”)
  • Praise can force you to focus on your weaknesses (“Brilliant mind? Are you kidding? I still can’t add a column of figures.”)
  • Praise can create anxiety and interfere with activity. (“I’ll never be able to hit the ball like that again. Now I’m really uptight.”)
  • Praise can also be experienced as manipulation. (“What does this person want from me?”)

I remember my own frustrations whenever I tried to praise my children. They’d come to me with a painting and ask, “Is it good?”

I’d say, “What a beautiful painting.”

They’d ask, “But is it good?”

I’d say, “Good? I told you it’s beautiful . . . fantastic!”

They’d say, “You don’t like it.”

The more extravagantly I praised, the less I got through. I never understood their reactions.

After my first few sessions with Dr. Ginott, I began to realize why my children rejected my praise as fast as I gave it. He taught me that words that evaluate—good, beautiful, fantastic—made my children as uncomfortable as you probably felt in the exercise you just did. But, most important, I learned from him that helpful praise actually comes in two parts:

  1. The adult describes with appreciation what he or she sees or feels.
  2. The child, after hearing the description, is then able to praise himself.

I recall the first time I tried putting that theory into practice. My four-year-old came home from nursery school, shoved a page of penciled scribble under my nose, and asked, “Is it good?”

My first reaction was an automatic “Very good.” Then I remembered. No, I’ve got to describe. I wondered, How do you describe scribble?

I said, “Well, I see you went circle, circle, circle . . . wiggle, wiggle, wiggle . . . dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, and slash, slash!

“Yeah!” he nodded enthusiastically.

I said, “How did you ever think to do this?”

He thought awhile. “Because I’m an artist,” he said.

I thought, “It’s a remarkable process. The adult describes, and the child really does praise himself.”

Faber, Adele; Mazlish, Elaine. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (The How To Talk Series) (pp. 178-180). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Yes, this example is silly, but nonetheless doesn’t descriptive praise feel so much better than praise that evaluates?

For example, here’s how I might redo the praise in situations I-IV above:

  • “You’re a great cook!” → “I think the rice balances the flavor of the chicken quite well”
  • “You’re always so beautifully dressed.” → “That belt is perfect with your shoes”
  • “You have a brilliant mind.” → “The comment you made on X surprised me because…”
  • “Hey, you’ve got a perfect serve.” → “That was a well-placed serve”

(These substitutions are by no means ideal though.)

Note that descriptive praise is difficult to produce! It requires a surprising effort to observe a performance closely enough to be able to pick out specific parts like this. But this just makes the praise more meaningful: the recipient knows that you’re giving your full attention.

While this book is nominally about parenting, I believe this style of communication applies much more generally. For more, read the book or listen to the audiobook. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)