I notice that receiving praise often feels uncomfortable, and I think I know why: it’s too easily judgmental! (Even if it’s nominally positive!)

The following is excerpted from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk: For each situation that follows, pay attention to how you would feel if this 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!”

Ok, how might you feel in this situation?

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.”

How might you feel in this situation?

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.”

How might you feel in this situation?

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.”

How might you feel in this situation?

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.

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‽ (It certainly does for me!)

Here’s how I might instead communicate the intentions behind the praise above:

  • “You’re a great cook!” → e.g. “I appreciate how the (X : ingredient) balances the flavor of the (Y : ingredient)”
  • “You’re always so beautifully dressed.” → e.g. “That belt matches your shoes perfectly”
  • “You have a brilliant mind.” → e.g. “The comment you made about X surprised me (because…)”
  • “Hey, you’ve got a perfect serve.” → e.g. “That serve was right where I didn’t expect it to be!”

I think what makes the uncomfortable praise uncomfortable is that it’s judging. — Even if it’s nominally positive! But descriptive praise isn’t quite so judgmental; it doesn’t impose the praise-giver’s value system upon the praise-receiver. (Because maybe the praise-giver and praise-receiver don’t agree on what is important.) Instead of intrusively deciding for the other person what is “good”, you’re just saying what you notice and what you like. This way, the other person can go on still being their own person who has their own values and their own goals.

One last note: I think that everything I’ve said here about praise is also entirely symmetric to criticism. At which point, “criticism” is naturally superseded by, for example, “noticing things that seem suboptimal to me” and “saying how I subjectively feel about a thing”— and then it’s no longer as judgmental.


Read more from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk— it’s not just about parenting!