Compliments and Praise
If you've seen the school parking lot filled with cars whose bumper stickers all announce “My Child is a Star Pupil at Jones Elementary,” you are rightfully skeptical. My, oh my! Can it really be true, as Garrison Keillor describes Lake Wobegon, that “all the children are above average?”
Probably not true, a bit of a stretch – especially after we've observed some of the kids whose parents' vehicles proclaim to be “stars.” The fact is, such public and global praise is suspect, not helpful. And not only for children, but for adults as well. Writing in his landmark 1996 book, “Punished by Rewards,” Alfie Kohn makes four solid points about giving compliments and praise:
1. “Don't praise people, only what people do. It's less likely that there will be a gap between what someone hears and what he thinks about himself if we don't make sweeping comments about what he is like as a person.”
2. “ Make praise as specific as possible . Even better than ‘That's a really nice story' is ‘That's neat at the end when you leave the main character a little confused about what happened to him.'”
3. “ Avoid phony praise. . . . One symptom of phony praise is a squeaky, saccharine voice that slides up and down the scale and bears little resemblance to the way we converse with our friends. . .A four-year-old can usually tell the difference between a genuine expression of pleasure and phony praise, between a sincere smile and one that is manufactured and timed for best effect.”
4. “ Avoid praise that sets up competition . Phrases like ‘You're the best in the class (or for adults, in this department),” whose “most pernicious effects . . . encourage a view of others as rivals rather than as potential collaborators. What's more, they lead people to see their own worth in terms of whether they have beaten everyone else – a recipe for perpetual insecurity.”
Kohn supports each of these points with solid research as he suggests ways to encourage people and build their intrinsic motivation. During my early life I had difficulty giving compliments, and now I enjoy doing so. The Scandinavian culture I grew up in was not big on compliments, parents probably believing that us kids would “get a big head” and be prideful.
I also had trouble giving compliments because I DID see my fellow students and friends as competitors in classes and on the playing fields. It would have required more maturity than I had to give genuine praise to my rivals. For many years now I have enjoyed complimenting others in specific ways because I can see the positive effects that result. When I coach professionals on their performance, the specific compliments I give them on their behavior and the work they produce helps them grow and develop.
Some time ago, a reader asked, “Whenever I compliment my friend, she resists what I say. How can I make compliments that stick?” True: Some people are Teflon-coated, making it hard for us to get through to them with our compliments.
Try this method: “I really think your new hairstyle is stunning, Sally! Who did it for you?” Adding such a tag-question at the end usually prevents the person from avoiding the compliment because they are responding to the follow-up. “The way you read the poem was deeply touching, Fred. Did you practice it many times?” Finally, if you yourself tend to deflect compliments, try harder to accept them.
A simple “Thank you” to the one offering the compliment will do. After you run the billiards table, or score perfectly on the test, it's simply not appropriate to say “Ah, that warn't nuthin.” Nor is it genuine for the football halfback who scores seven touchdowns to say “
It wasn't me; it was the other guys on the team.” When you receive a genuine compliment, acknowledge it and let it in!