Mom was correct. It’s basically part of our job description. From the day our kids are born we’re the ones in charge of teaching them how the world works, by telling them what they can and can’t do. On a good day, this means I end up saying unintentionally hilarious sentences like “In our house, we don’t tape Barbies to the dog, even if you are using a saddle.” But on a bad day—and there are more of those than I’d like to admit—it feels like I’m constantly correcting my children. No, you can’t lick ice cream out of the carton. Stop hiding the remote in your bedroom. Don’t fight over something as dumb as paper towels. You can’t go out with your friends until your chores are done. Don’t call me names; I am not a dictator!
Is there such a thing as positive criticism?
At the end of 2019, I felt like I was caught in an endless negative feedback loop with my four kids, aged 10 to 17, where all our interactions centered around me trying to “help” them. I knew I loved my kids (so much that sometimes it physically hurts!) but I began to wonder—did they know? And maternal love aside, was constantly “teaching” them keeping them from the opportunities they needed to grow and learn? So starting December 1st, I decided to try and change course. I made a goal to give each child and my husband a genuine, unprovoked compliment every day for a month. Need ideas? Try these 52 little compliments that will make anyone smile.
Setting some rules
Courtesy Charlotte Hilton Andersen
I made a few ground rules for giving great compliments. The compliment had to be something new, something I thought of myself and couldn’t be about anything physical, like hair or clothes. But the most important rule was that the compliment had to stand alone: I couldn’t add a “but” or a “you should” or anything else that might make them feel that it was anything other than 100 percent complimentary. I was also going to try and scale down my corrections. After all, my kids aren’t toddlers (and one is almost an adult!) so they probably knew more than I gave them credit for.
The first day
Problems started immediately. No sooner had the ink dried in my journal than I heard my younger two bickering loudly in the kitchen. I was trying to work and nothing makes it harder to concentrate than having to listen to kids fighting. In the past, I would have marched out there, separated them, and tried to solve their argument, but the new me decided to just sit back and listen. The fight got uglier and I got more irritated. After about ten minutes I was ready to explode but then a miracle: My son backed down. He apologized, started listening to his sister, and within a few minutes they had worked it out among themselves. It wasn’t the solution I would have gone for—it was so much better!
The first compliment
A little while later I pulled my 13-year-old son into my room. “Am I in trouble?” he asked nervously and I realized that normally when I told him to come into my room it was because he was going to get a lecture. This time, however, I told him how proud I was of how he handled the argument with his sister and that I appreciated how he chose to apologize first. I told him that I thought he was a good mediator and I liked how he worked with her to solve the problem. Then I gave him a giant hug. He looked stunned. “That’s it?” he asked. “That’s it,” I replied, feeling a little mortified at how surprised he was.
Seeing my kids as people
If you’d asked me before this experiment about my children, I would have been able to rattle off a list of things they liked and disliked, things that they were good at, and things they were working on. However, in the process of finding something new to compliment, I began to see how my kids chose to define themselves—and it wasn’t necessarily the same as I saw them.
For instance, one day I noticed my ten-year-old daughter practicing cartwheels over and over again. “I’m really good at gymnastics, it’s my favorite sport,” she said confidently. It surprised me; after all, she couldn’t even do a cartwheel yet and she was much better at soccer. Instead of correcting her though, I complimented her on not giving up and for working so hard to learn a new skill. I told her that her cartwheels were definitely getting better. She positively beamed. Instead of focusing on her flawed tumbling, the compliment helped me see the beautiful gift of her perseverance, a talent that will serve her well for the rest of her life. It made me realize that somehow I’d slipped into a default mode of always looking for problems instead of focusing first on the positive. And hey, today, a little over a month later, she can do a beautiful cartwheel.
Building them up
Courtesy Charlotte Hilton Andersen
I’d always thought of my corrections as helping to build my children into whole, functioning adults but in reality, the negative comments were doing far more damage than good and I soon discovered that compliments worked so much better for helping them learn and grow. For example, I’d been hounding my 17-year-old, soon-to-be-graduating son for months to finish his college applications. Yet there we were in December, running up against all the deadlines and he hadn’t even started.
Then one day I realized that he really is so responsible in so many ways. So I complimented him on how well he was balancing the demands of his part-time job with school and saying that I knew he was capable of managing his future just as well and I was excited to see what he ultimately decided to do. I vowed not to say another word about college applications. A week later he asked me if I could proof-read one of his admissions essays. After that, he filled out and submitted all his applications without any more help from me or my husband. I realized that by micromanaging him I’d make him think he wasn’t capable of making these adult decisions on his own but by pointing out to him how good he was already doing at adulting, it helped give him the confidence he needed to take that big step.
Learning to accept compliments
Once my kids noticed me giving more compliments, they started doing it as well. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by this—kids are the ultimate mimics—but I was impressed at how quickly and completely they embraced it, even with me. One day at dinner, my 15-year-old son said, “Mom, you are the best cook! You put so much effort into making sure we eat well and it always tastes amazing.”
I immediately tried to cancel his compliment! “Oh no! I’m really a mediocre cook at best, lots of other people are so much better at it,” I started.
He cut me off: “Geez, just take the compliment, Mom!”
It dawned on me that learning how to receive a compliment is almost as important as learning how to give one and I hadn’t been a great example of that either. In my quest to be humble and self-deprecating, I was really telling them that their judgment was faulty. Plus, somewhere along the way, I’d started believing all the negative things I said about myself and it had tanked my self-esteem. “Thank you, I love cooking for you guys,” I finally replied.
Working around the anxiety problem
My husband and I are both highly anxious people. Worrying is practically our love language. And as anyone who’s had to raise three teenagers at the same time can tell you, they give you plenty to worry about. For months I’d been worried that all of this anxiety about the kids had been pulling my husband and me apart. I found myself feeling perpetually frustrated and irritated with him.
But, again, the compliments changed that too. Instead of seeing my husband as the person who I felt wasn’t doing enough parenting, housework, and other tasks, I began to notice and appreciate how much he really was doing. Looking for things to compliment made me remember why I fell in love with him in the first place. So one night I told him, “You are the best dad I know. You are always up for playing a game with the kids or taking them out for ice cream or coaching their sports teams. Thank you for doing all that for them, and for me.”
His eyes welled up with tears. He spent so much energy worrying about being a bad parent that his anxiety prevented him from seeing how great he really is—it took me pointing it out to get him out of his worry loop. In fact, it had such a powerful effect that I ended up making him a scrapbook for Christmas, highlighting memories he’d made with the kids and filling it with compliments from me and the children. He says it was the best gift he’s ever gotten.
Compliments work both ways
Getting a genuine compliment is a beautiful, often memorable, experience but this experiment helped me realize that giving compliments is one of life’s greatest joys. It feels so incredibly good to watch someone’s face light up when you compliment them! I got hooked on that high. Plus, training myself to focus on the good things in my life helped me have a brighter, happier outlook. I found myself smiling randomly during the day when I thought of the perfect compliment to give my family. I started jotting down at least three things I was grateful for each day in my journal which continued to boost my mood. It didn’t cure me—I’m still a very anxious person—but it did make me happier. Even through the stress of the holidays, I felt more peace and joy.
Courtesy Charlotte Hilton Andersen
After the month of compliments was over, I knew I had to keep going. The results were astounding. Not only did it bring us closer together as a family but it had so many other benefits: The kids talk to me more often, my husband and I tell each other “I love you” daily, it’s inspired some of the kids to try new things and take more risks, and it’s made me want to work on making other positive changes, like adding mindfulness meditation.
I want to believe that my negativity was the exception but in talking to so many other parents, I think the norm is to focus more on what our kids are doing wrong than what they’re doing right. We seem to have decided that the more worry we show and the more corrections we give, the more it means we love our children.
One of my closest mom friends nearly had a heart attack when I told her I’d given the college application process completely back to my son. “What if he doesn’t apply to college? What if he never goes to college? This is too important to risk him screwing it up!” she gasped.
“No, my relationship with him is too important to risk messing it up,” I answered. “I know he’ll figure his future out, and whether that includes college or not doesn’t change my love for him one bit.” I’m not saying that would be the right choice for every parent but it was for me—and it was a compliment a day that helped me see it.
Our loved ones are our loved ones for a reason; let’s make sure they know not just that we love them, but why.
Inspired to try it yourself? Start by learning how to give a sincere compliment.