Obviously, your kid is amazing and you know it…but do they? Too often, parents simply assume that their child knows that they love them and are proud of them. But kids understand things in different ways than adults, which is why it’s so important to actually tell them how incredible you think they are on a regular basis, says Mayra Mendez, PhD, a child psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
“Make a habit of communicating a simple, genuine, validating message every day to your child,” she says. “It can be anything that shows your unconditional love and acceptance. Your praise should be positive, inspirational, affirming, and validating.”
Praise helps them grow and bond
Praise isn’t just nice—it’s essential to your child’s development. “Children who aren’t praised or who are praised inappropriately can grow up to have significant struggles with self-esteem, trust, and relationship challenges from early childhood and throughout adulthood,” Mendez explains.
Not only does appropriate positive feedback help your child grow, but it also forms the basis of your relationship with them. “Secure attachment between parent and child is built upon a reliable, dependable, and trusted relationship where you can openly communicate,” she says. One of the best things about praise is that it goes both ways, building a tight, happy parent-child bond. These are the compliments your kids really need to hear.
Not all compliments are good compliments
How you praise children is just as important as the actual act of praising them, says Ariel Kornblum, PsyD, a child psychologist practicing in New York City. Praise should be sincere, targeted, and not given indiscriminately. Children respond best to praise that focuses on their effort, not their abilities, as well as praise that is given in specific circumstances rather than haphazardly, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology. In other words, kids can tell when you don’t really mean it. Here’s how to give a sincere compliment to your child—and everyone else.
Praise the positive
Rawpixel/Getty ImagesAs a parent trying to raise a well-mannered kid, you may find yourself constantly correcting your child. Unfortunately, this situation sets you up as an opponent when what you really want to be is a teacher. But instead of criticizing, you can often use compliments to get the same result, Kornblum says. The key is to “catch” your kid doing something good and praise that behavior rather than focusing on the negative things. For example, instead of pointing out every time they chew with their mouth open, wait until they’re eating appropriately and compliment their good table manners.
“Your child now clearly knows what behavior is good,” Kornblum explains. “Using compliments instead of criticisms will increase the chances of seeing repeated instances of these good behaviors.”
Make your compliments specific
Saying “good job” or “cool” when your child does something praiseworthy isn’t necessarily bad, but it is a missed opportunity to really connect with your kid, Kornblum says. “Make your compliment as specific as possible,” she advises. “When a parent uses specific labeled praise—’I love how you put your plate in the sink after dinner’—it shows the child that they have the focused attention of their parent.”
Try different ways to compliment
Verbal compliments are easy to give, but they’re also easy to miss, particularly for kids who aren’t great listeners. So, in addition to telling your child they’re awesome, look for other ways you can communicate that message, Mendez says. “For example, you can set up a message board in a shared area of your home and each day write or draw a complimentary note for your child,” she suggests. “The message can be as simple as a happy face, a word, or a symbol that has meaning to both of you.” Other ideas include leaving notes for each other in a shared journal, tucking a love note in their lunch box, giving them a giant hug or high five, or putting a “Valentine” on their pillow.
Rawpixel/Getty Images“You’re so much smarter than your cousin” or “You’re the funny one and she’s the pretty one” may sound like compliments, but they can wind up doing more harm than good as they teach your child to compare themselves to others, Kornblum says. They learn that they’re only doing well when they’re doing better than someone else, or they may fear that while they came out ahead in this particular compliment, they might lose a different comparison. Instead, focus on praising your kid and leave other people out of it. Also, make sure to avoid these compliments that are actually insults.
Don’t focus on results
When a child displays a particular strength or interest in a certain area, it can be tempting to praise the result—say, winning a tournament or a prize. But the real growth comes from the experience of trying something new or honing a skill, not necessarily the end result, Kornblum says. “Parents should nurture and encourage interest and effort, regardless of whether they ‘won’ or ‘lost,'” she explains. “Praising only the results ignores all the good that comes from the process and risks making them focused on winning at any cost.”
Compliment effort, not ability
“You’re such a talented singer,” “You’re so nice,” and “You always were a great reader” are complimentary, but by praising attributes or abilities (things the child doesn’t have control over) instead of their effort (what they can control), your praise may have the opposite effect. For instance, kids who are praised for being smart often give up more quickly when faced with a difficult math problem because they assume it should come easily to them and fear failing, Mendez explains. Instead, praise their efforts: “You’ve worked so hard practicing your new song, it sounds beautiful,” “I really appreciate how you chose to play with the kid sitting alone,” or “Look at all these hard books you’ve read!” This targeted way of praising ensures that your compliment doesn’t become one of the things parents say that ruin their kids’ trust.
Ask your child what they think they do well
Any parent who has ever had a child “rescue” something from the trash knows that kids don’t necessarily find the same value in things that adults do. So while it’s good to share your perspective, take the time to ask your child what they like about themselves, what they think they do well, and what makes them happy, Kornblum says. Not only does this give you insight into what they value and what compliments will mean the most to them, but it also helps them practice speaking about their feelings. “When parents do all the talking, they take away the opportunity for their children to learn and practice their communication skills,” she explains. Don’t miss these other habits of parents who raise successful kids.