Some compliments are better than others

Things to keep in mind when complimenting young people.

Sometimes adults compliment young people in a way that isn’t very helpful. We praise people to build them up and let them know we think highly of them, yet sometimes we set unrealistic expectations or lead young people to believe the wrong things are important. When acknowledging someone, Michigan State University Extension recommends focusing on who a person is versus what they are. We don’t want to build a young person’s sense of self on something that can change or be taken away from them.

I recently read a story about a young woman who was exceptionally beautiful. She recalled people constantly telling her how pretty she was and her identity became that of “the pretty one.” A horrible accident took her traditional beauty away. Who was she if she wasn’t beautiful? No one had ever commented on her strength, dedication, caring nature or any of the characteristics she embodied. It took her years to find herself after the accident. People who told her she was beautiful were being kind and commenting on something that was evident. Imagine if they focused instead on who she was. Perhaps her recovery would have been easier if her identity hadn’t been taken away.

It can take a little more time to compliment who someone is rather than what they are, but the sentiment is much more meaningful. Here are a few to get you thinking:

  • I really admire your work ethic.
  • You are such a kind and caring person.
  • You are a really good friend to others.
  • I love your wit.
  • I can always count on you to do what you say you will do.
  • You have such a great sense of style.
  • You worked hard for those good grades—I am so proud of you for being such a dedicated student.

Praise is powerful. It helps people know when they are doing well and understand how others see them. It is easy to praise significant accomplishments – hitting the winning run at a baseball game, receiving an award or bringing home a great report card. If we focus on the win or the grade, a young person is led to believe they are valuable only when they are the best. Focus instead on the behavior or qualities that led to the achievement and the young person will begin to recognize they are valuable because of who they are and not what they have accomplished.

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