Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes

CHAPTERS: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

Chapter 6 – Praise: a new approach

Praise is not flattery. Flattery is insincere and expedient. Praise is a sincere, positive evaluation of a person, or an act. Yet certain kinds of sincere praise may bring results opposite to those expected. It may cause discomfort, anxiety, guilt, and misbehavior. How do teenagers react to praise such as the following?

“You are so smart.”

“You have done a wonderful job.”

“You are a great musician.”

Not with joy. A common response is derogation and denial.

“I'm not really all that.”

“I don't think it's that good.”

“Well, I do the best I can.”

“I really can't take the credit for it.”

“It was luck, more than anything else.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.”

These statements do not reflect confidence or comfort. On the contrary, they sound defensive, as though praise were a bitter pill that is hard to swallow. Tell a girl she is pretty, and she blushes. Tell a boy he is good, and he denies it. Praise a teenager for his project, and he is quick to point out its defects. In short, this kind of praise seems to engender ill feelings. Apparently it is not easy to cope with praise.

Why do teenagers react to praise so defensively? Praise is an evaluation. And evaluation is uncomfortable. The evaluator sits in judgment, and the judged are anxious.

Appreciate the Effort Rather than Evaluate the Person

Edna's mother was in the hospital seriously sick. Edna, age twelve, made a get-well card for mother. It had on it an aspirin, a penny, and a rose petal, all neatly taped. The inscription read: “I wish you health. I wish you wealth. I wish you happiness.” Mother was touched by her daughter's thoughtfulness. She said: “You are so considerate. You are always so thoughtful. You are such a good girl.”

Edna grew pale, ran into the bathroom and started crying. Mother immediately suspected some relation between the praise and the reaction. Why should sincere praise make her daughter ill?

When mother praised her daughter so effusively, Edna felt guilty. She knew she was not always considerate, perfectly thoughtful or unfailingly good. She knew she was sometimes selfish, often resentful, and always imperfect. The bold praise made Edna feel guilty and inadequate rather than pleased and peaceful.

What could mother have said when she received the card? Something about the card, not about the child. For example:

Thank you so much. I like the card. It's so pretty and witty. “I wish you health, I wish you wealth, I wish you happiness.” It's lovely. I feel better already.

Edna would have been delighted.

Praise the Poem not the Poet

Emily, age thirteen, wrote a poem.

TEACHER: You are a good poet, Emily.

EMILY: I wish I were, but I know that I'm not.

TEACHER: Why do you say that? You are great!

EMILY: An Emily Dickinson I'm not and I'll never be.

TEACHER: Well, but you are good for your age.

EMILY: Unfortunately.

The teacher wondered why her honest praise met with such resistance and pessimism.

It is frightening to a young girl to be told: “You are a great poet.” It throws her into competition with all great poets – the living and the dead. She may quickly conclude: “I can never write lyrics like Longfellow, or Frost, or Byron, or Shelley, or Keats. I could never write “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” like E. B. Browning, or “Leaves of Grass,” like Whitman.

Advice for Emily's teacher: Praise the poem, not the poet.

When Elliott, age thirteen, wrote a breezy spring poem, his teacher said:

“I like your poem, Elliot. When I read your lines: ‘On a spring morning, joy giggles in my heart,' I felt joy giggling in my own heart.

Elliot was delighted. He beamed and bubbled. He talked about his future aspirations and left gratified and encouraged. The teacher did not call Elliot “great” or “wonderful.” But she made him feel so. She did not praise him. Instead, she showed appreciation for his poem. She quoted his lines and talked of their impact on her, thus making her praise credible. Her message was potent: “It was not Frost or Byron or any other poet that made me giggle with joy. It was you.” Elliot may have concluded: “My poetry can make people feel happy, or sad, or longing.” This is enough motivation to keep on writing.

Praise: Constructive and Destructive

Praise can be destructive. “You are always so good.” “You are so generous.” “You are the most thoughtful person I know.” Such praise creates anxiety. It puts one under an obligation to live up to the impossible. No one can always be good, generous, and considerate. It is not human.

An eighteen-year-old college applicant listed his personal strengths as follows: “Sometimes I am alert, brave, clever, diligent, efficient, friendly, gracious, helpful, jolly, kind, loyal, masterful, neat, obedient, polite, resourceful, sober, trustworthy, useful, vigilant, wholesome, and zestful.” Where the application form said, “List your personal weaknesses,” he wrote:

“Sometimes I am not all that.”

Praise that evaluates personality or character builds pressure and feels unsafe. Praise that describes efforts, accomplishments, and feelings is both helpful and safe.

Eric, age sixteen, did a big job cleaning up the yard. He mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, and sprayed the trees. His father was impressed and praised him effectively. He looked over the yard and described it.

FATHER: The yard looks like a garden.

ERIC: It does?

FATHER: It's a pleasure to look at it.

ERIC: It's nice.

FATHER: What a job. In one day you cleaned it all up! Thank you.

ERIC: Anytime, Dad.

Father did not praise Eric's personality. Neither did he evaluate his character. In fact, he said nothing about him as a person. He only described the yard and his feelings of pleasure. Eric, himself, put two and two together and concluded: “I've done a good job. Father is pleased.” He felt motivated enough to offer his services as a gardener.

Don't Use Attack in Sheep's Clothing

Says Todd, “My father is tricky. He uses psychology on me. Whenever he wants to give me hell, he builds me up first. He hands me a psychological sandwich: Two pieces of praise with blame in between. ‘You are doing so well in all subjects, but you failed Spanish. There is no excuse for it. And, I won't stand for it. Keep up the good work, Son. You know I'm proud of you.'”

Many teenagers have become so conditioned that whenever they are praised they automatically anticipate shock. Contrary to accepted practice, it is best not to mix criticism with praise. It is easier and less confusing to cope with honest praise, or corrective feedback, than with a dishonest mixture of them.

Praise and Self-image

Descriptive recognition (as opposed to evaluative praise) is likely to lead to a realistic self-image. Effective praise has two parts: Our words and the teenager's conclusions. In a true sense, praise is what he says to himself, after we have spoken. Our words should describe clearly what we like and appreciate about their work, efforts, achievement, consideration, or creation. We describe the specific event and our specific feelings. Teens draw general conclusions about their personalities and character. When our statements are realistic and sympathetic, their inferences are positive and constructive. Examples:

(Unhelpful praise [evaluative]: You are so wonderful. You are such a good car washer. I don't know what I would do without your help.)

Helpful praise (descriptive) : Thank you for washing the car. It looks like new again.

Possible inference : I did a good job. I'm capable. Father is pleased.

(Unhelpful praise: You are always so considerate.)

Helpful praise : Thank you for the birthday card. I could not stop laughing, it was so funny.

Possible inference : I chose well. I can rely on my choices. I have good taste.

(Unhelpful praise: I can always rely on your thoughtfulness. You are a wonderful girl.)

Helpful praise : I appreciate greatly your babysitting. It saved my day. Thank you so much.

Possible inference : I can be helpful. My efforts are appreciated. I'm nice, sometimes.

(Unhelpful praise: You are always so honest.)

Helpful praise : Thank you for finding my wallet. I appreciate it very much. It saved my day.

Possible inference : My honesty is appreciated. I'm glad I made the effort.

(Unhelpful praise: You are a great carpenter.)

Helpful praise : I like the bookcase you made. It's both useful and smart-looking.

Possible inference : I have done a good job. I'm capable.

(Unhelpful praise: Gee, you're a terrific decorator!)

Helpful praise : I like the way your room is arranged. Everything seems to fit just right.

Possible inference : I have good taste.

(Unhelpful praise: You are a good writer. Of course, your spelling needs improvement.)

Helpful praise : I like your essay. It gave me several new ideas.

Possible inference : I can be original.

(Unhelpful praise: You are a fabulous poet.)

Helpful praise : Your poem made me feel young again. It's so vigorous and full of life.

Possible inference : My lyrics have an impact. I have talent.

(Unhelpful praise: You are wonderful dishwasher.)

Helpful praise : I appreciate your washing the dishes tonight. There were so many of them and I was so exhausted.

Possible inference : I can be helpful. I'm appreciated.

(Unhelpful praise: You are a great singer.)

Helpful praise : Your singing made me want to get up and dance. I could hardly sit in my chair.

Possible inference : I have an effect on people. My singing touches the heart. I have something to contribute.

Our descriptive praise and the teenagers' positive inferences are building blocks of mental health. From our messages they conclude: “I am liked. I am appreciated. I am respected. I am capable.” These conclusions they may restate silently to themselves again and again. Such silent statements, repeated inwardly, determine largely people's pictures of themselves and of the world around them.

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