The five most important words in the English language:
“I am proud of you.”
The four most important words:
“What is your opinion?”
The three most important words:
“If you please.”
The two most important words:
The least important word:
I have found that I am happier and more loving when I make a conscious effort to sincerely thank my husband for something that day. I hope that it means a lot to him, too. The power of praise is probably why both my husband an I remember compliments a teacher gave to us a decade ago; she took the time to sincerely compliment a trait in each student in her class at the end of the year. The love we feel from receiving kind words is probably one reason why a significant percentage of Americans save greeting cards every year. (I heard that from a trivia game, but I can’t find the statistic online. Nonetheless, there are articles galore about how to save and organize greeting cards, so I imagine the trivia game wasn’t too far off.)
Let’s do an exercise together. Take a moment and think of one kind thing someone body said to you. What difference did it make in your life? In my own life, I’ve found that praise has had the ability to lift me up when taking care of a toddler seems mundane and it takes every ounce of energy to make it to nap time. Sincere words of love helped me look beyond the daily routines and see the importance of what I was doing. Praise also has power in different areas of my life, too. I remember kind words my supervisor spoke to me, and that praise helped me get through one of the hardest weeks I had been through professionally.
Hopefully that exercise illuminated how much compliments, encouragement, and praise can lift us up. If so, we would be wise to ask ourselves how we can better praise others.
Praising Kids is an Important Part of Parenting and Showing Love
I wrote in a previous post that 1 on 1 time, or playing with children, was one of the common denominators across numerous parenting programs that I have studied as a counselor. The other common denominator I have found in parenting programs and books is praise. Words and actions of encouragement and love are such a vital part of parenting.
My little girl’s face lights up with joy when we clap and praise her newfound abilities or when she shows us her silly, spunky personality. Her love of praise won’t end when she stops being a toddler, however. I saw it over and over in counseling sessions with children. They eat up positive words and actions from parents and others (such as counselors or coaches). This is perhaps especially true when the child is behaving in difficult or problematic ways. No matter how difficult and trying someone may be, they still need to know that there is much to love about them.
Including Positive Interactions While Disciplining
Praise can change the nature of interactions from contentious to accepting. One effective way to have difficult conversations or corrective lessons is to start out with a compliment of of success before talking about what needs improvement. This way, it will hopefully reinforce to kids that they are important and valuable instead of focusing only on their weaknesses. For example, “I love how hard you’ve been working on your reading and English homework. You’ve really learned a lot. I’m noticing, though, that you’re struggling in science class. Let’s talk about what would help you improve your science homework.”
Praise as a Behavior Modifier
Praise can mold a child’s behavior because they want to continue to be reinforced for doing good! Instead of focusing on only the corrections (such as “Stop jumping on the dog…again!”), praise for the behavior that is wanted. “Thank you for petting the dog so softly.”
Be Clever in Finding Ways to Praise
Sometimes we need to be clever in thinking about how we praise. We’ve all had the days when there seems to be nothing but fighting, tantrums, and disobedience. What is there possibly to praise? Catch kids being good. Actively look for children or teens doing things you like instead of starting to pay attention only when the screaming and tattling starts. You can even set up situations in which they’ll demonstrate praiseworthy behavior. Kids’ behavior doesn’t have to be spontaneous; we parents can help children behave in ways that then elicit praise.
Praise People for Who They Are
Even better than praising a behavior (like cleaning his room) is praising kids for who they are. Praise their sense of humor, their creativity, their leadership abilities. Try to recognize what their individual strengths and talents are and compliment them. This may help them see their own value and worth in this world full of competition.
Praise in Marriage: Nurture Your Relationship
Like I mentioned above, I found that I was happier when I focused more on the positives and the evidences of love in my life and thanked my husband every night. This isn’t just one person’s opinion, though. Researchers have also found this to be true.
Dr. John Gottman, a well-known marriage researcher, has found there are four “horsemen of the apocalypse.” They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Obviously there are many, many ways to combat these destroyers of a healthy and happy marriage. One of these ways to combat them, according to Dr. Gottman, is to nurture your fondness and admiration. Complimenting a spouse on qualities you love about him/her, thanking them for things large and small, and noticing the positives is definitely one way to do so. You can’t criticize someone and praise them at the same time- not sincerely and without sarcasm anyway. It’s difficult to hold someone in contempt when you’re actively looking for all the positive qualities about them.
Dr. Gottman said, “By simply reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities-even as you grapple with each other’s flaws-you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating.”¹ In his book The Seven principles for Making Marriage Work, he has some awesome daily thought exercises to help people remember why they love their spouse and the qualities that they loved and were attracted to in the first place. Dr. Gottman said, “When you acknowledge and openly discuss positive aspects of your partner and your marriage, your bond is strengthened. This makes it much easier to address the problem areas in your marriage and make some positive changes.” Pretty cool, right?
The Same Principles of Praise Apply to Marriages
The exact same principles I listed under praising children apply to a marriage. On those really hard days you may need to get creative in finding something to praise and compliment in a spouse. That’s okay. I think it only makes it more sincere instead of the easy, “You look really nice in that color” or “Thanks for taking out the trash.”
Praise can take difficult days or conversations and sprinkle love and understanding into them.
I don’t want to talk about trying to modify a spouse’s behavior like you try to do with children and start mothering your spouse. That being said, nobody is perfect and I’m sure most of us have something about their spouse they wish they would work on. Praising instead of complaining can be both a positive and effective way to ask someone to change. For example, telling your spouse you were grateful that they made dinner when you were busy chauffeuring to the soccer game and asking them if they could do that more often is better than complaining that they only made dinner once this month.
Praise Yourself: Notice the Good in You
Too many of us beat ourselves up and notice all of our shortcomings. While we want to acknowledge ways we can improve, shaming ourselves doesn’t do any good. Just like with those around us, it’s important to praise ourselves and notice our successes and positive traits. I know this can be really difficult to do because we’re often our own worse critic. Thankfully, there are other great journaling exercises or other techniques that can help get us started. Read 2 of my favorite 1 minute exercises to do this here.
Remember, everyone deserves encouragement and praise, including from yourself! Also, I believe we can seek praise from others without fishing for compliments or being prideful or conceited. If we need a lift-me-up, we can hopefully find the courage to ask a loved one for some encouragement. Maybe it’s difficult to identify our own strengths, and if so loved ones can offer their views on what we’re talented in and good at.
Effective Ways to Praise
Lastly, there are a few tips that can help turn praise into something more valuable:
- Be specific. Something such as “I love the way that you helped your little sister and played with her today. You’re so kind” is much more clear than “You’re awesome.
- Be sincere. Praise that doesn’t come with a lot of warmth or sincerely on your part will surely miss its mark.
- Praise growth and efforts instead of innate abilities. Carol Dweck has done much research on why it’s important to praise hard work and qualities that are controllable instead of fixed traits. For example, tell children you’re proud of how much time they put into studying for a test and getting a good grade instead of simply telling them they’re smart. Read more about this fixed versus growth mindset here.
- Dr. Gottman advocates the 5:1 ratio: find 5 positives or have 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative.
- Praise does not have to be through words. It can also be through a hug, a huge smile, a gift that symbolizes something, etc.
¹Gottman, J. (1999) The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: New York, Three Rivers Press.