Compliments can be a funny thing, especially when it comes to children. We all want our children to have good self-esteem, but we don’t want them to be arrogant or bratty. I sometimes find myself wanting to cover my daughter’s ears when people compliment her, because, while compliments are given to kids with good intentions, I believe that they’re actually counterproductive in most cases. With a few exceptions, I don’t believe in complimenting children for anything other than exceptionally good behavior. Here are three compliments that I’ll never give my children.
“You’re so pretty!”
Yuck! I know it’s meant well, but I don’t like complimenting kids because of their appearance. It teaches them to be vain and superficial, as if simply being born with good looks makes them better than other kids. Worse, it praises them for something that is outside of their control. A child does not choose to be beautiful or handsome, any more than she chooses her eye color. I don’t believe in complimenting kids for something they didn’t do or choose. There are a lot of alternatives, though. “You’re beautiful” is just fine as long as it’s said with the understanding that beauty is inside and out. I also like giving compliments on choices, such as, “That’s a great outfit you picked out!” or “Your hair looks great since you conditioned it all by yourself last night!”
Like beauty, intelligence isn’t something children choose. It happens when the right genes and the right environment line up, which aren’t factors that are within the child’s control. It also teaches the wrong values. I don’t want my children to grow up believing that intelligence is their greatest quality. I want them to instead focus on being good people who do good things. Smart people are a dime a dozen, but good people are all too rare. Instead of praising intelligence, I choose to compliment children for what they’re doing with their intelligence. I try to say things like, “I’m proud of you for working so hard on your homework,” and “You’ve been very creative with that art project!” instead of simply praising natural intellectual ability.
“You’re so strong!” or “You’re so skinny!”
Boys tend to be praised excessively for strength, while girls tend to be praised for thinness. In both cases, it can be very unhealthy. We live in a country with an epidemic of childhood obesity as well as an epidemic of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. When we praise girls for being thin, they learn that thinness is a virtue and that they should maintain it. It’s something that can easily turn into unhealthy under-eating to seek praise, or can turn into unhealthy over-eating when a girl is rebelling or testing her family’s love for her. Strength is another problem: it isn’t ideal to teach kids that physical ability is the result of good character, since in most children it’s simply wired into them (or not). Try to praise something else within your child’s control, like how well your kids have been practicing karate and how good they are about eating their vegetables. Physical traits and appearance in children don’t deserve compliments.
A compliment is, by-definition, well-meant, but it’s important for parents to be aware of how their well-meaning praises might come across to their children. Something can have unexpected negative consequences even if it’s said with only the best intentions. Before you gush about something that makes you proud, step back and think things through, and praise something that your child does instead of a trait that is outside of her control.