Like all parents, I love to hear good stuff about my kids. I think my kids are the best, but I recognize that I am completely biased, so it's nice when others agree. Especially when they accomplish something that is seriously challenging for them or work really hard on a project or skill. However, I do have some basic rules for complimenting my kids.
You see, I don't want my kids to get the wrong the idea about what makes them awesome, and I don't want them to start valuing things like their appearance or pants' size over effort and overcoming adversity. Thin is not a value. Pretty is subjective. Both girls and boys should be praised equally for effort and accomplishments, even for things that are not stereotypically associated with their gender and especially when it's a hard thing for them. I would actually prefer if people get to know my kids before they complimented them. Compliments they have received from strangers in the check out line include: "You are so pretty", "What a big boy!" and "Your daughter has beautiful curls" (about my son). Excuse me while I vomit. I do appreciate the kind words about how helpful and polite my kids are. I try. Still, sometimes even those feel empty.
The most important thing I try to remember is to recognize that kids are little sponges, and they learn to see themselves as reflections of what we say and do when they are around. My heart breaks when my daughter cries because she thinks she's stupid, my stepdaughter thinks she needs to lose weight, and my4-year-old son wants a haircut because someone said he looks like a girl. They internalize everything. They also know when people are being insincere, but they don't always understand how sarcasm works. In other words, it's important to be real.
Bottom line: our kids deserve respect, to feel good, and to be acknowledged for the right things. In order to accommodate those necessities, please follow the following rules when complimenting my children (or anyone else's children, actually).
Don't Compliment Their Appearance
Just don't. I know it's tempting, because they are pretty cute, but my kids are so much more than pretty faces and they deserve to know that.
Do Compliment Their Effort
Outcomes are not as important as effort. My kids may never be the best singers or dancers or spellers. However, they deserve to hear praise when they try hard or give things their all, not just when they do things "well" or up to a particular standard.
Don't Misgender Them
There's really no reason to mention my kid's gender at all. I really and truly can't think of one. So, please don't tell my long-haired son what a pretty girl he is. However, please know that I won't correct you when you do it, because being mistaken for a girl is nothing to be ashamed of. Girls are awesome.
Do Be Specific
Saying "you are a great kid" or "good job" is nice, but sort of empty. How about, "I really like the picture you are working hard on," or, "you were really kind to your brother when you comforted him," instead?
Don't Compare Them
My kids are unique individuals with different talents, skills, and areas where they have to work harder than anyone else to do well. Don't compare them to each other. You don't have to cut one down to praise another and life isn't a competition.
Do Acknowledge Challenges
I love it when someone recognizes that one of my children has done or tried something that is personally hard for them. For one of them it's speaking up and using his words. For another it's staying calm and level-headed. For another, it's not taking over and letting others lead. I praise the heck out of them for attempting to do hard things and improve in areas that need improvement.
Don't Go Overboard
My kids are not the smartest, most attractive, and most talented kids on the planet, and they don't have to be in order to be awesome. Even I know this, and I am super biased. Don't go over-board.
Do Be Sincere
My kids are very perceptive. They pick up on empty words and insincerity. If you want them to trust you, be sincere.
Don't Bring Up Past Mistakes
It's one thing to compliment my child for getting over something hard or getting better at something, but please don't bring up the past. "Way to go for using the potty!" or "Congrats on your A!" doesn't sound so good when you also add, "Remember last week when you wet the bed?" or "You didn't get an F like last time."
Do Be Positive
This one is pretty simple. Kids respond to all types of attention. For mine, if I praise the heck out of them for positive things and try to reduce the number of times I point out mistakes, they start actually making fewer mistakes. It's so cool. Plus, it has the added bonus of boosting their self-confidence.
Don't Compliment Their Weight Or Size
Thin is not a value. Tall is not a compliment. Being a big, strong boy, or a delicate, petite girl, is not an accomplishment. Telling my kid she looks like she lost weight is not a compliment, and it reinforces bullsh*t values. Don't do it.
Do Pay Attention To Their Response
Please pay attention to how my kids react to your words (even your well-intentioned compliments). Words matter. Let my kids (and others) see a positive image reflected back in your words. They deserve to feel good, but not for the wrong reasons. If you mess up, apologize and learn from your mistakes. I have to do this every day. Their smiles when I get things right are totally worth it.