Kids are pretty cute — and it's hard not to let them know it.
And most of the time, we mean well when we tell our children how beautiful they are. But when our compliments to our kids focus too much on appearance, they can backfire.
"Being complimented on appearance leads a child to believe that what others think of them is fixed, meaning that nothing they do or don't do will change how people view them," says psychologist Nicole Beurkens.
"When we compliment children on qualities and characteristics that are not based on appearance it helps children develop the sense that who they are matters — not just what they look like. This helps them understand that the ways they relate to others, the skills and talents they have, the behaviours that they exhibit are all meaningful and important."
And as any of us who went through an awkward stage in our teen years knows, a cute child may feel less than attractive as an adolescent — something that can be particularly hard if their self-worth is tied to appearance.
"When you focus on how they look, what does that say to them if they ever have a disfiguring accident or develop severe acne as a teenager?" says parent Laurie Turner, who says she focused her children's compliments on what they did versus what they looked like.
When we compliment children on qualities and characteristics that are not based on appearance it helps children develop the sense that who they are matters — not just what they look like.
Also, physical appearance is largely something your children have no control over — so compliments about it are not just superficial but also might be confusing. Children who are complimented on something they didn't do or work on might not understand how to respond, says parenting coach Sarah Hamaker.
"For example, my oldest child has super long hair, and she often receives compliments on its length, etc.," Hamaker says. "She says thank you but she's often asked me why people compliment her on her hair — it's not something she has had a lot to do with besides not getting it cut."
Here are ten ways to compliment your child on something other than appearance, in ways that will reinforce positive qualities and behaviour and boost their self-worth.
"You worked really hard on that!"
"My suggestion on complimenting children is to praise effort," says Amira Freidson, founder of Namaste Kid. Focusing on their effort recognizes what the child put into it instead of what others decide is noteworthy, Freidson says. "It helps children to stay focused on the process, and not the end result, which isn't always what they want it to be."
"I appreciate how patiently you waited for your turn!"
"I find focusing on a child's character traits is much better than outward appearances — and it can encourage a child to cultivate those positive characteristics," Hamaker says. "This allows the parent or teacher to emphasis things that a child has some control over rather than things he or she doesn't — like a child's eye colour, hair, skin colour, etc."
"I can see the floor of your room!"
Sometimes you can make an observation that sets your child up for the compliment, which helps them reflect on what they've done and recognize their own efforts and successes. "Just make observations without any praise — then kids give themselves the praise," says family therapist Bette Levy Alkazian.
"You were being a caring friend when she was crying and you gave her a hug."
Be very specific when complimenting children so they understand which thoughts, qualities, or actions are connected to your praise, Beurkens says. For example, telling your child exactly which action of theirs was caring is more effective than saying "You're a good friend," even if the intent is the same with both statements.
"Using specific compliments like these help children to feel empowered that they have positive qualities that others notice and admire, and encourages them to strive for using these skills and qualities more frequently," she says. "It's a simple but powerful way to help them feel more self-assured and resilient."
"Good job at putting that outfit together!"
If you do compliment your child's appearance, make it about something they've done, not something outside their control. Compliment an outfit your child picked out, a hairstyle they did, or completing a chore like laundry or ironing. "If we want to talk specifically about appearance then you can talk not about looks but about the effort the child took to get there," says early childhood expert Barbara Harvey.
If we want to talk specifically about appearance then you can talk not about looks but about the effort the child took to get there.Barbara Harvey
"You've practiced really hard for your recital."
Whether or not your child possesses innate ability in athletics, music, or something else, you can praise the effort they put into their extracurriculars. "If he's a talented musician, athlete, reader, or whatever, that's great — but it doesn't teach him much about hard work and overcoming obstacles. Everything in life will not come as easily to him as that special ability did, and you want to prepare him for the challenges he'll inevitably face," says family therapist Jill Whitney.
"The most useful compliments are about process and effort — things your child can control. For instance, even if your child isn't great at a sport or a subject, you can praise her persistence in working at it and improving. Being good at soccer isn't likely to be a skill that makes a difference in her adult life, but her willingness to learn will be."
"I like it when you're nice to your brother!"
"Point out positive aspects of your child's behaviour, talents, kindness, and character on a daily basis," says therapist Kimberly Hershenson. Simply pointing out that you like a behaviour of your child's brings them positive attention and reinforces those very behaviours.
"Thank you for clearing the dishwasher."
"Notice when your child does something right, like completing an expected chore without being reminded, and quietly acknowledge it. You don't want to go overboard, which can make your child do things to get praised rather than because it's a responsibility, but you can acknowledge that you've noticed the positive behaviour and appreciate it," Whitney says.
Notice when your child does something right, and quietly acknowledge it. You don't want to go overboard, but you can acknowledge that you've noticed the positive behaviour and appreciate it.
"I'm grateful for you."
Everyone likes to hear "I love you" but there are other ways to express what your child means to you. "While saying I love you is important, so is expressing gratitude," Hershenson says. "Gratitude shows how thankful you are for your child's existence while also showing appreciation for your child."
"I believe in you."
It can be hard to be a kid; your goals and ambitions don't always match up to your abilities, and there are a lot of new things you have to learn. "Children often get frustrated," Hershenson says. "By telling your child that you are confident in their capabilities, it helps them to feel loved and supported."