Great for All Ages, Parent-Child Communication

Be Specific When You Praise Me

The other day was a bad hair and outfit day. My husband, in an effort to make me feel better, told me he thought I looked pretty. I dismissed him, presumably for his obvious bias. He was offended. He genuinely thinks I’m pretty, but that is not good enough for me. And it’s not good enough for most wives.

And it’s not good enough for kids either.

Board certified behavior analyst and co-author of The Behavior Code tells us, “No vague praise – easy to dismiss” (2015), which is exactly what I did to my husband. Instead, he should have said, “Your eyes are especially cheery today” or “Well, I understand why you think you’re having a bad hair day, but your hair actually looks like you intentionally made it messy. It looks good.” You know, if he actually thought one of those things.

Same thing goes for when we praise our children and students.

Be Specific When You Praise
By this point it almost feels cliche to give the following advice: “Don’t praise your child for being smart. Praise him for working hard or his good thinking.”

Here are a couple other ideas for specific praise:

When your child…

  • is a good friend or does something nice for another kid, such as share a toy or play with someone who does not have many friends.
  • is clever, for instance comes up with a unqiue “stinky pinky“.
  • plays Devil’s Advocate.
  • asks questions and is curious about a topic.
  • is self-motivated to practice a skill, such as dancing or the guitar, and spends her free time doing that.
  • made a great diorama and you particularly like how he showcased _________.
  • was in a play and used her facial expressions to portray feelings well.
  • wrote a paper and his teacher told you what a good job he did on it.
  • improves her soccer dribbling and footwork – it looks so natural and easy!

No need to praise too much and go overboard – we want kids to develop internal motivation instead of being motivated by parental praise. But some specific praise after the fact can be an emotional boost. And even if your teenager does not appear to appreciate the praise, he heard you and is storing that praise to remember when he needs a lift.

The same thing goes for wives and husbands. 😉


Minahan, J. (2015). Between a Rock and a Calm Place. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.