How to Praise Effectively
Rabbi Nochem Kaplan 


We all appreciate a meaningful compliment; no one ever started a feud because he was given a compliment. Nevertheless, lots of people have been offended by offhanded and seemingly insincere praise.

Here's a newsflash- Children need praise. Our children need our feedback to know what behaviors to repeat. Our children crave our attention and constantly look for our approval and praise. With proper encouragement and praise, we can reinforce good behavior, change bad behavior and get children to do practically anything. Learning how to use praise effectively is an invaluable asset in the parenting skills-repertoire of any parent.

In a nutshell; constructive praise and/or a sincere compliment are the lifeline of encouragement and productivity of any child. Conversely, insincere or disingenuous praise can be utterly destructive to incentive, initiative, and can do untold damage to self-esteem. Wow! That's a heavy load to bear.

In the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, which loosely translated as The Ethics of Our Fathers, the legacy of sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, who reestablished Torah study after the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, the second temple in Jerusalem, is discussed. We are told that he had 5 prize pupils. Then we are told, almost in passing "הוא הי' מונה בשבחן - that he would count their praises".

Why are we told that fact? Clearly, because the Mishna is teaching us that the praise he bestowed has a salutary effect on the development of these prize students- students who became the Jewish leaders of the next generation. Praise is not only good, it is essential to personal development and we should learn how to best use it.

So how do we praise in a way that we may be sure to have a positive effect? What kind of praise should we avoid, so as not to have an adverse effect?

Praise the child's behavior, not the child.

First and foremost, we need to learn to praise particular behaviors rather than children. In this way, the child understands clearly what behaviors we approve of, what's expected of him and how to please. It is always our intention to encourage the child to repeat and expand upon the desired behavior. If I tell the child "you're a really good kid" he may feel good momentarily but then he'll ask himself: Why do you think so? Good at what? So what? If I tell him what I liked - which behavior I found praiseworthy, then he knows why and what and so what.

"Devorah, I like the way you sat down to do your homework quietly without being prompted". Devorah has learned that I am appreciative of her sitting down without being directed. She now knows what I appreciate and what I expect in the future.

If I had said "Devorah you are a really good girl for how you did your homework", what will she have learned and what behavior should she increase? So, by praising her behavior I am encouraging and reinforcing a behavior I want Devorah to repeat. 

How to reinforce the desired behavior:

If I say the same thing tomorrow and the day after I will have reinforced the behavior, but after a few days it's going to wear on her. If I say "Devorah you are showing me how responsible you are by sitting down to do your homework, unprompted." It sounds so much more spontaneous and genuine. If I follow the next day with something like "Devorah your maturity shines through when you sit down by yourself and do homework", and the next day "Devorah you make me proud of the way you are becoming responsible" and so on, I have reinforced a behavior and taught Devorah something about maturity and responsibility.

What if I say "Devorah, it's about time you learned to sit down and do homework without my prompting." I will have given Devorah a reason to resent me; the insinuation is that you were displeased before, that Devorah has been immature and she will discount the compliment and focus on the negative connotation. What a difference a word makes.

Remember to Model the behavior:

I need not say how hollow praise sounds when it is not modeled. Imagine teaching a young driver a lesson in vehicular safety and running a few red lights? We don't need to be a paradigm of all virtue but we do need to follow through in our own lives the behaviors that we are praising. Come to think of it that could keep us all on the straight and narrow.

The Talmud tells an interesting story regarding Rabbi Yochanan's mother. The Yom Kippur she was pregnant with him she was overcome by a tremendous craving for food. When she was reminded that it was Yom Kippur she suppressed her desire and continued to fast. That, we are told was the reason that the child in utero became Rebbi Yochanan. Now, it would seem as though his mother's strong will and her religious fervor surely impacted the unborn child, but was that a determining factor in his becoming Rabbi Yochanaon?

To me this passage says something else. The Talmud wishes to convey to us that as the child grew up, he had a living example of self-denial and of a life guided by higher principles. They were a decisive in developing Rebbi Yochan's ability to dedicate his life to spiritual pursuits.

Consider the individual when giving praise:

We need to consider every individual and the environment when praising. Praise is a highly potent behavioral stimulant that needs to be prescribed individually. What works for Devorah may not be what Bella needs. What is acceptable, even praiseworthy for Bella may not have any meaning for Devorah; praise has to be tailored to the individual.

What if Devorah has a tendency toward hyperactivity? What if she has difficulty sitting still for more than 5 minutes after a long day at school? What if there are younger siblings who are a distraction? If I relate the behavior to the amount of time spent at the task or, to how she handled the distractions, I will have complimented her in a very personal way and shown what behaviors she should try to extend.

The ultimate objective of praise:

What we really hope for, when we praise a child is that having felt good about what he has done, he will look to repeat that behavior or something similar tomorrow.

There is a story told about one of Napoleon's generals who reported to him of his recent victory. He informed the emperor of his strategy and how he had prepared his troops. He boasted of how the enemy had been routed and how he had celebrated the victory. Napoleon was quiet and thoughtful and then looked him in the eye and asked, "Tell me. What did you do the next day?" He had come in to be praised for his great victory and he was taught an important lesson.

Our objective is to make a child feel so good that he will want to make his tomorrow even better. Our encouragement may be the incentive which a child and even an adult needs to be able to maximize his potential.

An Excerpt from "Klolei HaChinuch V'Hahadrocho":

In "Klolei HaChinuch V'Hahadrocho", a famous essay dictated by the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe and actually committed to writing, with elaboration, by his son the sixth Rebbe in the Lubavitch dynasty, the Rebbe writes, that human nature is such, that a person responds with pleasure to a compliment and praise and to accept honest feedback. Praise and honest feedback are the basic tools of the trade of an educator. They have the power to elevate any individual and set him upon a constructive path for personal and emotional growth.

So, the plumber has his wrench, the carpenter his saw, the doctor his stethoscope and the dentist his drill. The educator and parent come equipped with a basic tool as well, His positive and yes, his negative feedback, the most powerful of these being a compliment and proper praise.

Some further ideas about proper praise:

Public vs. private praise:

We feel differently about being praised in public. Some people appear to thrive on public praise while others want to hide in embarrassment. We can all recall an embarrassing moment when a parent publicly heaped on the praise, much to chagrin, in the same way we might also remember being publicly complimented for a job well done, where we felt it was justly deserved. The difference may relate to who was doing the complimenting and who the listeners were.

When it comes to public praise, there is no right or wrong. There is simply the need for some common sense. Children's sensitivity comes in the many colors and shades; we as adults react to public attention in many different ways. Some require a good deal of conditioning to become comfortable in public, others seem to take to it like a duck to water. So it is a good idea to vary praise, sometimes private and sometimes public depending upon the child and the situation. That may mean sometimes limiting praise of a particular child to personal exchanges, while praising another before the whole class.

The bottom line is that we must be careful and deliberate about how we praise. In some cases if a child is only praised privately he may begin to feel that he is not worthy of public attention. Conversely if he is only praised in public he may feel that it's intentional and only for public consumption. Do both and vary them; see what the child responds to.

Being genuine; matching body language to the verbal praise:

Children are very perceptive. We are sometimes unaware of what children learn by observation and how much children pick up vicariously.

What does a child think when you offer praise and momentarily look away and wink your eye? That's a giveaway of course; the child knows you are pulling his leg. What if you praise a child but your face can't seem to crack a smile. Does it look forced? Of course it does and that's my point. The non-verbal cues have to match your words; your body language has to say "I mean this sincerely."

A smile goes a long way. Looking your child in their eyes goes even further. Together they convey the unmistakable message that you are pleased to be able to offer a compliment and you are being honest and sincere about it.

There are two absolute "No’s” which need to be mentioned:

1. Never compare children. Focus on the child's efforts and his own abilities, not comparisons.

Every child is an individual with G‑d given talents and gifts and everyone has shortcomings of one kind or another. Michelangelo may be tone deaf and Einstein may have had thin skin. They were individuals and are recognized for their different strengths and will never be compared to one another.

The very idea that Chani may feel that she is being compared and measured against someone other than herself can thwart her effort and limit her success, never mind what it will do to her self-esteem. When Chazal said "Kinas Sofrim Marbe Chochma - the envy of scholars spreads wisdom", they meant comparison of the scholarship not the scholars. We all accept the idea that looking at the work of other people gives us new ideas and improves our output.  

The psychological narrative of too many angry people shows that so many did not live up to their potential and/or those who spent a lifetime competing with a phantom never to enjoy their own success. The only one Chani should be compared to, is Chani. 

2. Do not link success to ease of task.

The second "No" is linking success to the ease of the task at hand, good luck or a good day. "Sure you did well on  that assignment it was an easy one." What a way to kill the joy of a successful achievement. Oh! The solution to that problem, it was a fluke, just good luck, or the product of a particularly sunny spring day; you probably couldn't repeat it.

To sum up:
The litmus test of a good compliment and successful praise is to see if it encourages and stimulates continued effort and dedication to perpetual learning and growth. The best form of praise gets children to think about their behavior and makes them determined to do the right thing.