The Best Way to Pay a Compliment


“Of course you’re good-looking.”  “You’re the best friend ever.”  “Who wouldn’t want you on their team?”  Is there a parent out there (including me) who hasn’t praised a child in order to make him or her feel better?  Sometimes it’s true, and sometimes we say it because we just can’t stand to see them hurt.  Our kids usually know the difference.  We’ve missed the mark and they tell us so. 

This kind of well-intentioned compliment doesn’t work. Read on to learn how to pay a compliment that will contribute to your child’s healthy self-esteem.

How well do you receive a compliment?  Are you able to say thank you, take it in and bask in the praise?  Or do you feel uncomfortable, rejecting it and the person who complimented you?  If you’ve ever done the latter, it shouldn’t be surprising that your kids do this, too.  After all, most of what they learn about life and relationships they learn from you, their parents.  There really is a way to pay a compliment that leaves everyone feeling great about it.

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Your kids are your babies, your pride and joy, and you want them to feel confident and recognize their positive qualities.  So why is it that they squirm, deny, and reject you and your positive words? How can you help them recognize and accept their wonderful character traits?

Every parent has heard their child say, “You’re just saying that because you’re my mom/dad/grandpa/aunt.”  Sometimes they’re right. We don’t want them to be sad or disappointed. And of course we insist that’s not true, that they really are beautiful, gifted, talented, athletic and more.  It ends up in a stalemate and we wonder where we’ve gone wrong.

So here’s the thing:  they reject the compliment because they don’t believe they are what we say they are.  They don’t believe they can live up to what feel like high expectations.  Here’s a true story from 20-something Lisa.  Her sister was struggling with depression and low self-esteem, and Lisa was desperately trying to help her feel better about herself.  One day she simply (and sincerely) told her, “Karen, you look beautiful.”  She meant it, but Karen never saw herself as attractive, so the compliment came off sounding insincere to her.  (So much for good intentions.)  “No, I’m not,” she replied.  “You’re just saying that to make me feel good, but it’s not true.”  She was focused on her flaws and imperfections, instead of her goodness and potential.

You know you can’t change others and how they see themselves.  You can’t give them positive self-esteem; only they can do that by putting forward their best effort and attitudes.  What you can change is how you speak to them and acknowledge what you see.  How do you do that?  How do you pay a compliment that is heard and accepted and helps build self-esteem?  It’s easier than you think.  You talk about what you see. In Lisa’s case, it might sound like this:

          Lisa:          “Karen, that scarf and sweater go together really well.”  OR
                            “You put together a nice outfit.”

          Karen:        “I did?  Oh, I did!  Thanks.”

That’s not about Karen’s beliefs about herself; it’s about the effort she made and what she accomplished.  It’s much easier for her to accept that the items of clothing look nice together.  She made that happen.  It’s a world away from telling her she is beautiful, which is purely subjective.

Here’s a scenario between a parent and child:  After a game you say, “Mike, you’re a great basketball player.”  He says, “No, I’m not.  There are lots of guys who play better than I do.”  He’s focusing on the negative and making comparisons.   Here’s another way to approach it:

          Dad:           “Mike, I noticed how focused you were, looking for chances
                             to pass the ball to your teammates.  Well done.”

          Mike:         “Yeah, Dad.  I’ve been working on that.”

This is not an evaluation of Mike’s performance or ability.  It is an observation of his effort, an acknowledgement of what his dad saw him do.  Mike did it.  He made it happen. No judgment, no comparison, no expectations.  Just the facts Compliment received.

You do realize this works with everyone, not just our kids, right?   Friends, co-workers, the supermarket cashier, even our own parents will appreciate it.  (Include yourself in there.) It would be nice if people could always be aware of the good things they do and the positive qualities they have… but they aren’t.

Remember that people feel good about themselves when they do good things. The reality is that sometimes they need others to point out or remind them of what they’ve done.  Let’s say it so they can really hear it.

Fern Weis is a parent coach, specializing in supporting parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations (including underachieving, disrespectful behavior, addiction recovery and more). With parent-centered coaching, Fern helps parents release guilt, end enabling, and confidently prepare their children to thrive through life’s challenges. Learn more about coaching and workshops at or

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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