I love this topic, because children so often hear something entirely different than what we are meaning to say. They also remember every word and hold us to what we say, so we need to be thoughtful in the words we choose. I broke it down into five types of compliments that we need to think carefully before we use:
Children should be judged on their own merits, not on how they compare to other children. This type of compliment may leave the child feeling second-rate:
"You're almost as smart as your brother!"
"You're doing a great job keeping up with your homework. I appreciate the good grades.
"You'll be prettier than any of the other girls at the dance tonight!"
"You are lovely tonight. Just remember who you are and what you stand for."
Giving children unrealistic or lofty projections could make them unfulfilled when those ideals are not met:
"You're so beautiful, guys will be lined up around the corner!"
"You have a beauty that comes from all the goodness inside."
"You're so great with money, you'll be a millionaire by the time you're 20!"
"Money management will serve you very well when you start a family of your own."
Telling children they are the MOST this or the BEST that can be detrimental when they realize they are not:
Not so good
"There's never been a better piano player in the world!"
"Your musical gift has the power to uplift a lot of people."
"No one will ever love you the way I love you!" (this one has self-fulfilling prophecy written all over it!)
"Be thoughtful about who you date. Take the time to find someone worthy of you.
Cutesy is the opposite of using superlatives. It's when you diminish an accomplishment by making it less significant than it is to the child:
"That is the most darling little replication of the Sistine Chapel I have ever seen!"
"I love that you took so much time and care in making this. I'm really impressed."
"You're so adorable when you're mad!"
"It looks like you might be upset about something. Would you like to talk?" (This is not a compliment, but neither is the first one!)
5. Complimenting things that are not of lasting worth
It's really important to use sparingly compliments that pertain to unimportant things. I hear parents and grandparents (and others) say too often to a child, "You are so pretty/handsome!" While it is important to hear that on special occasions, it is one quality that could be taken away at any moment. It is vital for children to know that they are so much more than a pretty face. As an alternative, these are some compliments on characteristics that can last, will benefit others, and are of eternal value:
"You are such a good helper."
"I like how you think good things about other people."
"You make me laugh, and I love to laugh."
"You have a lot of good ideas."
Compliments are important. A father once told me, "If I compliment my wife or children, they'll stop trying." What a sad, false commentary. I have found that, generally, compliments given thoughtfully give children landmarks that let them know they are on a good path - one that they should stay on. So, think first, and then give praise liberally but thoughtfully.