- Chapter 15 -
Why is it that we, as human beings, don't acknowledge other peoples' good performances, attractive appearances, or other favorable characteristics, more frequently, especially since we know how much it means when it is directed to us?
People want to be appreciated, to be accepted as valuable members of the groups with whom they work, play, or study. It is important to make them feel good about themselves and their relationships. Praise contributes to a person's attitude about himself or herself.
- The social compliment.
- Praise designed to build self-esteem, to motivate, and to help build character.
- Praise designed to build relationships and encourage cooperation.
Social compliments are designed to make someone feel good and to express friendship, both worthy motives. Like other forms of praise, they must be truthful, authentic, and appropriate to be effective. It is helpful for a compliment to be specific, rather than so general it loses meaning.
It is easy to look for opportunities to make favorable remarks to people, not just about appearance, but about other desirable characteristics and about performance. This is along the same lines as the social compliment. It takes such little effort, when you see a carpenter doing something well, or a secretary whizzing along on a word processor, to say, "It's a pleasure to see skillful people who know what they are doing." To see their reaction makes you feel good.
But compliments can be overdone. Slinging around expressions like "Beautiful" indiscriminately and mouthing flattery designed to curry favor are transparent and most often bring about an effect directly opposite to the effect the perpetrators expect.
Many people, like teachers, parents, and employers, have ready opportunities to use praise to build self-esteem, to motivate, and to help build character. Unfortunately, many in these categories don't say anything to those with whom they have such important relationships until something goes wrong. How prevalent is the attitude, "I let 'em alone as long as they are doing O.K., but when they goof off, I bring 'em up short. They won't do that again." Even sadder are the actions of people in leadership roles who try to build themselves up by tearing others down. They may be doing something for themselves, or think they are, but the effect on others can be devastating.
I recall observing a recruit in the Army trying to disassemble and reassemble his M-1 Garand rifle. The Sergeant watching him got exasperated at how slowly the process was going, called the man a dummy, and grabbed the rifle from him.
"Let me show you", he said.
Having done it many times before, the Sergeant took it apart and put it back together with great speed and then said, "See, that's how you do it."
You can imagine how the recruit felt, and he had my sympathy, because I had been such a recruit myself once and knew how slow and painstaking the learning process was.
A little girl showed her mother a picture of a rose she had drawn. Without thanking her for bringing the picture or starting with anything positive, the mother said, "That's not what a rose looks like. Let me show you." She put the pencil in the girl's hand, enclosed hers over it, and directed the pencil to draw a rose. That little girl took this as a message, "You can't draw roses. I am the only one who can." Now a grown woman, she told me she does not ever remember voluntarily attempting to draw again.
A father, dining at a public restaurant with his family, noticed his daughters with her elbows prominently positioned on the table. His natural reaction was to say, "How many times do I have to tell you to take your elbows off the table?"
Then he thought of praise and bided his time, and the opportunity came. "Cindy, I notice how carefully you are chewing with your mouth closed. It is a good example for the rest of us." Cindy looked pleased and the rest of the family was impressed. Shortly the elbows disappeared from the table and did not reappear for the rest of the meal.
Praise, commendation, and appreciation are crucial in the development of our self-images and how we think and feel about ourselves. A good self-image not only affects a person's well-being, but it influences performance as well. Nowhere is this more important, nor can it be better illustrated, than with children. They are so sensitive, so malleable in their formative years that the influence of a few remarks one way or another can have a great effect. Many parents think of criticizing the things that are wrong with their children without giving praise for what is done right.
It is very important to give toddlers a feeling of accomplishment, not only for something that is actually done well in their little world, but for things that are important to them, however trivial they may seem to us. An example is when a child picks up six blocks and takes them one at a time to the other end of the room, and then reverses the process. Some cheers and hand clapping will make him or her feel proud, and, as strange as it may sound to some people, that and similar events determine how that person will feel about himself or herself as an adult. Look for opportunities to praise children because there is less possibility of making them egotistical than causing them to lack confidence in themselves. Much is being said these days about the poor self-images of teenagers. But how were they treated when they were young children?
Praise forges bonds of mutual respect, especially in relationships in which people want to please and do for each other. Certain of our teachers, employers, fellow workers, and others have inspired our loyalty because they were the ones who expressed and praise for the things we were and did. An alternative to encouraging cooperation is the attempt to force or pressure individuals into taking the action you dictate. Yes, by your superior power, you can make a 3-year-old do things, but by and large, you cannot make an adult do things. An adult has a choice. He or she can quit the job, in one set of circumstances, or in another quit the relationship. When an adult quits a marriage, it is called a divorce.
On the other hand, it is possible to create a set of circumstances to develop the type of relationships which cause people to want to cooperate, to want to be part of the team, to want to please a superior. Praise, commendation, and appreciation help to bring about such relationships.
The subject of praise is of special interest to me, going back to my youth. I am very grateful for my parents, for the heritage which made them what they were, and for the support which they gave me. An example was my father's statement that no matter what I did, no matter what kind of trouble I got into, or where I was, I could always call on him for help. That was a source of great comfort. He also had many wise and supportive observations about life, which led to our family's saying, "The old man was right." Unfortunately, we often said it too late.
However, one adverse influence in my growing up was the absence of praise, though not because my mother and father were indifferent or lacked the desire to be the best parents possible. They were devoted and conscientious. But they subscribed to the prevailing belief, which has been referred to above and which was even stronger in previous generations than today, that the best way to bring up children was to correct them if they were wrong, without emphasizing their successes. My mother, in particular, felt that praise led to conceit, a characteristic which she abhorred. So if I did something well, she immediately emphasized the next goal to be reached. She believed that this would lead to higher and higher achievement.
Whatever it might have done for my achievements was not worth what it did to my attitude about myself. I felt I could never attain approval, and so ingrained was this in my life that to this day, in my inner psyche, I feel that I am not measuring up to what I should be achieving and thus feel guilty. Such childhood influences are so strong that no amount of subsequent reality can erase them.
A vivid memory remains with me to this day of bringing a good report card to my parents, and although there was nominal approval, the real message was, "Now you've shown us what you can do. We want all your report cards to be like this in the future." There was always the emphasis not on what I was doing well in the present but what was required of me in the future. I could never reach the level of complete acceptance.
I only remember being praised for two things in my growing up; one was that as a very little boy, I had an especially sweet smile, and another was that I was a good marble player. My mother said she would not praise me until she saw who I married. Along came Rubie Crosby, every mother's dream for her son, yet still my mother reserved her praise of me for having found such a lovely wife. Her rigid habit of mind was too ingrained.
It is not that I brood over this, which could lead to bitterness, but it is a fact. A good saying in regard to such experiences that we all undergo is, "Keep what is useful from your childhood including happy memories and let the rest go."
It is important for parents to praise children, but it is equally appropriate, and often as much needed, for children to praise their parents, and there are some readers of these words who might give this some thought.
It is possible to develop the fine art of praise. Identifying what others do well and telling them about it, appropriately, can become a skill and then a habit, first by realizing its importance and then by practicing it. Truthful, authentic, and appropriate praise can offer a fine source of encouragement. And we all need encouragement.