I recently heard that kids hear more than 400 negative comments per day, compared with only 32 positive comments. The negative comments are damaging — to their confidence and self-esteem and their overall outlook on life. In addition, positive reinforcement is shown again and again to be more effective than more Draconian, punishment-based behavior modifications.
It doesn’t take me long to ascertain how true this must be. One negative, strategically placed comment can send me on a daylong rant. And one genuine compliment that I feel I earned can send me over the moon.
“I will be positive with my kids,” I vow. It’s not the first time. Nor am I making up for excessive negativity on my end — I try not to be a Debbie Downer. But whenever I become mindful of how I’m phrasing things, it occurs to me, I’m not particularly lavish with compliments.
Some people are gifted at giving compliments. One of my friends, in particular, comes to mind. She compliments my skills, my talents, my children, my husband, my hair and she laughs at all my jokes. She is a complete joy to be around — for obvious reasons. But also because she’s believable. I never feel like she’s trying to bamboozle me with flattery. She has a knack for making other people feel good: the God-given gift of encouragement.
On the flip side, there are people who serve up a slew of compliments, but they feel phony and manipulative. I recall a sales meeting in which we had to deliver some negative news to a client. The sales manager taught me a little trick. “Whenever you have to deliver negative news, sandwich it between two positives.” I think of it as a negativity sandwich. Carefully choose a couple pieces of positivity — accomplishments, a compliment or some other positive tidbits — that’s the bread. Stick the correction, criticism or shortcoming in the middle. It softens the blow. But you know what? The meat is still the negative. It’s called a “beef sandwich,” not a “bread sandwich with beef.”
It can work, but do it enough, and pretty soon, someone will realize you’re feeding them a line of bull. Take away the meat? It’s just toast — empty calories.
I ran across two lists the other day. One was a comprehensive list of ways to compliment a child. The other was a list of things you should never say to your child.
Number one on both lists was the phrase: “Great job!” The compliment list, in fact, was a list of 99 compliments that struck me as generic and potentially empty. I could say any one of them to my kids right now. I could tally a positive remark for the day, but it would really say nothing to them.
The list of things to never say to your child warned against generalized, empty compliments. When the compliment is non-specific, the child doesn’t know what they did right. How to get even better. Where they excel.
The trick to nourishing with positivity is to give a positivity sandwich. The compliment has to be the meat. Honest and from the heart, not overblown, specific and educational — and given without a “but” or an ulterior motive. Compliments don’t come from lists. They’re an art form that must be perfected.