Thursday, April 14, 2005

Four rules of praise

This post is on how understanding the skill of praise helps me, and hopefully my kids, learn how to like people who are jerks.

I don't know that many people who are good at praise in America -- we don't exactly encourage our kids to read lyric poetry these days, and the best praise has always been lyric poetry. I've had to work hard to try to learn how to do it, because I'm married to a girl whose primary love language is words of praise, and it doesn't come naturally to me at all. I'm still not very good at it, though I'm getting better.

So, four rules for good praise:

1. Good praise is about the person you're praising, not about yourself.

2. The more specific and detailed, the better the praise is.

3. The more personal the praise is, the better, generally speaking. (Meaning, the more it has to do with your relationship with them. This does not conflict with Rule #1, though at first glance it may seem to.)

4. Good praise is sincere. (If you ever praise somebody insincerely and get caught, it will destroy the effectiveness of any further praise for a significant part of the future.)

And three further general principles of benefit:

What good praise does for the person praised, is generally to them feel better about themselves and more likely to make sure they deserve more of the same in the future.

What good praise does for the person doing the praising, is it reminds them of the good things about the praisee, and helps take their mind off the bad things about the praisee, and thus helps them like the praisee more.

What good praise does for the people hearing the praising is twofold: (1) if they already knew it, it has the same effect on them as on the praiser; and (2) if they didn't already know it, then they get to know the praisee better and have more reasons to like 'em. Either way it makes it easier for the audience to like and appreciate the praisee.

If you replace "good praise" with "deadly criticism," all these principles hold equally well as negatives. The more specific, detailed, personal and sincere deadly criticism is, the more devastating it is; etc.

To illustrate these principles:

Say I want to praise my daughter. First try:

"Kasia, I just want to praise you. I really want to praise you. You're my daughter and I plan to praise you a lot. I'm just going to stand here and praise you for hours."

Obviously that isn't really praise at all -- I didn't say a thing in the world about her other than "you're my daughter" which is no thanks to her. Let's try again.

"Kasia, I think you're a really cool kid and I'm glad you're my daughter."

Now that's better. But what if I say this instead?

"Kasia, I get just the hugest kick out of your sense of humor. You're so bloody intelligent that I can tell really subtle jokes in front of other kids, and I know that you'll catch the joke, and the other kids generally won't. So I can stand there and I can carry on a conversation with you and know that it means one thing to everybody except you and me, and something different to us, and I can tell from the way you throw the same sorts of double meanings back at me that you're laughing inside but keeping a straight face so as not to ruin just have no idea how much fun that is for me, and how bloody brilliant a girl has to be in order to play that kind of game with a grownup when she'll still only 14. You know perfectly well that Elizabeth Bennett is my favorite character in all of literature -- well, I've never met a girl more like Lizzie Bennett than you are, and that makes me hands-down the luckiest dad I know."


"Kasia, do you have any idea how proud I am of the way you can make yourself good at anything you want, just by deciding to? I've never seen anybody improve so fast at basketball as you did when you just decided one day, 'I want to be good at this,' even though you'd never played before. And now you're doing the same thing with drama and music. Good Lord, I don't know what you're going to decide you want to devote your life to, but I'd say whatever you decide it's going to be, there aren't going to be many people better at it than you are by the time you're done."

Not only is Kasia going to get a way bigger kick out of these last two conversations than she would out of the generic one, but -- what is more to the point of this post -- the effort I have to go to in order to come up with praise that specific really makes me focus incredibly carefully on Kasia. Anybody can say, "You're a great kid and I'm glad you're my daughter" without actually knowing their kid well at all. I could say that to Kasia if I had divorced her mom when she was six months old and hadn't come back around for the next fourteen years and had only just half an hour ago met back up with the kid. But to get specific, you have to have been paying careful attention to a person's specific good qualities, and that's exactly what you have to spend time doing in order to find ways to like somebody.

So what I'm trying to teach my kids about liking jerks is simply this: if there's somebody you don't like, then set out to praise them. And do a really good job of it. That means praise that's sincere and specific and detailed. You just cannot do that without focusing in on their good points. You don't like somebody? Fine. Then I want to know exactly what it is about them that's good and praiseworthy, and I want you to be the one who explains it to me.

That's why I love the advice somebody on an adoption list once gave about making her kids say three nice things about each other every time she heard them say one mean thing. To me, that's just exactly what's called for. Just absolutely perfect advice. And I've found it applies remarkably well to me, too, when we get around to the subject of politicians whom I find easy to hold in contempt. I have two rules: if I'm going to talk about a public figure, then I need to spend at least as much time praying for him as I do criticizing him, and I need to spend at least as much time praising him as I do criticizing him. Ideally, this would make me praise politicians and pray for them. In real life, all it does is make me sulkily shut up and stop whinin' about 'em. But that's better than nuthin'.

Just one more thing: it seems to me that, at least in junior high school, girls have way more problem with this than guys do. I was talking to some teenagers a couple of weeks ago at a church function; they had read something about "being pure" and thought that was a pretty vague piece of advice, and could I elaborate? Well, ordinarily when a Christian moralist talks about "being pure" he's talking about sexuality, and I think most of us would agree that if a teenaged boy were to go through an entire week without engaging in at least some form of mental "impurity," that would qualify him for more or less instant sainthood. (I think it was SNL's Fr. Guido Sarducci who put forth a theory of morality by which you got a daily monetary allowance, and then you charged varying amounts for different sins depending on how serious they were, and if at the end of your life you had any money left over you got into heaven. Talking back to your parents, $1.00; lying, $10.00; murder was the big one...$10,000 or something. And then there was "self-abuse -- only 25 cents...but it adds up.")

But for girls -- I mean, I'm not saying girls don't have plenty of sexuality, by any means. But I think if you want to hand a teenaged girl a standard of purity that's as hard for her to live up to as conservative Christianity's sexual ethic is for a teenaged boy, then you tell her to try to go for an entire week without once saying anything bad to her best girlfriend about any other girl. You should have seen the look on those girls' faces when I suggested that they imagine trying to do that for a week. Yet it's hard to think of better advice to give junior high girls, considering that almost certainly there will come a point in the next couple of years where their current best friend turns into their ex-best-friend, and the day that happens is the day everybody they ever "burned" hears all about what they said about them, with entertaining embellishments.

Female readers can jump all over my sexist self in outrage if you want, but it certainly seems to me that life as a junior high girl is dramatically different from life as a junior high boy, and this is one of the ways in which it differs.

Anyway, that's my way-more-than-two-cents on praise.


P.S. I didn't really illustrate Rule #1 ("Good praise is about the person you're praising, not about yourself"); so I'll toss this in.

My wife is (as those of you who've read her book can attest) a talented and enthusiastic writer, and she has down through the years written her share of poetry. Now, I love good poetry, and I know that what I write does NOT qualify; and so I don't write it. But for our first anniversary, I decided to write her a poem, because I was trying to be Mister Romance and that seemed like a romantic thing to do. It was a big success, because it was the last thing she expected me to do and so I got so many points just for trying that it didn't matter whether it was really any good. I didn't think much of it as poetry then (and still don't -- in the little I remember of it, there are lines that make me physically wince); and I've never written another one. But what strikes me now, looking back, is how bad it was as praise.

Here, I'll explain. I won't inflict the poem itself on you. But it had six stanzas, thirty-seven lines -- and I think probably only about five of those lines were about her, while the rest nattered on and on about me in various ways. When it's all said and done, in thirty-seven lines all I really managed to say about her was that she had sparkling eyes and a devastating smile, and that I really liked being with her. This, for a woman who by any standards should be very easy to praise. And that was when I was trying to be romantic. Thank God she gave me points for effort.

Anyway, that's what I mean about how real praise is about the other person, not about yourself.


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