How often have you heard a parent say to a child, “This was the best day ever!” or “You drew that picture perfectly!” or “You are the most beautiful person in our family!” Or how often do coaches tell their teams they are playing an absolutely perfect game or they will never be defeated because they have the best players in the world.
Certainly the intentions are good. These are attempts to inspire our kids or a team, to encourage them, to let them know that they are doing an excellent job, meeting, and maybe exceeding expectations. The problem is when accolades are stated in absolute terms, using words like “the best,” “always,” “never,” and “perfect,” most likely they are not accurate. They can set a child (or an adult) up to feel there’s nowhere to go to improve. How can you improve if you’re already the best? How can you be more successful when you have already arrived at total success?
Many years ago, the pastor at the church I attended gave a sermon about how inaccurate it was for someone to describe their hoagie as “awesome.” He stated that when something is awesome it means we are in awe of it. “Are you really in awe of your hoagie or just really like it and think it tastes good?”
Dictionary.com provides the following definition: “AWE is a noun that means an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.” The pastor made the point that we should reserve identifying something or someone as “awesome” for what or who deserves to be revered. We shouldn’t be calling a sandwich as important as God. By reserving “awesome” for only those things or people deserving of this accolade, we are honoring that which deserves to be appreciated for how amazing it or they are.
Over the years, I have found myself often saying, “Perfect,” “Absolutely,” “Totally,” and other terms indicating that something or someone has reached the highest degree of achievement. I know it has become a new norm in our culture to use these kinds of terms but that doesn’t make it right. It can become just an easy way, without effort, to find a more suitable word perhaps to acknowledge that something or someone is worthy of this kind of compliment.
I suggest, especially when interacting with children, that it benefits them when adults modify or explain that accolades implying a child has reached their maximin degree of excellence is not really true because we can always improve from where we currently are.
The parenting book I consider a classic, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Faber and Mazlish, offers parents a way to communicate affirming messages to my children: descriptive praise. The formula for descriptive praise is simple, but it does require noticing what a child has done, why it is helpful or important, and how it makes you as a parent feel.
For example, instead of using an evaluative message when reading a child’s poem about eagles, such as, “What a wonderful poem!”, instead describe what the child did (“You captured why an eagle is a beautiful symbol of our country”) and how it made you feel (“I was very moved by the image you created.”) Think about what a child might say to themself, something like, “I guess I can write poetry that moves people.”
I don’t think the world is going to change its use of exaggerated evaluative language any time soon, but we can merge those terms with the Faber and Mazlish formula for giving descriptive praise. We can also be more attuned to those who are over the top with their exaggerated evaluative language in an effort to be self-aggrandizing. Words have power and so do we. We have the power to be more intentional in how we speak and in our abilities to be wise consumers of what others say.
Invitation for Reflection
- Consider what you recently said when trying to praise or affirm someone, especially a child. What did you say? Was it more evaluative or descriptive?
- If more evaluative, how could you have said it in a way that would be more descriptive?
- How might that have impacted the person who received your message? What might they have said to themselves?