Complimenting a Child: When and How?

The Mishkan was a symbol of honor, of wealth and of royalty.
Many of its vessels were made of gold and silver, while the curtains were woven
with fine wool. The grandeur of the Mishkan gave Bnei Yisroel themselves a
feeling of grandeur; a feeling of self-respect and self-worth; a feeling that
their Torah and their actions could effect the world.

Today, the Yeshivos take the place of the Mishkan and the
Beis Hamikdash, which, with G-d’s help, will be speedily rebuilt. It is the job
of the Rebbes and the staff of the Yeshiva to bring the light of Torah and its
wisdom to their pupils and to fill them with a sense of self-worth and
self-confidence in their abilities to succeed in Torah learning and to grow in
middos-control, derech eretz and yire Shamayim.

In educational terms, this approach is called עידוד–encouragement.
One way to express encouragement is with compliments. However, for a compliment
to be effective, it must be given in the right manner, at the right time and
place and in the right dosage. Just as it is not always beneficial to give
reproof to another person as it may cause him to commit an even worse sin, so
too, it’s not always beneficial to give a compliment to a child. And, although
the adult giving the compliment does so to strengthen the spirit of the child,
sometimes we find that the compliment is either ignored, or worse, it disturbs
the child and causes him to desist from doing that which brought him the
compliments in the first place.

When we feel this may be the case, it is advisable to follow
the path of Rebbi Shimon Ha’amsoni (Gemorah Pesachim 22b), who, after
making numerous drashos–talmudical analysis–discovered that his approach
was faulty. He immediately retracted all his drashos and proclaimed,
"Just as I have received merit for my learning, so too, I will receive merit for
my retraction."

There are a number of factors to take into account before
giving a compliment to a child. Here are a number of important ones. A child’s:

  1. Social standing

  2. Level of confidence

  3. Self-pride

  4. Level of maturity

  5. Concern for evil eye

  6. Need for support

  7. Need for space

  8. Need for self-expression

  9. Desire to give

  10. Level of sensitivity

Let’s review these points one by one and see what the best
type of compliment is for each child.

1. Social Standing:

There are children who don’t like attention focused on them.
They like to feel anonymous in the classroom. For them, to be singled out puts
them in a spotlight they would like to run away from. (This usually signifies a
lack of self-confidence and self-worth.) A compliment to this child can have a
positive effect, but only if it is said in private for only the ears of the
student to hear. It may be that some children will also shy away from a
compliment said in front of other members of the teaching staff, while other
children would be happy if other teachers heard their praise. If the teacher
chooses to compliment this type of child, he must choose the right time and
place if his compliment is to fall on appreciative ears. Otherwise, it
may make him shrivel up and actually feel worse, for he sees himself in general
as lacking worth and certainly feels less important and successful than his
classmates. It turns out, that although the adult intended to raise the child’s
sprits, in reality, he lowered them.

2. Level of confidence:

Children who lack confidence will react to a compliment in
one of two ways. Either they will dismiss it as irrelevant or inappropriate, or
it will remind them of their lackings. This type of child certainly needs
sincere compliments. However, it would be best to intersperse the compliment
with a reminder that the child still has a way to go until he can be satisfied
with his development. This will give the child the balance he needs to continue
to improve. Another possible reaction of children who lack confidence is to
criticize the giver of the compliment for having singled out the fact that until
now he (the child) did not learn or behave as well as was expected to.

3. Self-pride:

A familiar problem which arises when a child receives a
compliment or a prize is that he feels elated. If this feeling has a limited
life span, then the child’s reaction is considered acceptable. However, some
children let the compliment or prize get to their head and begin to feel
detached from the other boys in the class, feeling above and beyond them. This
self-pride can easily lead to haughtiness, which can activate a number of
negative traits, including disrespect of teachers and parents and belittlement
of peers. This happens because the child’s accomplishments dislodged him from
his true level. Whereas a more balanced child will use a compliment to improve
his level of accomplishments or behavior, a less balanced child will lose his
balance completely and react as we mentioned above.

4. Level of maturity:

Maturity, in definition, is a state of being which enables a
person to relate to that which he has been confronted with in an objective,
rational manner. An immature person is unable to relate to that which has been
said or done to him or his surroundings in the same context in which it was
meant to be delivered.

Each child develops at his own pace. If a compliment is given
to a child it must match his maturity level, for if not, the child will either
belittle the compliment or try and use it for his own advantage. Children have
been known to respond as follows, after being given an untimely compliment: "Rebbe,
since I was so good in Mishnah class, can I skip math class?" Or, "Principal,
since I got a 95 on my last test, can I leave 15 minutes early today?" These
children use compliments as ammunition in order to get what they want.

A child who will answer in the above manner should be given
only limited compliments, followed with additional expectations, leaving him
with a feeling that not only is he not deserved of extra benefits, but he is
expected to achieve even more. On the other hand, a child who belittles
compliments, should not be complimented at all. Rather, his belittling attitude
should be dealt with in a non-compromising manner, as this type of attitude can
uproot all the Torah he has learned and the education he has received within no
time at all. In addition, it can cause great pain to his fellow students.

5. Concern for ayin horah – evil eye:

Some students, although they may want to receive a
compliment, would rather not hear it in public for fear of ayin horah–evil
eye. The idea of ayin horah is that when something good becomes known to
many people, the prosecuting forces above are awakened in order to check and see
if the receiver of this good is not the carrier of lackings as well, for which
he deserves to be punished. When a compliment is given in private, this
possibility is avoided. On this, Chazal say, "אין הברכה שרויה אלא על דבר הסמוי
מן העין"–"A blessing only falls on something which is hidden from sight."

If a teacher or parent feels it is necessary to give a
compliment in public, and the child would preferably not receive one, he should
first inform the child that he intends to give him a compliment, and if
possible, give him the compliment in an indirect manner.

6. Need for support:

Some children are in constant need of compliments. For them,
each and every word of support and encouragement is like oxygen to the lungs.
Without it, they feel inferior and incapable. Compliments put smiles on their
faces and light in their eyes. They remove the weight on their shoulders and the
heaviness in their hearts and give a great lift to their confidence. With it
they can achieve and without it they fail. For many of these children, its not
enough to give a compliment once a week, or even once a day. They need to be
constantly reminded of their good points and for their achievements to be

7. Need for Space:

Still other children are very private people. They don’t like
to bother others and talk about their business, and in return, they don’t like
when people talk about them. They like to live within their own four amos
(personal space). When one compliments them, they feel intruded upon, and
whether the compliment is in place or not, they reject it. This type of child
should not be complimented in a way which causes him to feel that his private
space has been intruded upon.

8. Need for self-expression:

Some children are blessed with great intelligence, curiosity
and understanding. These traits develop in a child a tremendous desire to search
out, discover, think and compare, all on his own. When someone, even someone
they respect, gives them a compliment, they see it as an attempt to smother
their motivation and block their self-expression.

The best approach with children of this nature is, instead of
complimenting them on past accomplishments, to ask them if they have something
interesting or even original they would like to say. Helping them generate new
thoughts and reach new horizons will be more valuable to them and more respected
than any direct compliment.

9. Desire to Give:

From Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu Book 1 p. 32)
we learn that giving is the source of all good. Some children are either
taught this lesson at a young age or naturally or independently understand it.
They categorically reject all presents and compliments as well. They have a
powerful desire to give to others and receiving compliments is considered in
their eyes as accepting a gift from others which uproots their fundamental
obligation, which is to give. Any compliment given to these children should
include an opportunity or encouragement for them to give even more on their own.

10. Level of sensitivity:

Before one gives a compliment, he should estimate whether it
will actually be taken as a compliment by the child. If the child feels the
compliment is given for something which took little investment on his part, he
may read the compliment as an insult. A parent or teacher needs to be in tune
with the maturity level of the child and his level of sensitivity and think what
the child would consider a true compliment and what not, before he gives it.
When in question, it is advisable to refrain from giving the compliment and to
give encouragement instead.

Besides taking the personality of the particular child into
account, the adult needs to be sure that he is the correct person to be giving
the compliment. As a rule, the more respectable the adult is in the eyes of the
child, the more value his compliment will have.

Even regarding children who find it difficult to receive a
compliment, there are a number of ways to effectively use the power of
complimenting. One, is to give a compliment about the child to another teacher
at a time when the child himself is able to overhear the conversation. Another,
is to ask another person who has heard the compliment to go over to the child
and relay that the principal or the teacher has given him a compliment. A third
way is to give the compliment in the middle of a dialogue with the child in a
matter-of-fact way, stating it as a fact to be accepted without need for
discussion and without surprise or excitement. (מספר "אני והנער" עמ’ נ"ט–הרב
אברהם יעקב לו שליט"א–מחנך בירושלים)

In conclusion, on one hand, a compliment can be an extremely
effective tool in stimulating a child, building up his confidence and filling
him with a desire to succeed in his learning and to grow in yiras Shamayim.
On the other hand, an untimely or misplaced compliment, or one given not in
accordance with the wave-length of the child, can have a negative effect.
Therefore, an adult should first examine whether it is an appropriate situation
and time to give a compliment. If not, refraining from giving a compliment may
be the best advice.