7 Tips for Giving Gold Stars (From a Gold Star Junkie).

Oh, I’m a gold star junkie. I always want to see those gold stars stuck to the top of my homework. I crave praise, appreciation, recognition.

I’ve done a lot to combat my craving for gold stars (here are 5 tips for dealing with feeling unappreciated). I also try hard to give other people the gold stars they deserve. As my mother once told me, “Most people probably don’t get the appreciation they deserve.” Like my own mother!

But it’s not always easy to dole out those gold stars in an effective way. Here are 7 tips:

1. Be specific. Vague praise doesn’t make much of an impression.

2. Find a way to praise sincerely. It’s a rare situation where you can’t identify something that you honestly find praiseworthy. “Striking” is one of my favorite fudge adjectives.

3. Never offer praise and ask for a favor in the same conversation. It makes the praise seem like a set-up.

4. Praise process, not outcome.This particularly relevant with children. It’s more helpful to praise effort, diligence, persistence, and imagination than a grade or milestone.

5. Look for something less obvious to praise – a more obscure accomplishment or quality that a person hasn’t heard praised many times before; help people identify strengths they didn’t realize they had. Or praise a person for something that he or she does day after day, without recognition. Show that you appreciate the fact that the coffee’s always made, that the report is never late. It’s a sad fact of human nature: those who are the most reliable are the most easily taken for granted.

6. Don’t hesitate to praise people who get a lot of praise already. Perhaps counter-intuitively, even people who get constant praise – or perhaps especially people who get constant praise – crave praise. Is this because praiseworthy people are often insecure? Does getting praise lead to an addiction to more praise? Or – and this is my current hypothesis – does constant praise indicate constant evaluation, and constant evaluation leads to a craving for praise?

7. Praise people behind their backs. The praised person usually hears about the praise, and behind-the-back praise seems more sincere than face-to-face praise. Also, always pass along the behind-the-back praise that you hear. This is one of my favorite things to do!

Also, because the way we feel is very much influenced by the way we act, by acting in a way that shows appreciation, discernment, and thoughtfulness, we make ourselves feel more appreciative, discerning, and thoughtful. And that boosts happiness.

Have you thought of any other good ways for giving people praise? Are you a gold-star junkie, yourself?

  • Kimberly Soltero

    One that works really well with my kids: praise in FRONT of them, but not directly TO them. For example, “brag” to grandparents about their accomplishments when we’re all Skyping, or to our friends when we’re all socializing together with kids. There’s a line to walk so that you don’t become “those” parents, sure, but as long as you let others talk about their kids and show equal enthusiasm for what they’ve accomplished most people are pretty happy to indulge a few minutes of this sort of conversation. And my kids absolutely *glow*–much more so than we fuss over them directly. 

  • Yes, I am a gold star junkie and I think I have been all my life. I sometimes wish I were not so solicitous of stars, but alas, I am who I am. This is a really great post, Gretchen. Practical and philosophical – just the way I like it 🙂 And fabulous food for thought. Am trying to re-immerse myself a bit in the blog world (i.e. the reading blog world) and am happy to be back here on your (gorgeous!) site. Hope you are well. xox

  • Susan

    Appreciate Kimberly’s reminder about A) praising kids (!) and B) the power of the third-party witness.  In child development we say:  Catch them doing it right.  (Works on spouses, too, of course.)

    So what about “overpraising” — I’ve read that where creativity is concerned, a neutral or mildly positive reaction is supposedly more motivating than effusive praise.  (Study was with young children’s art work.)  Neutrality seems to draw out further self expression while even positive enthusiasm is interpreted as judgment and changes the behavior from creative expression to praise-seeking?  I know when I’m really “in my element” with a project I don’t really care about getting gold stars — or maybe the process itself is the gold star —  and does anyone else find that being surprised with gold stars is the best and having to ask for praise really does lessen its power?

    • I’ve also heard that about children, and that it’s better to praise the action than the child “you worked so hard on that painting” vs “you are such a good artist” and “that was such a kind thing you did” vs “you are so kind”. 

      • Stretching my Imagination

        I’ve heard the same.  And it seems to work with adults too – makes the praise seem less empty (and more specific!)

  • I am a total gold star junkie and I HATE to admit it. But it drives me nuts if I make dinner and don’t get told that it’s good, etc. It’s not just the thanks, I need the affirmation. But I don’t like to admit that its true. 

  • Stretching my Imagination

    I’ve been a gold-star junkie all my life.  Good or bad thing, not sure.  But I admit to that need to get approval in some form, have recognition for something that I’ve done.  And it’s not in an ego-driven way for praise, but rather in a validation kind of way.  As another poster put it, the affirmation.  That I’ve measured up against some invisible ruler.  Insecurity much!? Drain identified.  So for me, a major task on my improvement list is to find that ‘it’s okay because I say so myself’ and stop caring so much about what others think.  In some regards, I don’t have that problem, but when it come to professional matters, the trait is ringing loud and clear.  Someone told me ‘it’s just one person’s opinion’ in those situations, one person shouldn’t have that much power to make or break my outlook…

    Yet on the other hand, I despise the false recognition or effort-award mentality, it almost seems to demean the thing I’ve done as condescending – I’ve never been one for the over-praising for every little thing either.  Too much praise for me makes it seem meaningless.  But for my poor loved-ones in my life, that means a constant uncertainty as to what to recognize, when, how, etc.  I think your idea of praising less obvious things is a good one.  As another poster mentioned below, maybe add to the idea of specific praise the idea of not labeling traits on the person (e.g. you’re so clever to have thought/done that) and instead focusing on how the person acted (e.g. the coordination of the team made a big difference in the execution of this project, particularly the bi-weekly meetings you initiated).

    I’ve been trying to praise others myself too.  Maybe it is not the praise itself, but a matter of kindness and recognition of the person’s worth and contribution that makes praise meaningful? Creating that happiness in the relationship between the people involved, not just the ” you did well” approach of the star? Each of the ways of praising you mentioned seem to get at that aspect.  But I’m struggling with the “why” – why do some people respond more to/need to the gold star? Is it something to work to move against (i.e. find internal validation) or should we work within that personality trait? 

  • Gina

    Something I learned in teacher’s college and applied to bringing up my kids; never use the following sentence as praise, “you’re such a good boy/girl” if say your child is tidying up well. Instead identify the actual task/behaviour they are doing and praise that as in, “you are really good at tidying up your room, good job!” Why? because a child will begin to think of themselves as a good or bad person based on whether or not they clean their room well if you tell them they are a “good boy/girl” if they do job X or Y whereas if you identify the job they are doing well you identify  a skill they are good at thus boosting their self-esteem as well as make them want to do it again next time you ask.  Maybe it sounds like gobble y gook but it actually works!

  • MyPeaceOfFood

    I actually recently read in a book about how the French raise their children that praise should be doled out sparingly — because otherwise they DO come to expect and rely on it too much, taking the innate pleasure out of an action, task or temperament. Don’t “spread it on too thick” comes to mind, and I agree — I see too many moms at our 2-year-old gymnastics class applauding their children for riding a little car down a track. With the help of gravity. Even filming it, and taking pictures. I just don’t think that’s necessary! It’s a delicate balance to strike, for sure, but sometimes it seems like we’ve created this culture of meaningless, sappy praise for young children doing things they should be able to do without being excessively thanked or gushed over. Let kids be kids, and when they do something out of the ordinary, like speaking eloquently, saying something interesting, doing something on their own, THEN make a bigger deal out of it.

    • DrWixy

      This reminds me that when comparing American schools to other nations, the one area the U.S. students rank way up is in self-esteem. We’ve spent so many years praising them for the smallest things that they think they can all be CEOs without passing their classes in K-12 education.

      I think the French have it right. Dole it out sparingly.

  • Peninith1

    Adding up what I see here, I have to agree strongly that it is better to praise and action or how it was performed than to ‘evaluate’ the person with your remarks. Even at my advanced age I like ‘that’s a beautiful quilt’ than I like ‘oh, you’re so talented’ (which makes me feel like I’ve been showing off and askinig for admiration for me–what I want is to share my joy in the thing that I have made. And if someone says ‘that was a kind thing you just did’ I can glow all day. I agree that children especially need to receive this sort of meaningful, specific praise for their actions, work, or products–‘all the children are above average’ praise is meaningless and they know it!

  • Great post Gretchen! Thanks for sharing these  great tips on giving people authentic praises. I couldn’t agree more when you said that 
    by acting in a way that shows appreciation, discernment, and thoughtfulness, we make ourselves feel more appreciative, discerning, and thoughtful. And that boosts happiness. Your tidbits are very much applicable to enforce team building, strengthen relationships, build connections, and increase productivity of work. I believe that what you shared to us will help us more to move forward to the life and work we love.

    Thanks again for this great reminder Gretchen. Do keep on posting and continue to inspire others.

  • Gretchen, if you’ve never seen this article, it’s fabulous.  It was one of the most read in NY Magazine.  It changed the way I talked to my kids almost instantly.  Praise can be a big problem if not done carefully.  This became the first chapter of the book Nurture Shock which I can’t recommend enough. I saw the author speak and she was very interesting.  http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/

  • Whozat

    First, I want to second (third? fourth?) what several people have already said about praising kids, and about the research presented in “Nurture Shock.”

    What I *try* to keep in mind is to “praise verbs, not adjectives,” and say things like “Thanks for helping me clean up!” not “You’re a good cleaner!” and certainly not “Good girl!”Secondly, I am really surprised that no one has mentioned “The Five Love Languages” by Dr. Gary Chapman. http://www.5lovelanguages.com/Basically, it says that there are five basic ways of showing / receiving love: Time Together, Physical Affection, Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service and Gifts.
    Each is equally valid, but to any individual, expressions in his or her own love language will be, by far, the most meaningful.Of course, it’s also easiest to express love in your own language, but if that’s not your partner’s language, it’s important to “stretch” and offer demonstrations of your love in his or her language. Reading and discussing this book has really helped me and my partner to recognize our differing needs, and has also helped us to recognize that our parents’ love languages are different from ours, which has made it easier to “read” their expressions of love, even though they aren’t necessarily in the languages that we “hear” the best.For example, my love language is “words of affirmation” and that is something that my parents just don’t do. When I realized that their love language is “gifts” and began to see the significant financial help that they’ve given us (help with IVF costs, then with mortgage for me to be a SAHM) as an expression of their love, it made all the difference in the world.And when we realized that my partner’s mother’s (probably both parents’) language is “time together” we were able to look at “command performance” impromptu family events differently.Gretchen, based on what you say in “The Happiness Project,” it sounds like your love language is “words of affirmation” and your husband’s is “gifts” or maybe “acts of service.”Without labeling it as such, you made an effort to “speak” to him in his language, but at the same time, told yourself not to expect him to speak to your in yours, and in fact it seems like you (and several of the previous posters here) berate yourself for “craving gold stars” as though it were selfish or egotistic, when really that’s just the words of affirmation that you need, in order to truly feel his love. A great example for this is when he gave you the necklace after you planned the birthday party for your mother-in-law. You recognized that he was saying “Thanks, you did a great job!” in “his own way,” but it still “would have been nice” to have heard the actual words. I would highly recommend reading that book, and asking him to read it as well. You deserve for him to make as much of an effort to express his love in the way that you need as the effort you’re making to express your love in the way that he needs. 

    • gretchenrubin

      I have posted about Five Love Languages—I agree, fascinating book:

      I think you understand me and my husband better than we do ourselves! Your comment is so insightful, I think you are exactly right.

      • Whozat

        Ah, I’m off to read that!

        I think inverse is true, too. If we hear positive words as “I love you” then we also hear negative words as “I hate  you.” No wonder criticism sting so much for folks like us!

        • Whozat

          Also, thank you! That’s some pretty great words of affirmation for me 🙂 

          My partner and I just finished reading the book and are working on figuring out our own projects. We’ve also invited the members of our MOMS Club to join us in forming a group. We’ll keep you posted on how that goes 🙂 

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