The power of descriptive recognition

My husband and I often have discussions about praise. He is wary of it. I don’t tend to be.

I guess the way that people accept praise is very much to do with their own upbringing and how comfortable and confident a person is with their own talents, work and creations. But it is also very much to do with the way the praise is given.

A person just starting out on, say painting, may well be sceptical when told that what they had painted was ‘amazing’. They may perhaps become so worried about their creative attempt, think that the person praising them was mocking them, or trying to obviously (yet badly) cover up the fact that the painting was not particularly skilled. It may cause them to wonder what was ‘amazing’ in the picture and fail to see anything good at all in the painting.

Or perhaps the artist feels really good about being told that their artwork is amazing, and thinks that yes, it was a good first attempt. But the next work they create is only greeted with a ‘yeah, it’s good’. Then they may feel deflated and begin on self-questioning: why wasn’t this one amazing? What’s wrong with it?

With both these scenarios they may well put their brushes away and never pick them up again, which would indeed be a sad thing… (unless of course they are super-confident and determined to keep going whatever because they really love what they’re doing – but more of that perhaps in another post…!).

However, surely the person giving the praise has good intentions at heart. Perhaps they wanted to give the person trying their hand at art a boost, and some encouragement, because they really did like the painting. But saying ‘it’s amazing’ is what is known as ‘evaluative praise’ – it is rarely constructive; it is more likely to cause self-doubt and hypercritical judgement from the person creating the art.

What is more useful is to pick out specific things about the art, say the combination of colours used, the type of brushstrokes, or pencil marks rather than just lumping everything together as ‘amazing’. These comments would be considered as ‘descriptive recognition’ and are more likely to encourage and make the person feel a warm glow inside.

I believe that children, as they grow older, benefit from this type of descriptive recognition too. My daughter used to be really pleased with me saying that her art, craft or scribbles were ‘brilliant’ and ‘amazing’ (you’ll have to forgive my motherly over-generous praise here!) but now she asks me what I specifically like about it, and I pick out certain things and describe how they make me feel, which makes her (and me) grin.

Art and paintbrushes, photo by Marija Smits
Art and paintbrushes, photo by Marija Smits

I recently received some of my own descriptive recognition when my poem ‘The Swing’ took 2nd place in the Swan Ezine annual poetry competition. You can read it here, and also read what the judges had to say about it (at the bottom of the same webpage). I was so pleased to take a place in the competition, and really appreciated the judges concise, but detailed report on the poem, which is a ballad, by the way. And of course it’s good to know that someone took pleasure from my writing! Just hope we get some more summer weather so that going on a swing is once more a pleasant experience (swings in winter, with bitter winds aren’t so pleasant…!).

I totally realize that we don’t always have enough time (or energy) to be creative with our praise, and word things ‘just right’. In the long run it’s probably better to give praise (even evaluative) rather than no praise at all, but still… if a personal touch – some specificity – can be injected into the feedback, then it’ll make it all the richer… 🙂


This post was inspired by the book People Skills by Robert Bolton, and me gaining 2nd place in the Swan Ezine 2013 poetry competition for ‘The Swing’!


0 thoughts on “The power of descriptive recognition”

  1. Sounds like the ideas behind unconditional parenting (i haven’t finished the book yet!) But rare than general simplistic praise you talk annoy why it is good and what they have done in order to improve their own self worth rather than just saying “good girl” etc. Another interesting read, Bee x

    1. Hi Bee,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting (and for following my blog). It is much appreciated.

      Yes, you’re right, there’s a lot of overlap of ideas in many of the books that have parenting with compassion as their foundation. Sometimes I feel it can help me in my mothering to ask myself what I would feel in that situation… and if someone says something I have created, or done is simply ‘amazing’ I myself would question it somewhat, and perhaps wonder about the thought (or genuine intention) behind the comment. But if there are specifics in there, it’s so much more heartwarming!

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment. 🙂

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