The Value of Compliments and Positive Reinforcement

Over the past several months, the art of reading has really clicked with our oldest child. A year ago, he would parse a simple sentence in a book with great nervousness, sounding out each individual word very carefully and moving at such a slow pace that there was almost no narrative or educational value to what he was reading.

Now, he has a vocabulary of several thousand sight words, enabling him to read simple chapter books with scarcely a pause. He can read them aloud, of course, but he also is a practitioner of sustained silent reading.

The effort he has put into mastering reading has earned several compliments from both Sarah and myself. We are proud of the effort he has taken in learning to read – the results are just the fruits of that effort. So, we make sure to focus our compliments on the effort he’s taken: the time spent working on sheets full of sight words and the time spent practicing his reading by reading aloud whether anyone’s listening or not.

Our general rule is that parental compliments and encouragement focus on effort and energy invested in preparing, not on the results. The good feelings that come from results are internal – they’ll feel good anyway. We’d far rather acknowledge and reinforce the path of hard work and effort that it takes to get to that point.

It’s not just for parents, either.

Compliments are like a stack of money that never runs out.
It doesn’t cost you anything to give a compliment to someone else. Almost always, when you give them a compliment, you’ve just made that person’s day better at no cost to yourself.

Also, you’ve usually made them perceive you in a better light, too, as people are attracted to those who seem to like them. It would take a pretty unusual situation for someone to think less of a person issuing them a brief compliment.

Even better, a well-placed compliment reinforces behavior that you consider to be a positive thing. If you give someone a compliment about something they’re doing, they’re more likely to keep along that path because they now know that others see it and value it. It helps them to reinforce a routine, one that’s likely a positive one.

A compliment is something that rewards positive behavior, brings about a distinct positive result, and can be done over and over again. It really is like a bottomless stack of money, one you can use whenever you’re out in public to brighten the lives of everyone.

Compliment the things you want to see in the world.
If your compliments help to reinforce a routine in others, then it makes perfect sense to use your compliments wisely and dole them out when you see things in the world that you’d like to see more of.

If you see someone being kind to someone else, give them a compliment. When you see someone making a smart frugal choice, give them a compliment. When you see someone being a good parent, give them a compliment. When you see someone putting forth an effort to achieve something in their lives, give them a compliment.

The more you compliment the things you want to see in the world, the more those behaviors are reinforced in the lives of people around you, whether it’s a family member or a friend or just someone you happen to bump into in the community.

Save the acid for another day.
Many people seem to enjoy handing out acidic criticisms, but they act in almost the opposite way. They tend to send the other person’s behavior in completely unpredictable directions, plus they cause the person you levy that acidic criticism towards to dislike you.

Virtually nothing is gained by handing out unwanted criticism other than feeding your own internal negativity.

If you feel negative toward someone else’s behavior, shouting out criticism might cause a response, but it’s often not going to be a response you’re pleased with. Avoid it, and save your energy for compliments.

The end result is a better world at no cost to you.
The most amazing thing about a compliment is that it doesn’t cost you a dime, but it brings about real change in the world. One compliment might not change anything, nor a dozen, but a steady stream of well-applied compliments does bring about positive results in the people around you. They feel better about themselves. They work harder in positive directions. They value you more.

If you want a better world to live in, the easiest and least expensive way to start is to compliment the good behaviors you want to see out there – frugal living, kindness to others, hard work – and keep your negative comments to yourself, because negativity often moves in unexpected and usually undesired directions. It costs you nothing other than a moment of your time, but the ramifications often go far beyond what you see in that moment.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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