Celebrating a Simple Life has a perceptive post this morning. Ostensibly, it's about giving meaningful praise to children's artwork, but I say her wisdom has a much wider application, for chldren and adults in all areas of life. Read the whole thing; it's worthwhile, it's short, and it shows a great picture painted by her son.
When you give meaningless praise, your kid comes to expect it for every not-so-impressive act they perform. It's exhausting to the parent, becomes meaningless to the child, and sets up a bad habit of being forced to praise mediocrity, with your child knowing full well that the praise is hollow.
When you describe what you see, you are telling the child your work is worth examining more closely. You are encouraging language development through your description. You are teaching your child to have a critical eye for their own work. And then when you do offer praise, your kid knows they deserved it.
(Apologies, to those who care, for publishing the awkward gender-neutral but grammar-offensive language. The content is worth getting past that.)
I'm convinced that non-specific praise in any area, for child or adult, usually does more harm than good. It means we're not taking them or their work seriously. It means we're too lazy (tired, busy, etc.) to do our own job right. And it sets up children, especially, for failure in the long run: when praise is unrelated to the quality of the work, how can they improve? When a five-second scribble receives the same fulsome admiration as a 30-minute effort, how do they learn that persistence and hard work make a difference?
That's not to say that it isn't important to convey to our children (and others) that we love them because of who they are, not because of what they do. I'm not advocating conditional love. But when commenting on work done, specific and meaningful praise is what both feeds the heart and encourages more and better efforts.