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The Best Valentine's Gift

It started with a note.

A basketball player I coached was an all-star in practice but horrible in games. When I talked with him about it, he explained that he wasn't used to referees, scoreboards, substituting and, most of all, crowds. I told him I understood. "Basketball is basketball. The weirdness of a formal game will fade. Give it some time. You'll break through."

Two games later, he did. He scored 14 points, most in the second half, and helped us win. Afterward, I meant to congratulate him, but got caught up talking to parents and he slipped away.

The next day, I scribbled a short note to him on a torn piece of paper. I wrote that I was proud of him. That I knew he could do it. That his basketball future was bright. My TA delivered the note, and I didn't think about it again.

Until three years later. My daughter went to a party at his new house. While he was showing his friends around, in his room, tacked to the wall above his bed – the only thing hanging on his new bedroom wall – was a torn piece of paper. My note.

When Kyrra told me this, my first thought was that I should write my notes on better paper. My second thought was that I should write more notes. So began the Valentine's Day compliment lesson. It just seems like the right day to teach it. It fits.

Compliments are rare and precious. So often, we criticize the bad and ignore the good. Consequently, part one of the compliment lesson is to, once again, see the blue: Look for people to compliment. Good, even great – people surround us. Yet, unless we're alert, they could walk right by us without us seeing them. Then, look for positive features to compliment. They're there. Seek and ye shall find.

Part Two: Make sure that your compliment is sincere. Instinctively, people will know if you're telling them stuff you don't believe. So don't lie! Find something truthfully good.

Part Three: Make compliments specific and personal. Compliments like "You're cute and have a nice sense of humor" aren't specific and aren't personal. You could give that compliment to almost anyone. Acid test: You write a compliment for Kristy that accidentally gets delivered to Christine. If Christine reads it and can't tell that it wasn't meant for her, it's a crummy compliment.

Instead, make the compliment special. "You're so adorable! You have the cutest dimple. I love how we laugh at the same stupid stuff. Remember last week when we watched…"

Part Four: Naturally, compliments will depend on how well you know the person, but you can compliment just about anyone you meet.

Level One: You don't know the person at all. You can still compliment how a person looks. (Be careful – boys especially. You don't want to come off as crass. But don't worry too much about it. No one really objects when they're told they're attractive.) You can also compliment people on what they're wearing or what they own. If you like someone's shirt, say so! You may not think that letting people know you like their backpack, purse, bicycle or car is much of compliment, but it is. Because, in effect, you're telling them you like their taste, and that makes them feel good. So why keep it to yourself?

Level Two: For people you know a little better, you can complement their accomplishments. "You're oral report today was so good!" "I didn't know you were such an amazing dancer."

Don't make the mistake I once caught myself making during a martial arts class. A police officer was our guest instructor. He had to be at least 50, yet he moved like he was 25. I turned to my friend, Brad, and whispered, "This guy is really good. He moves so gracefully." Then, I thought, Why am I telling Brad. I should tell him! So, when I had the chance, I did. When you find yourself talking positively about someone, make sure you let the someone know what you think, too.

Level Three: Too often, we don't compliment the people to whom we're closest. Why not? Because we know them well, they should be the easiest to praise. So get in the habit of regularly letting them know why we admire them, like them and love them. Compliment their looks, possessions, accomplishments and, since you know so much a about it, their character and personality.

Part Five: Whenever possible, write your compliment. Oral compliments are nice and should be freely offered. But, for the obvious reason that they can be kept (and even hung on a wall), written compliments are better. The less obvious reason is that when you take the time to write it, you can phrase your compliment just right.

Starting the day after Valentine's Day – and every day thereafter until each student in class has had "a day" – I choose a student (who I've let know in advance) to compliment. (By Valentine's Day, we should know each other.) Everyone takes out a nice sheet of paper (which they're required to have). The student we're complimenting has chosen a favorite song, which we play. (I suggest that it be a slow song, "the kind you might choose for the first dance at your wedding reception.") While the music plays, we all write a compliment to the student whose name is projected in his or her favorite color. At the conclusion of the song, the compliments are collected in "a special bag." "When you get home tonight, sit by the fire, put on soft music, read your compliments and cry."

Compliment days are cool. They put the class in a good mood. Most kids like them a lot. Over the years, many former students have shared that they still have their compliments and they still read them "when I need a self-esteem boost." Yet, if kids don't write compliments when it's not a class project, they've missed the point of the lesson. Writing compliments in class is merely practice. In the real world, where complimenting is not formalized, it's up to them to write them on their own.

Part Six: If you put time and effort into your compliment, it will show. If you don't, that will show, too. Work hard at writing your compliment. Written words have great power. A well written compliment can lift a mood, maybe even change a life. (But not if they look like they were written by someone who's lazy, illiterate or both.)

Assignment Starting today, form a habit of writing compliments. It will be life changing. Here's why: If you've ever thought writing was boring or unrewarding, it's because you've never written anything meaningful or important (outside of satisfying some required school assignment). To change that, start by working hard (remember all six parts) at writing a compliment to someone special, someone you care about. Make sure it's delivered and read. Do this a few times, and I guarantee that you'll understand and value the power of the written word.

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