There's all sorts of research out there that says when you praise kids, be sure to be specific. Highlight what you want to reinforce. Generic praise ("That was super") doesn't get the job done like specifics ("I really appreciated the way you picked that trash up in the parking lot today. It wasn't yours, and no one asked you to do it. You saw something that needed to be done, and you did it. That's classy.").
Specific. Details matter.
If you want your child or student to keep up a desirable behavior, praise it. Last week when I was cleaning tables in the school cafeteria, there were three boys still sitting at the table waiting for their teacher. There was a big, white napkin still sitting on the table as well as straw wrappers. I knew the trash wasn't theirs - these are boys who clean up their stuff - but the trash needed to be thrown away, and the kids are responsible to clean off their own tables. So I asked the boys to clean it up. Immediately, two of them protested: "But, that's not mine." The third reached over (he was the farthest from the mess, and therefore the least likely of the three to have left it) and picked the things up and threw them in the trash. I gave him 5 blessings (in simplest terms, positive "points" for good choices and good behavior). He stopped in his tracks. "Five? I've never been given that many at one time before."
"Attitude matters," I told him.
It wasn't his mess, but he cleaned it up and he did it with a good attitude. I wanted it contrast his choices with those of his friends. The attitude was more important to me than the clean up at that point. I was specific about what was praiseworthy; I hope it made an impact.
Last week I was on the receiving end of non-specific "appreciation." I'll give the individual the benefit of the doubt (which feels generous - I'm still quite frustrated over the whole thing) and say the intention was to make me feel appreciated and included, but the content of the message made it quite clear that the individual has no earthly idea what I do. Instead of making me feel warm and fuzzy about the appreciation, I felt wounded, angry and belittled.
Details matter. If you are going to reach out to someone in a genuine way, if you want someone to feel cared for or encouraged or loved, be sure you know what you are talking about. Be accurate. Be specific. Otherwise, instead of making something better, you just might make it worse.