Q. The first thing a stranger notices when he looks at my 20-month-old son is that he is uncommonly good-looking: pure good looks, before you even get to the playful light in his eyes or his captivating little personality.

I'm not worried that strangers will only praise him for his looks--his personality is too strong and engaging for that--but is it wrong for me to praise his looks, too? I keep reading that a parent should praise a child for what he does, not for who he is, because that would make him feel pressured, or think that his parent's love was conditional.

I praise him for the things that he does and for his internal qualities, like his imagination and his sweetness, and for the sound of his laugh and the smell of his skin, but doesn't he have the right to know about his good looks, though they have nothing to do with his good conduct?

I don't want to praise my son in a way that backfires, and I certainly don't want him to think that my love is conditional.

A. Praise and toys and special treats have a lot in common. A child needs all of them, but always in moderation.

It would be a cold parent who could withhold her praise entirely--especially to a baby or a toddler--and it would be a most unusual child who didn't need praise. Your son needs to know that his looks are enchanting and his laugh is a delight. Warm words help a child feel connected to his family, making it easier for him to connect with friends when he gets older.

Too much praise, or the wrong kind, can cause trouble. Your son may not understand his real worth if you praise him for everything he does and he may get anxious if you focus on his looks or his talents too much--as if you loved them better than you loved him.

There also can be later ramifications, for praise can play havoc with a child's self-confidence. An over-praised child may end up thinking that he's better than he is or he may dismiss every compliment he gets because he knows they can't all be true. In either case, he will find it hard to face the world as he grows up. Self-confidence will help your son much more than good looks but it must be built on reality and accomplishments, not on casual, constant praise.

You'll praise your son best if you do it indirectly, by giving him your time and your interest. Get involved in his goals; give accurate, approving assessments of his progress and save your overt praise until he succeeds at this task or at least has tried very hard. Once he knows there are standards of excellence, he will try to develop his own.

You can also teach values through indirect praise. When you say, "Wow, you came as soon as I called!" you're teaching your son that he is responsible for his own behavior and when you congratulate him for crawling through the big boy's tunnel at the playground, you're teaching him to be brave and capable. Praise feeds a child's ego, but active encouragement strengthens his character.

And having said all that, be sure to give your son some compliments out of the blue sometimes but be as specific as possible. He doesn't need to know that he is handsome; he needs to know that he has the longest eyelashes in the world or the most dazzling smile.

Compliments count most if they are limited in scope as well as number, if they are reasonably true and if they are occasionally overheard in the years ahead. Nothing pleases an 8-year-old more than hearing his mom brag about him while she talks on the phone, since he knows that she would never lie to a friend.

You'll find some good insights in "Your Self-Confident Baby" (Wiley, $15.95), by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson and you'll find many thoughtful discussions on praise and the best ways to give it in "The Confident Child" (Bantam, $11.95), by Terri Apter. Even though this book covers children between 5 and 15, most of its advice is applicable at any age.

Questions may be sent to margukelly@aol.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.