“I have confidence in confidence alone …
Besides which you see I have confidence in me!”
– The Sound of Music
From the beginning, I have always been a confident person. My parents still tease me about a second grade choir performance of “Edelweiss” in which I sang a tone-deaf solo loudly and proudly. My high school friends reminisce about my awful fashion sense, which often included color-coordinated hats and tights. As a freshman in college, I was told certain classes were only open to upperclassmen, but I showed up and talked my way in. I knew that other people questioned my judgment at times, I just honestly did not care. I thought I sounded great, looked cool, and was smart enough, so others’ opinions did not matter to me. This intrinsic confidence is one of the traits I value most in myself; it has saved me tremendous heartache over the years. My confidence is the foundation for my joy, optimism, ambition, and resilience, so it is the one trait I would really like to pass along to my children. Unfortunately, confidence is not something that is teachable, like good manners or respect for nature. So how can I nurture my children’s inner confidence?
Unsurprisingly, since this is a question all parents grapple with, there are tons of experts offering literally hundreds of answers. In researching for this post, I came across: 7 Ways to Boost Kids’ Confidence, 9 Secrets of Confident Kids, 10 Ways to Raise a Competent, Confident Child, 12 Ways to Raise a Confident Child, and Raising Confident Boys: 100 Tips for Parents (I opted not to consult The Confident Child, which promises self-help for “being an imperfect parent without ruining your child’s life”). After wading through often contradictory advice (for example, “Practice Attachment Parenting” vs. “Let him try to comfort himself from the earliest age”), I have summarized some of the recurring themes below in just seven points:
- Model Self Confidence. If you are not generally a confident person, fake it in front of your kids. Or better yet, take some steps to actually improve your own self-image. We all know someone who just oozes self-confidence (not arrogance, mind you, it’s an important distinction) and that quality is intensely attractive and refreshing. Soak it up and try it on for size. I frequently remind myself that, at this point in my life, I pretty much am who I will always be, so I may as well make peace with her. I probably will never be a size two or work in the White House, and that’s okay. For those insecurities that I cannot shake, I focus on not revealing them to my kids. Dr. Sears warns that “[c]hildren translate your unhappiness with yourself to mean unhappiness with them.” So I do my best to model self-love in the hopes that my kids will follow my example.
- Be Accepting. Accept yourself (see #1), your child, and others. Do not demean people for their appearance, occupation, background, etc. Compassion is the cornerstone of confidence. No one is perfect, but we all seek acceptance. Giving it freely promotes confidence in those who receive your acceptance and those who perceive your acceptance. (Clearly, I have been reading too much Oprah …)
- Compliment Carefully. My husband and I struggle with this one. We instinctively want to praise our kids for every positive thing they do – “Wow, you finished the whole banana, well done!” “That was a great nap.” “Good poop little one!” This is not meaningless flattery (a big no-no for building confidence, since kids see right through it at an early age), but nor are they genuine compliments. Praising children broadly and regularly can dull the effect of compliments over time. Instead, we should be focusing on acknowledging on our children’s efforts and just thanking them for their positive behaviors. For example: “Thank you for finishing your banana. I am impressed that you used your spoon to eat your yogurt and did not get any on your shirt.” (ha ha, I will be impressed the day that happens!)
- Teach Self-Encouragement. If your kids know you care more about effort than outcome, then you can help them create a habit of giving their all. It doesn’t matter if they do not score a goal in the soccer game as long as they worked well with their teammates. One low score on a test will not be as upsetting if the child believes he can do better the next time. If a child is taught to believe in herself, she will push herself even when you are not around to give her encouragement or praise.
- Schedule Success. Rather than pushing your kids to fulfill your notion of a well-rounded child – or worse, to satisfy regrets about your own childhood – by signing them up for piano lessons if they are not musical, let your child explore where his natural abilities lie and focus on those areas. If she is not athletic, do not insist she join a softball team like her sister. Instead, let her take an art or dance class in the afternoons. Do not “rescue your child from failure,” but do not put him in situations where he is bound to feel bad about himself. Give him manageable challenges. Nurture those things he enjoys and is good at to help him develop his own self-worth. Make it clear that perfection is not the goal, and that he has the ability to succeed and to impact the world, but that not every action needs to be trophy-worthy.
- Know Their Friends. My kids are still young enough that my husband and I get to choose most of the people that are around them, but as they get older, our kids will begin selecting their own friends and those people will have tremendous influence on how they see themselves. Hosting play dates gives parents a chance to get to know their children’s friends and to see how their child interacts in social settings. Seeing how a child treats and is treated by others can provide clues for further lessons in compassion and confidence.
- Trust Them. This is a tough one. Showing your children that you trust them teaches them to trust in themselves, but it is easier said than done. My toddler knows to stop running when he gets to the end of the sidewalk, and yet I usually grab his arm just in case he decides to step into the street. I know I need to let him make more decisions on his own, but I struggle to let go of control over his life because I believe I know what is best for him. It’s hard, but I am trying to let him make his own choices (even if they turn out to be mistakes) more often. I try to encourage my kids to express their opinions, ideas, and emotions freely because I believe that showing I value those expressions of their innermost selves will help them be more confident.
Fostering confidence is a lifelong pursuit, but these formative years can have a lasting impact. When I have doubts about my parenting (see Part II of this post), I turn to that steadfast substitute for confidence – faith.