Raise your hand if you think that raising confident children is important. I bet most of you raised your hands, even if it was only in your mind.
Being confident is considered one of the most crucial personality traits in our society. At least in the Western society. And why not? When we think about success, we usually think about confidence.
As parents, surely you want your kids to have meaningful, happy and successful lives. Granted, “meaningful, happy and successful” may mean different things for different people. For example, some of you really want their child to graduate from an Ivy League college and get a high paying corporate job with all the benefits. Some of you care less about that and more about your child’s ability to have friends and start a family as an adult. But whatever you wish for your child, most likely it will require them to be confident.
OF course, confidence is not only about being an adult. Almost every day our children encounter situations that require them to step up their game and utilize some sort of self-confidence, self-esteem etc. Be it a sports game, a test in the school of any social gathering, being confident – but not too confident – is important.
But how do we go about doing that? What can we do, as parents, to nurture the confidence buds of our little buds? How do we do it wisely without going over the top and creating a self-centered monster? Well, that’s what we are here for. Read on and find out some of the most important things you can do for your child’s confidence.
What is confidence
Before we can look at the things you can do for raising confident children, let’s consider for a second what confidence is all about.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines confidence in this way (I copied only the relevant parts for this discussion):
- a) a feeling or consciousness of one's powers or of reliance on one's circumstances
b) faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way
- the quality or state of being certain
- a) a relation of trust or intimacy
b) reliance on another's discretion
I’ve marked the most important parts and I want you to notice something really important. First, being confident is something that you feel. “A feeling or consciousness”, a “faith or belief”. A child that is acting in confidence feels this in his gut. Our bodies, our viscera, that is where our emotions reside and manifest and that’s telling me that confidence is tied to our emotions.
Second, and most important, I want you to read the third definition once again. I bet that if I were to ask you what confidence means, most of you would say something like the first definition – a feeling in your powers and abilities.
However, the third definition is really interesting. “A relation of trust or intimacy”. Relation. Trust. Intimacy. Those are the bread and butter of parenting, isn’t it so?
That’s no coincidence, in my eyes. The way I see it, being confident means that you are able to explore and let yourself face the risk of getting hurt.
This is where the Attachment Theory enters the confidence game. Secure Attachment is actually defined by the ability to explore your world, both the inner world (thoughts and feelings) and outer world (relationships, new activities, and challenges). A child with a secure attachment is able to face the world with confidence because he or she has a secure base to go from and get back to in times of need. This secure base is first and foremost the parent who gives the child the confidence (yes…) that they’ll be there no matter what.
What does it mean to be confident?
Before writing this post, I posted a short survey on social media platforms where I asked parents what does confidence in children mean for them. When I reviewed their answers, I could identify some themes very easily. Before we continue to the practical section of this post, take a moment and think what from this list applies to you.
Most parents defined confidence as:
- The willingness to be wrong.
- The ability to stand your ground.
- Being assertive (I really like the following answer: “Calm when making demands”).
- Being able to compromise without feeling you’ve lost.
- Being able to explore.
- Being able to do things without needing the parent.
- Knowing when to ask for help.
Common struggles about raising confident children
If you are still reading, then obviously raising confident children is important to you. It may seem overly straightforward to say that we should “just be there”. As I said, confidence is tied to security, so raising secure children means raising confident children, right? But we usually don’t find it so “simple”. That’s because dealing with this issue stirs up many inner struggles that we might carry from earlier eras of our lives, or from how we deal with the current environment.
To make it more clear, here are the most prevalent themes I found when analyzing the answers I got from other parents for the question “what are you struggling with when trying to raise your child to be confident”:
- Dealing with my own anxieties as a parent and allow my child to do things I wouldn’t have.
- How to praise my children without making them too full of themselves.
- Getting them to try new things.
- Dealing with a society that expects children to be perfect.
- Letting go of how I want my child to be.
Which of this worries and struggles are you identifying with? I’m sure you can recognize yourself in some of them because they hit the point where our own worries and lack of confidence meet our wishes for our children.
In order to deal with these points of struggle, you must first learn how to recognize and befriend them. Then you can evaluate them in light of your parenting values. For example, does praising your child is in sync with your values as a parent? If so, then how much praise, or on what situations? Knowing your values as a parent is key to be able to navigate these waters.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of values, I recommend that you join my free email course “Your Parenting Values” where I guide you about identifying your values and making committed actions to follow them as a parent. Just go to Your Parenting Values Subscription page and register.
How can you nurture confidence in your child?
So, let’s set the stage with a quick summary:
Being confident is about being able to explore the world, both the outer world and the inner world. Exploring is an action that bears the risk of finding something scary and dangerous.
It can be negative emotions, and it can be an actual failure.
Being confident means that you are willing to face the risk because you have the belief and the feeling of capability, in a way that is open to vulnerability and failure.
Being confident is not about being too sure of yourself but about knowing that you can take it even if you suffer a loss or setback.
As your children grow up, they rely on your support. They literally expect you to pick them up if they fall, metaphorically and realistically. As you do that time and time again and show them how to do that for themselves, they learn the skills needed for supporting themselves in a confident way.
Here are some of the best practices and idea to help you raise your child to be confident. Please understand that those are not foolproof methods. We have little of those in parenting because the human psyche is such a complex thing. Also, do not expect to be able to use each and every one of these ideas all the time. No harm will come if you miss some opportunity, as long as you keep them in mind.
Encourage the effort, not the end goal
You know the classic saying about the proof of the pudding? So when it comes to raising confident children, the proof of the pudding is actually in the making of the pudding. Goals matter, success matter, but as long as you teach your children that the most important thing is the effort their making, you’re sending them with the right message to their journey.
Example: Your daughter tries to get a role in a school play, but the audition didn’t go well and she didn't get any part. She’s frustrated, even angry, and feels like a total failure. A statement such as this will go a huge way: “I know you really wanted to get that role and I’m sorry that you didn’t, but I want you to know that I am so proud of you for trying and going for that audition, that’s what matters the most”.
Practice makes… whatever
I know, here’s a second classic saying that I’m going against. True, practice can make perfect but for our interests, it doesn’t really matter if the end is “perfect” or “adequate” or even “I decided I don’t like it and quit”. You should emphasize the value of practicing, of trying over and over again even if you fail, because that’s the only way you will get results and learn how to cope with rough patches along the way.
The following video is a favorite of mine when it comes to practice.
Example: When my son got his scooter he didn’t get the gist of riding it. He already knew how to ride bicycles but on his scooter, he felt less secure and wasn’t able to keep his eyes to the front. With our encouragement, he kept on trying, and every time he fell he heard from us that it’s perfectly ok as long as he keeps practicing. Now he scoots so fast that I’m getting quite a work out whenever we go out to ride.
Be around to help, but wait
You probably heard about “helicopter parenting”, those parents who hover around their kids and fix everything for them to prevent them from feeling anything bad.
I believe that it’s perfectly fine to stick around your child as he or she does anything. As parents, it’s our job and our need to protect and help them. When they are babies or toddlers we tend to do stuff for them because, well, that's what they need. But as they grow we need to step back and let them try things, even if they fall on their bum (as long as they’re physically safe, of course).
Example: Homework is a perfect example. In my work with parents, I hear how they spend so much time doing their kids’ homework with them so they won’t get anything wrong. Why is that? You should let your kid have a go, try and make an effort. Eventually, if they won’t know what to do, they could come to you for advice. So you should be around, present yourself as available and encourage your child to try on his own before using your help.
They don't need everybody's love
As kids grow up they start facing the harsh reality that there are people in the world who don't love them. Even if they don't hate them, maybe they're just indifferent. And that's ok. Show them that it’s fine and that they shouldn’t seek the love of everybody.
Example: Children sometimes try to win over some friends by being overly nice, giving up their toys etc. If you notice something like that happening, it’s time for a chat about the true meaning of friendships and how it’s just not possible to have everyone on your side. This might be a wonderful time for some modeling from your own experiences. Tell your child about the times that you felt out of the loop or not on the good side of someone from work or your own childhood days, and how – although sad – it was also fine and even a good thing because you stuck to your own and took care of yourself.
Criticize, but constructively
This may be obvious but it’s so important to emphasize: if your child tries something and doesn’t get it right, don’t be harsh. Don’t laugh or mock them; don’t tell them how wrong they are; don’t use any derogatory language. Words can hurt, badly. And as a parent, your words carry tons of weight that will stick there for years to come.
I don’t mean you shouldn’t criticize, though. I don’t expect you to always look at the positive and not show your child where he or she did something wrong. Remember, raising confident children means teaching them to face their mistakes and be vulnerable.
The middle ground lies in constructive criticism. Show them, emphatically, where they're wrong. Do so in a compassionate manner and teach them to notice that and what they can do differently.
Encourage new things, but as Westley asks of Buttercup: Gently
Kids love routines. Especially young, preschool ages kids. They tend to find something enjoyable and stick to it. That's fine, but being confident means being able to step out of your comfort zone every now and then. It’s your place as a parent to suggest new things for them to try. And it would be wise to try and find things that are not too hard but also not something that’s too easy for them. As long as you keep them in their window of tolerance, you’re good.
Example: my son loves watching tv shows but he has something against movies. Somehow as a toddler, he got the idea that movies are scary because there are bad guys and he refuses to watch them.
Does it mean we gave up on movies? No. We let him watch what he likes but we always suggest a movie. We never force it, and we always let him know that it's fine to try and give up. And little by little, he learned how to enjoy movies.
Allow them to be afraid
Let's face it, the world is dangerous. A big part of our job as parents is to keep our kids alive and well. However, for some reason, we try so hard to shelter them from even knowing that things could be dangerous. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent (usually a dad) tell his kid “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” as the kid is climbing on some playground equipment and is scared.
Maybe this comes from FDR’s famous quote “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Well, with all due respect to FDR, in parenting it doesn’t work like that.
Fear is OK.
To be afraid is OK.
It's vital for our survival. We should teach our kids that it's ok to be afraid, as long as it doesn't prevent them from trying. I always tell my kids that being brave doesn't mean that you're not afraid, it means that you try even though you're scared.
Give them choices and responsibilities
You want your child to grow up to be an adult with an agency and a sense of control in the world? Start by giving them a sense of control as children. They have so little control over their lives that it will go such a long way to give them choices. All in the reasonable window that you decide is right.
For example, lay out 2-3 clothing options and let them choose. If they chose something you don't like, tough luck for you – maybe you shouldn't have put it for them in the first place.
Also, give them responsibility, according to their abilities. Doing little things around the house like organizing their games at the end of the day or having them be responsible for clearing the table shows them you trust them and are proud of them as they take care of themselves and of you.
Talk with them about their emotions
Last, but totally not least – you have to talk to your child about his or her emotions. This goes back to my statement that being confident means being vulnerable, being able to confront your weaknesses. Your child must learn from you that being emotional is totally fine. Be it sadness, frustration, anger, fear or even over-excitement. Emotions should be welcomed. (What sometimes cannot be welcomed is the action that comes up with the emotion, such as hitting someone because you're angry with them).
Example: your child throws a tantrum because you agree to read only one bedtime story and not two as per his request. In his tantrum he screams, cries, throws pillows around, and eventually tries to bite you. What should you do and not do?
Telling him “you got nothing to be angry about because we always read one book!” or “stop this anger right now!” is not helpful. First, it won’t do the trick and second, you’ll teach them that anger is an unacceptable emotion. If this message is received over and over again your child will grow up with difficulties expressing his anger towards other adults. Not a good mark of confidence.
What you can do is tell your child that “it’s ok to be angry. I refused something that you want it made you angry, that’s fine. However, we always read one story and it’s too late to add another, and that’s how it is”. This message gives your child total permission to feel, even though the emotion doesn’t change the reality. (And on a side note: if he is violent, you should say something like “it’s ok to be angry, it’s not ok to hit me”).
Conclusion – Raising Confident Children
In this post, we talked about what does it mean to be confident. We emphasized the role of emotions in building confidence and the crucial role of a caring, secure relationship. We touched on the struggles that you as a parent may encounter in your endeavor to raise a confident child. Then we highlighted some of the principles that I think you should try to follow if you want your child to grow up to be a confident adult. Those principles are:
- Encourage the effort, not the end goal
- Practice makes… whatever
- Be around to help, but wait
- They don't need everybody's love
- Criticize, but constructively
- Encourage new things, but as Westley asks of Buttercup: gently
- Allow them to be afraid
- Give them choices and responsibilities
- Talk with them about their emotions
This is not a thorough list. I don’t believe one exists. But these are what I believe are the most important things you can try to do for your child’s confidence. Remember, you can’t be like that all the time, and just as my first point state – it is the effort that counts. As long as you remember your values and keep trying, in a mindful and committed fashion, you’re gonna do fine.
I’d love to hear your own thoughts and experiences about raising confident children. What other principles and methods are you using? What has worked for you as a child? What struggles are you facing? Please share with us in the comments.
And if you got this far, that’s awesome! This post is long and it may be hard to get everything into your system in one read. That’s why I’m offering a free PDF that summarizes all the above principles. To get it, just subscribe to Apparently Parent’s mailing list in the box below.