Consider Your Compliments
Of course, young kids need plenty of encouragement, whether they're learning to crawl, throw a ball, or draw a circle. But your child can get so accustomed to hearing "Good job!" that he may have a hard time realizing when his accomplishments are really worth celebrating. He'll also sense when you're exaggerating ("That's the best block tower I have ever seen!") and may start ignoring your compliments. Don't praise your child if he does something that he's supposed to do. When he brushes his teeth or throws his shirt into the hamper, for example, a simple "thank you" is sufficient. Try to offer specific feedback: Instead of saying that your child's drawing is gorgeous, you might point out his nice use of purple.
Don't Rescue Your Child
It's natural to want to prevent your child from getting hurt, feeling discouraged, or making mistakes, but when you intervene -- trying to get her invited to a birthday party she wasn't included in, or pressuring the soccer coach to give her more game time -- you're not doing her any favors. Kids need to know that it's okay to fail, and that it's normal to feel sad, anxious, or angry, says Robert Brooks, PhD, coauthor of Raising Resilient Children. They learn to succeed by overcoming obstacles, not by having you remove them. "It's particularly important for young children to have the chance to play and take risks without feeling that their parents will criticize or correct them for doing something wrong," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia. She even encourages parents to make their own little mistakes on purpose. "Seeing you mess up and not make a big deal about it will make little kids feel so much better."
Let Him Make Decisions
When your child gets the chance to make choices from a young age, he'll gain confidence in his own good judgment. Of course, kids love to run the show, but having too much control can be overwhelming; it's best to give your child two or three options to choose from. For example, don't ask your 3-year-old what he wants for lunch, but offer pasta or peanut butter and jelly. At the same time, let your child know certain choices are up to you. Gloria Kushel's 8-year-old daughter, Caroline, likes to dress like a boy and wear her hair cropped short. "I decided that I would let her make those choices, but other things, like whether she practices piano, aren't up for a vote," says Kushel, of Mamaroneck, New York.
Focus on the Glass Half Full
If your child tends to feel defeated by disappointments, help her be more optimistic. Instead of offering glib reassurances to "look on the bright side," encourage her to think about specific ways to improve a situation and bring her closer to her goals, says Karen Reivich, PhD, coauthor of The Optimistic Child. If she's behind her classmates in reading, explain that everyone learns at her own pace, and offer to spend extra time reading with her. If she's crushed because she didn't get the lead in the second-grade play, don't say, "Well, I think you're a star." Instead, say, "I can see how disappointed you are. Let's come up with a plan for how you can increase the chances of getting the part you want next time."
Nurture His Special Interests
Try to expose your child to a wide variety of activities, and encourage him when he finds something he really loves. Kids who have a passion -- whether it's dinosaurs or cooking -- feel proud of their expertise and are more likely to be successful in other areas of their life. Quirky hobbies may be particularly helpful for children who have a hard time fitting in at school -- and you can also help your child take advantage of his interest to connect with other kids. For example, if your son likes to draw but most of the boys in his class are into sports, encourage him to do sports drawings. Or he could put together a book of his artwork and show it to the class.