Teach Your Kid Confidence -- from Birth

Toddlers Learn Through Trial and Error

boy with blocks

Frank Heckers

It's likely not until your baby is about 18 months old that she figures out she is an individual, distinct person. Now her focus shifts from What is this? to Am I good at playing with this toy? Do I even like this toy?

As part of this new self-awareness, she will want to do everything herself. Parenting becomes quite a challenge as your child refuses help even though she often doesn't have the skills required to do the task, says parent coach Carolyn Gatzke, of Long Beach, California. Don't solve the problems for your child. If your 2-year-old is frustrated over a puzzle, don't finish it for her. Instead, provide hints for which puzzle piece she might try ("Do you see any pieces that look like a cloud?"). When she finally fits in the missing piece herself, the result will be a beaming smile and a proud "I did it!" The same goes for answering questions on her behalf. If your 3-year-old is asked whether she wants apple or orange juice, don't reply for her, and don't translate a shy mumble. "We actually push down confidence when we rescue our kids," Borba says.

Also, don't overdo it in the praise department. So-called "junk praise," applauding every accomplishment no matter how small, teaches your child that everything she does is wonderful, something that likely won't prove true in the classroom or, later, in the workplace. "If you say 'Great job' every time your child navigates the stairs, she'll come to depend on such applause for everyday activities," says Polly Young-Eisendrath, PhD, author of The Self-Esteem Trap. So when your child takes her first steps, dance around like it's a game-winning touchdown. But as two steps turn into three, don't repeat the performance. Wait until she can walk across the room before whooping it up again. This will encourage your child to try something new even at the risk that she might fall or make a mistake.

Another change that happens after 18 months, especially as motor skills improve, is an increased interest in taking risks. I held my breath as I watched my 2-year-old climb the highest ladder at the playground for the first time. She was scared, too, but the look of pride on her face when she got to the top made the journey worthwhile. I was there for encouragement and to catch her if she fell. After all, having that parachute on your back is what gives you the guts to skydive. And if your child does take a misstep, well, she'll have learned something that will help on her next try. "The mistakes of childhood teach us that you can be optimistic in the face of disappointment," says Young-Eisendrath. "And once you have that, almost no challenge is too big."

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