A look at the old ways of thinking about how to raise self-confident kids, and the newer, more enlightened approach.

Self-confidence is one of the most important qualities we can instill in our children. Kids who feel sure of themselves are happier, more independent, and more likely to succeed. So it's no wonder that child-development experts have long offered parents a steady stream of suggestions on how to raise confident kids.

But now some of the conventional wisdom is being reconsidered. My own research, as well as that of other child psychologists, suggests that promoting self-confidence is a more complex and nuanced process than we originally thought. Here, a look at the old ways of thinking and the newer, more enlightened approach.

  1. Old rule: Offer lots of praise.
    Experts used to insist that there's no such thing as too much praise. If your 3-year-old shows you a picture that she's colored, give her a high five and tell her it's great. If the coloring doesn't represent her best work, at least find something positive to say: "What a gorgeous shade of blue you picked for that. Terrific job!"New rule: Praise less, but praise more authentically.
    Constant compliments can begin to sound hollow, even to a young child. It's far better to praise your little one only when you mean it. If she has put a lot of effort into something, give her kudos. If she hasn't, it's okay to withhold your approval. Praising your child for the effort -- not just the end result -- teaches her that hard work pays off. That message leads to far more self-confidence than empty congratulations.
  2. Old rule: Criticism kills confidence.
    Experts used to believe that criticizing a child could damage his developing sense of self. Parents were told, "If you can't say anything positive, it's best not to say anything at all." That advice was eagerly embraced by moms and dads who remembered being unduly criticized in their childhood. But new research finds that there's a big difference between hurtful criticism and loving truth.New rule: Offer realistic feedback, delivered with kindness.
    Your 5-year-old brings you a thank-you note that she wrote to her grandma, and you notice that it's just a bunch of hastily scribbled lines. Of course, you shouldn't say, "That's awful! Go do it again." But it's fine to tell her, "This isn't your best effort; I've seen you write better notes. Why don't you try to improve on this?" By giving your child an honest assessment, you're showing her that your appraisals can be trusted. (Even a preschooler will instinctively know that you're right.) Honest feedback, delivered gently and with love, will encourage your child to try harder and to do her best.
  3. Old rule: Greater self-expression leads to higher self-esteem.
    The ancient adage -- "Children should be seen but not heard" -- has been turned on its head. Parents have been told that kids should be encouraged to say what's on their minds. Some even allow their children to say things like "Not now, stupid" and "You're a butthead," thinking that it's okay for kids to express their feelings. But being allowed to say anything (without regard to its impact) makes kids feel too much in control -- and that can feed their insecurity.New rule: Some self-expression is hurtful to others -- and to your child.
    If you hear your child saying something unkind and nasty, insist that he stop -- even if he is reacting from his own anger and pain. Don't make excuses for him ("He's behaving like that because his feelings were hurt" or "He's just hungry and tired and can't control himself"). Instead, label the behavior for your child: For example, you could say, "You're being rude." You should then tell him you don't want to hear him talking in that tone anymore, and end the discussion. This isn't going to cause your child's self-esteem to head south. In fact, it's going to make him feel less out of control and, consequently, more secure.
  4. The old rule: Giving kids choices enhances their sense of self.
    Here's the rationale behind this old way of thinking: When you let your child have a say about what goes on in her life, she gains confidence in her ability to make decisions. That may be partially true, but it's easy to get carried away. Many parents now feel compelled to listen to their kids' input on almost all matters.The new rule: Limited choices prepare kids to make it in the real world.
    The fact is, life doesn't offer endless possibilities. You're not always able to choose what happens to you, and dealing with the demands that come your way, even if they're frustrating, helps a child develop resilience. If you allow your child to have a say in everything -- what time to leave for school, whether to have a snack before a meal, what to watch on television -- you're helping her develop a sense of entitlement, not self-esteem.
  5. The old rule: Explain everything.
    Many parents have been taught to explain to their child why they are demanding certain things from him. It's better for a child's sense of self, the theory goes, if you don't simply boss him around. And so, even the best moms and dads get caught up in explaining why something is important. But explanations and justifications leave kids confused about who's in charge. In an increasingly frightening world, this is a recipe for greater anxiety rather than greater confidence.The new rule: Sometimes, it's okay to simply take charge.
    Every once in awhile, when you're getting a barrage of "Why do I have to?" it's fine to say, "Because I'm the parent and I said so. We'll discuss it later." Such an announcement tells your child that sometimes he has to do things without understanding the reasons. Ultimately, your child will see that the things you demand from him make sense: If he goes to his room for quiet time as you've asked him to, he'll discover that he's less tired and cranky later on. Such lessons will show him that he can depend on the adult he loves most -- you -- to know what's best for him.
  6. The old rule: The more your child can do, the more confident she'll be.
    This rule tells us that the sooner children are exposed to different activities, the better off they'll be. As a result, frenzied parents have their kids listening to Mozart in utero, watching educational videos from the crib, and participating in a variety of enrichment programs as soon as they start preschool. This has created a generation of kids who are so ferociously busy they need their own PDAs to keep track of their schedules.The new rule: Do less, connect more.
    When your child has too many activities on her agenda, not only does she tend to skate through them, but you inevitably end up trying to manage her life -- not share it with her. Logistics like drop-offs, pickups, and equipment checks rule your day. The fact is, being relentlessly managed does not build a child's self-esteem. It robs her of a real connection to you. So it's best to cut back on your child's busy schedule and give her more downtime with the family. Chances are she, as well as you, will feel more relaxed. Then the connection between you and your child will grow, strengthening the loving bonds that are the true foundation for brighter, bolder, more confident kids.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the June 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

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