Every parent wants to raise a confident child who tackles challenges with gusto, and tries new things even if it means risking failure. While these qualities don't come automatically, parents lay the groundwork for a can-do attitude in a child's first few months and years. "Some of our kids come out as tumbleweeds and some of them come out like African violets, but from day one we love them for who they are," says child development expert Michele Borba, EdD, author of Esteem Builders. "Unconditional love and acceptance are the roots of self-esteem."
Even Babies Can Be Confident
What can you do when your child is an infant to help him develop the confidence to "try, try again"?
Create a predictable routine. When your baby knows that after having his bath he'll be fed and then go to bed, he doesn't have to worry about what's going to happen next. Instead, his mind is free to focus on mastering new skills, such as how to get his belly up off the floor so he can crawl.
Respond to baby's needs. Of course you're already doing this. Every time you pick him up when he's crying or kiss a boo-boo, you're not just soothing him so he'll be less upset. You're showing that you're listening, and that you understand what he needs, which makes him feel important.
Present small challenges. The rush that accompanies "I did it!" is a powerful tool when it comes to building self-confidence. A 5-month-old who tries to grab at the toys dangling from his play gym is going to feel a burst of excitement when he finally does it. The next time you put him down on the play gym, position him so that grabbing the toy is not as easy as it was before but is still doable. Your baby might be frustrated at first, but he'll be all smiles once he learns to overcome this challenge. "This is how you build confidence," says Borba. "You are guiding him so he feels he is getting better and better at something."
Encourage persistence. When a child can't quite get the right piece into the shape sorter or he topples over as he's trying to stand up, say, "You've almost got it. Let's try again. You can do it!" This lets him know he's safe, and it gives him the confidence that he needs to pull himself up again. Add a hug, and your child will feel worthy of acceptance even though he didn't succeed this time.
Toddlers Learn Through Trial and Error
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."
As a parent, you want your child to develop the confidence necessary to succeed academically, stand up to peer pressure, and feel good in his own skin. To accomplish this, here are some things you should never say or do to your child.
Don't overdo discipline. "The goal of discipline is to help the child learn to act right without you, and to learn from his mistakes," says Borba. Not every offense requires a time-out, and all discipline should include a teachable moment where you show your child what he should have done differently.
Don't engage in self-criticism. Every time your child hears you say "I'm too fat" or "I was never good at math," she questions her own appearance and abilities. When a parent is confident, her children are more likely to be confident themselves.
Don't shield your child from all disappointments. "Disappointments, hurts, failure, and mistakes teach us how to be flexible in the face of life's demands," says Young-Eisendrath.
Don't do everything for your child. Sure, he's going to make a mess the first time he feeds himself oatmeal. Let him. Making mistakes is part of the process of problem solving. Avoiding these pitfalls will leave you more time for important things such as helping your child discover what he's good at.
Confidence Stumbling Blocks
A new sibling joins the family, a beloved childcare provider moves on, potty training begins. All of these have the potential to make your child feel insecure and may result in some setbacks.
Acknowledge your child's emotions. Let her know it's okay to be mad, sad, or frustrated.
Don't make too many changes at once. If, for example, your toddler is getting used to a new caregiver, put off potty training for a while.
Expect some regression. If your "me do it" toddler suddenly wants you to feed him, indulge his need to be babied. If you don't let it become a power struggle, chances are he'll reclaim his big-kid status.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.