Raising Confident Kids

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Never miss a chance to let your child do things on her own. You need to let her try ... she will learn as she goes.

“Next to tying their own shoes and reading, a strong sense of self-esteem is the hardest thing we have to teach our children,” a young mother confided to me, as she soulfully watched her 4-year-old timidly standing at the edge of the playground as his playmates engaged in a hearty game of kickball.

In fact, it may be the hardest. Self-esteem can’t be measured in neat loops, tight knots, or library cards. There are no easy rhymes that you can pass along to your children to help them remember to feel good about themselves, and often poor self-esteem can be mistaken for the natural developmental phases of shyness, rebellion and manipulation.

We all recognize that good self-concept is critical to living a well-balanced and fruitful life as adults. So when does self-esteem come into play for children and how can we recognize problems in the early stages?


Give Children a safe place to Grow

Children who trust that Mom and Dad will promptly come to their aid when a perceived danger or discomfort threatens will be prepared to handle tougher problems on their own as they get older. Kathleen Hoover Dempsey, associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, says, “I think a critical job for parents is building a loving structure — a sense of the world and what its boundaries are, a sense that other people regard you highly, positively, and are there for you unconditionally. It also comes out of understanding that this is a world you can negotiate on your own.”


Let Children teach themselves

Polly Berrien Berends, author of Whole Child/Whole Parent and mother of two, suggests that competency is another basic component to building a child’s sense of self-worth. She writes, “Never miss the chance to allow a child to do something that she can and wants to do on her own. Sometimes we’re in too much of a rush — and she might spill something, or do it wrong. But whenever possible she needs to learn, error by error, lesson by lesson, to do it better. And the more she is able to learn by herself, the more she gets the message that she’s a kid who can.”


What’s the Difference Between Shyness and Low Self-Esteem?

In younger children, we can recognize low self-esteem as a sense of hesitation or anxiety, holding back from participation, and a fear of failing that permeates all kinds of different environments. These behaviors are not to be confused with shyness, however. Hoover-Dempsey explains, “All of these behaviors are quite normal at some stages of development. For instance, some kids are very shy and will simply not want to be forthcoming in groups, but get them one-on-one or in settings where they are confident, and you can get lots out of them. One of my own was very shy as a little kid and was constantly behind my legs in any situation, but if you got her one-on-one, she would tell you exactly what she thought. Such children do not have low self-esteem. But if these behaviors happen across a variety of different settings, like preschool and at home and with Grandma and with Dad, then there is a possibility that low self-concept is operating.”


Identifying the problem

As children get older, low self-esteem can become hidden in other behaviors such as anger, rebellion or the appearance of not caring about oneself, activities or others. Hoover-Dempsey says, “If I can’t do things in what people tell me is a competent way, then I will start to devalue that set of activities. If I feel I just can’t get math or that biology is totally beyond me, then I might start to say, ‘Screw biology’, or ‘I don’t care about math, only nerds understand math.'”

For these children, identifying low self-esteem can become more difficult. “Kids in middle and teen years become more adept at hiding themselves and presenting an image that they think you want to see. Nobody puts out in flashing neon lights: ‘My problem here is I have low self-concept.’”


Helping Children Overcome Low Self-esteem

So what do you do to help your child improve her self-esteem? The first step, suggests Hoover-Dempsey, is to identify your own expectations by asking yourself, “What, if anything, am I doing that is making my child feel that it’s not okay to make mistakes?” Parents too can be a support to each other in identifying these behaviors. “It may be my personality quirk about X or Y that causes me to jump on my kid whereas my spouse may be able to look at that issue in an easier light,” she says.

If your child is in daycare or in school, you will want to ask that same question of the primary caregivers and teachers. In addition, look at peer groups, even in daycare, and examine whether a child who is extremely confident is ruling the roost in playgroups. If so, you may want to talk to teachers about re-directing or re-formulating the group.

Polly Berrien Berends gives these rules for building self-esteem in your child: “Enjoy him. When he is around, smile often. When he speaks, listen. When he proposes, consider. If you tuck his shirt in, do it because he deserves to be comfortable, not just because he looks like a slob … When he fails, offer comfort rather than condemnation … Show respect for his effort, even when his work is imperfect … Let him know that life will support him even when he makes mistakes.”


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