Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Boosting the confidence of your less-confident kids

I have five children, and they have five different personalities. Which is good, really. It would be boring to have five little carbon copies running around the house (NOTE: If you don't know what carbon copies are, I'm going to dock you 10 points for making me feel old. Here's an explanation.)

Anyway, if there's one thing the majority of my kids share, it's healthy self-esteem. Terry and I have always tried to foster in them a strong sense of their own unique abilities and positive character traits.

I would say that's true of 80% of my kids. (For you humanities majors, I should explain that means 4 of the 5.)

The holdout is Melanie. Or "little Melanie," as I've always called her. She's 12 now and taller than a lot of her friends, so the "little" part is misleading. It stems from the five-year period in which Mel was the baby of the family before Jack was born. I always think of her as "little Melanie."

Melanie is a wonderfully talented, smart, beautiful girl. She is already an accomplished musician, actor and soccer goalkeeper, and one of those kids for whom the sky is very obviously the limit.

Not that Mel used to believe any of that about herself. For a long time, she was held back by the belief that she wasn't very good at anything. This is common in a significant subset of kids, but as I explained in a post last week, it's especially common in girls.

Try as we might to convince Melanie of her own worth, she would consistently doubt herself. At one point, Terry was actually making her repeat this self-validating mantra: "I am a smart, beautiful, confident woman." Really. She would have Mel say it aloud five or 10 times in a row in the hope that the child would start to believe it.

I've noticed over the last several months, ever since Melanie entered the 6th grade, that her confidence seems to be on the upswing, which is a relief. She still doesn't have a real sense for just how good she is (and will be) at a lot of things, but I think she's trending in the right direction.

Which brings me to today's question: How do you go about boosting the confidence of kids who, for whatever reason, don't really believe in themselves? It took us awhile to figure it out with Melanie, but let me suggest five approaches that may work:

(1) Let them know they're worthy...and they're loved
I was a parent for quite a long time before I realized just how impactful the things we say to our kids can be. Sting penned this line in a song about the death of his father: "...this indifference was my invention, when everything I did sought your attention." There's a lot of truth there. Yes, young people are very much influenced by their peers. But ultimately, it's the words of our parents that stick with us the longest. As often as possible, they need to be positive words of affirmation.

(2) But don't go overboard
The thing is, kids are smart enough to know the difference between genuine, heartfelt praise and sugar-coated platitudes. They do need constructive criticism when it's warranted. Don't feel like you have to laud them 75 times a day for every little thing they do ("Good job flushing the toilet, Johnny!")

(3) Play to their strengths
Almost invariably, your child will gravitate toward the things at which she shows some level of ability or aptitude. This is natural (you do it, too). To the extent you can, encourage them to pursue these interests at higher and higher levels. This not only creates a sense of accomplishment, it also helps them figure out what they might want to do with their lives once they leave your house. And trust me, one day they will actually leave.

(4) Challenge them
At the same time, the kid has to learn how to fail. Losing is as important (and I might argue more important) as winning when you're growing up. Life's tough. They either learn to accept that fact now or they grow up to be whiny, dependent, reactive people. Ironically, the better they learn to handle failure, the more confident they'll become. I'm not quite sure how or why that works, but it does.

(5) Create a safe, loving home environment. Kids who don’t feel safe or loved at home are at the greatest risk for developing poor self-esteem (and therefore low self-confidence). If a child doesn't see his/her home as a safe haven in which family members are supportive, encouraging and understanding, they're going to be less willing to take risks or try new things. Like most things, it all starts at home. And you as the parent are the one who sets the tone there. Don't ever forget that.

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