It is no small developmental feat to raise a child who will be able to find their own way in the world as an adult. They need to have confidence to make decisions, courage to set goals, and perseverance to overcome adversity. When you ask parents what they want most for their kids, many will say independence. If these characteristics are the goals, then what is the process for helping our kids get there
While we tend to agree on what healthy development looks like, there are many ideas about how self-confidence develops. Some believe it can be fostered with praise and rewards or by telling a child how wonderful or special they are. The problem is that when the praise stops, so does the feeling that one has something to offer. Sometimes our children will need to struggle through things that are difficult and a challenge for them.
A self that is built on praise doesn’t provide the strength and resilience required to get through adversity.
Being told you are good at something and being confident in yourself are not the same thing. Constant affirmations and talking oneself into a sense of specialness borders on narcissism and self-aggrandizement. Intrinsic worth is not something you can teach, talk, or give a child a sense of directly. Rather, the type of self built on healthy relationships and experiences provides a foundation that carries children into the world and enables them to get through hard things. There is no drug or quick fix for a lack of self-confidence, this is something that must be grown from the inside out.
The Roots of Self-confidence
It may sound obvious but to have self-confidence there needs to be a sense of self formed in the first place. This ideally starts in the early years when children experience a safe and consistent relationship with one adult who offers a sense of belonging, mattering, and love. A self is formed over time as the child is invited to be close to the adult, with that adult responding to their needs. By the time a child is 3 years old, you often hear this emerging sense of self echoed in their statements of “I do it myself” or “me do.” Forming a sense of self is a developmental milestone that must be accomplished through a healthy attachment.
By the time a child develops a sense of self they will be moved to explore and make sense of the world around them. In play they will manipulate and examine objects, tell their stories, express their emotions, and become an expert agent in their own life. In play they should be free to experiment and discover without having to worry if they’re getting something right or achieving a certain outcome.
Play is where a child sense of self is fortified and redefined overtime.
By the time a child is between five and seven, they are ideally ready to take on and face new challenges like starting formal schooling, learning to read, and socializing with other children. As they venture out into the world this way, they will discover they can survive new things and new people. If they run into trouble and have support from their adults, they will be able to find their words and tears and become more resilient to face similar challenges. A child is meant to try the world out for themselves but also needs a safe base to return to.
A Parent’s Role
When you realize that a parent’s job is not to push a child to grow up, or to praise and reward them so they feel good about themselves, then you might wonder what we can do to support the growth of self-confidence?
A safe base
When a child can take for granted that home is a place that doesn’t come and go based on their behaviour, then they’re more likely to feel secure and confident. This means that parents will need to be unconditional in accepting the child, but not necessarily of all their behaviour. It means we will need to find a way to lead our children, open their hearts to our influence, and use discipline that is attachment-based and developmentally friendly. Discipline that uses separation, such as time outs, punishments, or spanking will complicate their attachment relationship, leading to adverse relationships in the child’s future.
Keep their heart soft
For a child to grow more secure and confident, they need to feel their emotions, such as caring, sadness, and fear. It is these emotions that, when mixed together, provide the vulnerability to face the world with courage. While a child may be full of fear, their desire to achieve a goal will still push them forward. While a child may be full of frustration, it is their caring that will prevent them from forming from attacking in aggression. When a child cares deeply about themselves and others, they will have a firm foundation from which to take risks, experiment, and realize that even if they fail they will survive.
Don’t make them work for love
Some adults may try to make children work for love too, only offering contact and closeness when a child behaves or pleases them. If a child is too preoccupied working to get attention, feel special, or keep someone close, they won’t have the emotional energy to focus on themselves and to try new things. As Gordon Neufeld states: “we were never meant to work for love but to rest in it.”
Carve out spaces and time for true play
The confidence to try things in the real world is often built upon hours spent in play trying to master something. It is in play where we first come out and reveal interests, desires, and can experiment without getting it right. There is engagement and a sense of freedom when lost in play, as attention is focused inward. This focus and space to try things without the fear of consequences allows a child to grow more confident and assured.
Avoid praise and rewards
Praise and rewards undermine a sense of autonomy and freedom to explore. When a child is rewarded and praised it is often about what the adult desires rather than leaving the focus on the child to make sense of themselves. Pre-empting A child’s playtime with praise or positive reinforcement can turn play into work, where they become concerned with their performance instead of just engaging in the activity.
When we matter to the people we love, then we can take it for granted that we matter, and not just what we do.
Self-confidence is meant to grow naturally as a child ventures out in the world and learns what they can do or survive what doesn’t go well. Every child has the potential to see themselves as worthy and having something to offer the world, but they need to have someone who believes in them first.
Deborah MacNamara, PhD author of Rest, Play, Grow, Nourished, and The Sorry Plane, is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet Counselling and is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute.