Holly's father's company had moved her family around the map so often that Holly was beginning sixth grade at her fourth elementary school. She'd loved fifth grade in rural New England, and her parents were worried about her transition to a larger New York City school. After six weeks, Holly's mother met with her new teacher. "Oh, you should see her in the lunchroom with the other kids," said her teacher. "You'd think she had been here since kindergarten. I don't know where some children get such self-confidence."
"I do," thought Holly's mom, feeling relieved and proud, as she recalled the many strategies that she and her husband had followed over the years to help Holly develop the confidence that was now serving her well.
Child-rearing experts agree that parents are central to instilling this can-do outlook. But how to accomplish it can be tricky. The pendulum has swung away from the self-esteem movement popularized in the 1970s: praising children for every little thing they did. Husband-and-wife team John C. Friel, Ph.D., and Linda D. Friel, coauthors of The 7 Worst Things Parents Do (Health Communications), once observed a group of preschoolers "who would work for a few moments and then just stop, apparently waiting to be praised for each line they drew." To the Friels, the kids did not seem confident, but passive and dependent. They needed outside approval to keep going. The inner joy of creation was not enough.
Today, the following strategies are considered cornerstones of confident parenting.
All children gain confidence from routines, which are the bedrock of a stable home life. Order creates structure and makes kids feel safe. Familiarity also leads to mastery of skills, and with that comes a reassuring sense of comfort and power. Make sure that your behavior is consistent and your youngster's schedule is fairly predictable most of the time.
Share Decision Making
Let your child make choices about his world. This is especially easy to do if you give him two options, both of which you approve of, recommends Vicki Lansky, author of 101 Ways to Make Your Child Feel Special (Contemporary Books). For example, when you're grocery or clothes shopping together, ask him to choose one item over another, and then let him explain his preference. Tell him that his ideas matter.
Show unconditional love every day. Give your child hugs, pats on the back. Tuck I-love-you notes in her lunch box or leave them near her backpack. Even teens need and secretly desire gestures like these.
Celebrate your youngster's accomplishments. Toast him at dinner. Take him for a movie-and-pizza night out as a special treat. Hang his prize certificate or ribbon on the fridge. Praise him to your friends -- within his earshot.
Give Specific Feedback
Children thrive when they get positive feedback that's concrete. Instead of making a blanket statement, like "Your dance performance was great," focus on facts. Say, "Your dance steps were complicated, but you did them so gracefully." This approach lets your child know exactly what she's achieved, which helps focus her confidence.
Keep your voice friendly when you explain how to do something better, recommends Steve Biddulph, author of The Secret of Happy Children (HarperCollins). For example, say, "If you hold the bat higher, like this, it might improve your swing." And use positive words, instead of warnings. "Don't get into fights at school!" isn't as effective as "I want you to enjoy school today. Play only with children you like and get along with."
When a youngster is attempting a new skill, especially around the home, clearly explain how to do it and what your expectations are. And if he takes the initiative to try something new, for instance to wash clothes, bite your quick tongue. "A child who has never done laundry and runs the washer with only a sweatshirt in it should not be jumped on for wasting soap and water," say H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., authors of Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World (Sunrise Press). Pay attention to what went right, adds Deborah Carroll, author of Teaching Your Children Life Skills (Berkley Books).
Don't Personalize Misdeeds
Keep your corrections objective. Say, "Your homework is messy" rather than, "You're messy." The mistake is on the page, not in the person.
Read Stories About Role Models
Kids relish biographies, and especially love to read about underdogs who grew up to be star achievers, such as sickly Teddy Roosevelt, struggling farm boy Abraham Lincoln, and lonely little Eleanor Roosevelt, who was rejected by her mother. These stories send a can-do message: Success comes from hard work, determination, and belief in oneself. When Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine, was asked how many of his other experiments had failed, he responded that there was no such thing as a failed experiment; you always learn something by trying.
Encourage A Sense Of Humor
Laughter takes the sting out of a defeat, and often disarms the fear of humiliation. Children who laugh at themselves are more willing to take risks.
Be A Confident Parent
"The best way to raise a self-assured child is to be a confident parent yourself," says Susan P. Haven, a family therapist in New York City. When you're challenged at home or at work, do you see the events as setbacks or as opportunities for growth? Are you decisive or constantly questioning your choices? Talk with your youngster about your own rough spots in life and efforts you've made to succeed. Admit that there are setbacks in life, then explain why you feel confident about tomorrow. The attitudes you model become your children's blueprints for the future.