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Little Ego Boosters

My 11-month-old, Lily, grabs our cats by the tail. She flings CDs from their shelves, demands control of her toothbrush, and crows like Little Richard on helium. She seems, in short, to have enough confidence for both of us. But will her gutsy attitude last? Although some babies seem hardwired to be more confident throughout life, experts say that parents can, and should, boost their baby's budding ego from day one. Luckily, the steps are pretty straightforward  -- though some may surprise you.

Myth Your newborn will turn out to be a wimp if you pick her up every time she cries.

Truth When an infant promptly gets what she craves  -- a hug, a bottle, a clean diaper  -- she develops a sense of order and predictability that's the very foundation of confidence, says Neil Boris, M.D., a founding member of the Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. She also grows "securely attached" to you; and studies suggest that securely attached babies and toddlers are more likely to become confident preschoolers and grade-schoolers.

That doesn't mean you're Joan Crawford if you can't always meet your baby's needs within five seconds (good news to those of us who like to rinse the shampoo from our hair before exiting the shower). On the other hand, try not to make a baby under 6 months wait more than a few minutes when she's upset, says child-development specialist Stefanie Powers, of Zero to Three, a nonprofit. You can go a bit longer with an older baby.

Melissa Balmain is a mother of two and a freelance writer in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Nudging your little learner

Myth If you help your baby do everything, he'll never gain confidence.

Truth There's a big difference between nudging your little learner along as he tries to eat with a spoon or find a toy behind the couch, and stepping in to do it for him. Take falling asleep. While he should figure out, eventually, how to soothe himself to sleep, he will not turn into a wuss if you rock, pat, or otherwise ease him toward slumber. (This is a radical departure from the advice of some experts a generation ago.) The trick is to take it gradually.

At bedtime, "don't just throw him in the crib, close the door, and let him scream for half an hour," says Joan Luby, M.D., an associate professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine. Instead, if you want him to learn to fall asleep on his own, go in stages, starting when your baby is at least 4 months old, suggests Dr. Luby. At first, rub his back or hold his hand to help him doze off. After a few days or weeks, you can let him do more of the work  -- and come back to his room at longer intervals (one minute, then five) to soothe him if he's crying.

Take a similar approach with other new-to-your-baby skills. "If you make a challenge manageable for your baby's age or stage, he can master it  -- and it's the mastering that's going to build his confidence," Powers says. Let's say your 10-month-old is struggling to pull himself up to standing. Offer your arm for "just enough support that he can feel like he's doing it himself." Over the following days or weeks, gradually move your arm away until  -- ta-da!  -- he's standing like a pro and feeling oh-so-confident.

Once your baby becomes a trike-riding, pigeon-chasing toddler, he'll need support of a different kind. "Parents worry, 'Oh, I'm going to make my child a sissy if I welcome him when he's upset and hug him and calm him,'" Boris says. "In fact, welcoming distressed children to come to you builds confidence and independence, so it's really an anti-sissy medicine."

Letting her have free reign

Myth If you want to raise a confident baby, you have to let her do pretty much whatever she wants.

Truth Setting limits doesn't quash confidence; in fact, it helps a baby feel more secure  -- "Mom and Dad are looking out for me!"  -- which actually bolsters confidence. Some limits, such as stair gates and cabinet locks, are key to your baby's safety. Others, such as not allowing her to rip up your new copy of People, are key to your sanity. Just avoid too many of the latter, because your baby can't become confident if she never tests herself by exploring.

Ideas for encouraging her inner Marco Polo: Stock a low shelf or basket with sturdy stuff  -- old measuring cups, Tupperware  -- and let her fill and empty it at will. Keep coffee tables and the like relatively clear of precious objects. (To cope with Lily's CD-hurling urges, we've emptied our rack of the ones we really care about. If she scratches The Simpsons Sing the Blues, so be it.) And, like Melanie Dankowicz of Champaign, Illinois, try thinking outside the playpen: Her baby is allowed to roam free while his older siblings play with their choking-hazard-size toys in a large enclosure.

If your baby defies the limits you've set, use consistent, age-appropriate consequences. When Lily sinks her claws into one of our tabbies, experts say I should give a brief and clear admonishment ("No grabbing  -- ouch!"), move her away from the cat, and distract her with a toy. If she does the same thing at 18 months, I can make my explanation a bit more detailed and try a brief time-out. One consequence that  -- to the cats' disappointment  -- is never okay: physical punishment. Not only can it damage the sense of security that underlies a baby's confidence but, Luby says, "It could also make her feel unloved."

Giving verbal scoldings

Myth You can't dampen your baby's confidence by the things you say; he doesn't understand you yet.

Truth "Babies may not understand the words, but if your facial expression is disapproving, if there's a tone of voice that's somehow ridiculing or otherwise negative, I think they'll pick up on that," Powers says. The same goes for other signs of disapproval. So while you needn't go crazy in the parental-praise department ("Oh, what a fabulous poop!"), it's good to treat your baby and his body with respect and enthusiasm. Explain what you're doing when you change his diaper or dress him. Instead of always yakking on the phone during his meals, try yakking to him instead. When your baby learns a skill  -- rolling over, waving bye-bye  -- cheer and hug him with abandon. "The more you delight in a baby's activities, the more you send a powerful message that he really matters and what he's doing is important," Powers says.

Letting him clean up

Myth Babies are really lousy at household chores.

Truth Okay, that's not a myth. What does it have to do with confidence? Letting your older baby or toddler "help" with chores, Powers explains, "makes the child feel like an important part of the family." When you sweep the kitchen, hand him a mini-broom. When you fold laundry, ask him to throw the socks in the basket. "It does create more work for you," she concedes, but watching your baby unpair the socks you've just matched won't seem so bad when you see the pride and confidence on his little face. And ten minutes later, when he loses interest, you can power through on your own.

Dueling myths

Myth 1 You can't change a baby's personality.
Myth 2 His personality is putty in your hands.

Truth It lies somewhere between the two, experts believe. So if you feel your baby's confidence is being compromised by shyness, say, or anxiety, go ahead and step right in. As with teaching other skills, the key is not to expect big, immediate changes.

Eight-month-old Alexis Hamborsky of Blacksburg, Virginia, used to be terrified of vacuum cleaners. Her mother, Allison, would comfort her by carrying her while she vacuumed. "We'd look at the vacuum. I'd let her touch it. We've worked our way up to where I can sit her in her crib or in her Pack 'N Play and I can vacuum about half the house. Eventually I'm hoping to do the whole house, maybe with her just sitting on the floor."

Even as you're trying to nudge certain behaviors in a new direction, though, remember that one of the best confidence boosters is to accept your baby for the person he is. Dankowicz reminds her children of this acceptance with a weekly Sabbath blessing: "Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are."

I might try this line with Lily  -- although I doubt our cats will approve.