What is confidence? Confidence is a kind of trust. You can have confidence in something you read or hear, confidence in a friend, confidence in a lot of things. Self-confidence is trusting that you're capable of doing things, that they're worth a try, and that even if you fail, everything will be ok--your well-being doesn't depend on your being perfect.
We want our kids to have this healthy self-confidence-- to be willing to try new things and meet new people, without being afraid of what might happen!
About 25 years ago, Dorothy Corkille Briggs wrote a book called Your Child's Self-Esteem. Her idea was to help parents cultivate self-esteem in their children. It was such a popular concept that much of what she taught has become a part of the fabric of our culture; we rarely question the concept, it's simply a given that self-esteem should be built up.
Briggs' view of self-esteem teaches parents to tell children they are special simply because they exist; saying things like, "You're awesome!", celebrating just about everything they do, giving participation trophies, lowering standards, discounting or blaming externals for poor performance, and never saying anything that might seem negative--all are part of building self-esteem.
Of course, we all need to know that we are loved in spite of our shortcomings, and that we don't need to prove our worth to those who love us. But kids know when we're not being honest, and praise is dishonest when piled on for no apparent reason. Empty praise leads to a false sense of a child's true capabilities, often followed by confusion and self-doubt when he doesn't do as well as he's been led to believe he would.
The self-esteem "movement" (along with social media) has led to an entire generation of self-absorbed children who feel entitled to argue with their parents and teachers, and throw tantrums of various kinds until they get what they want. Their parents don't correct their behavior for fear of "damaging their self-esteem."
Actually, what's going on is that parents are afraid of making their kids mad; they want to be liked by their kids-- to be "besties", when what the children need is real, adult parents who have realistic expectations, make them clear to the child, and hold the child accountable.
See, confidence doesn't come from a false sense of what you're capable of, or being told repeatedly how "awesome" you are. Confidence comes from doing your best at what's expected of you, and either being satisfied with it or deciding you'd like to work to do better next time. It's recognizing that correction from legitimate authority isn't a threat to your value as a person, but is simply a way to show you where you can improve.
So how can we build genuine confidence in children?
We can start by recognizing they're not adults; children aren't capable of adult
understanding, communication, and performance. We also have to recognize that children grow and increase in mental and physical ability at a pace that varies from child to child, and even between boys and girls. Just be patient! Be realistic! Enjoy what your child can do at each stage of the game!
Speak to children, not about, and don't make jokes about them in their presence or in their hearing. Don't compare siblings in their hearing--children are super sensitive to these things, and yet I often hear parents speaking about their children to other adults as if the children are not there, or can't hear! Children hear you when you say, "Joey is so much more coordinated than Stevie was at this age!" or "Don't you love Sukie's gorgeous hair? Sadie's is so mousy!" or "OMG, Hubert is such a difficult kid!" or even, "Rexall is really my favorite!" in front of siblings. Please be careful, parents.
One of the most important things we can do to build children's confidence, however, is to give them small tasks to accomplish, then gradually increase the size and difficulty of the tasks. When your toddler has learned to dress himself (confidence-building!), teach him how to make his bed! And don't be afraid to correct him. Consistently give physical affection and eye contact as you communicate realistic expectations to him, and when necessary, show him how to do it!
There's security in clearly understanding what your job is and how to do it. Help your child work through frustration and failure instead of avoiding or preventing it. This builds resilience as well as confidence.
One of the most important things we can do to build children's confidence . . . is to give them small tasks to accomplish, then gradually increase the size and difficulty of the tasks.
As your child learns to accept more responsibility, affirm his role as part of your family "team"--help him learn that responsibility means doing your job before doing what you want. It's not awesome, but it's very grown-up, so tell him! Continue to gradually add reasonable responsibilities, and before you know it, he'll be giving his best effort on his homework, knowing he might have to correct something, and that it's ok if he doesn't make a 100%.
This is healthy self-confidence, knowing you're capable of a good effort and not being afraid to keep trying!
Maybe your child will excel in some things--that's great! He's still not "awesome"; he's a normal, flawed human being who is able to do some things better than others. Help him understand that he has something to offer that's worth offering--and so does everybody else! Teach him he's part of "team family" who love him and need him. He's willing to work hard, capable of success, and he recognizes that hard work brings satisfaction, regardless of gold stars, trophies, or straight A's.
If you've been telling your child he's awesome, stop it today! If you've been afraid of correcting your child because of his tantrums, get over it and start giving him what he needs--clear expectations, instructions, and patience, along with gentle, firm correction. Oh, and of course, a genuine "Good job!" when he's done!