Building Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem

Dear Mr. Dad: I hear so much about the need for kids to have self-esteem and self-confidence, but I’m not sure how to go about instilling either one in my kids. They’re only four and six, so maybe it’s no big deal yet—but is there anything I can do now to raise confident kids?

A: Absolutely. It’s never too soon—or too late, for that matter—to think about your child’s future. But first, let me take a minute to hopefully eliminate some confusion. Self-confidence and self-esteem are related, but they’re not identical. Self-esteem is somewhat passive and has to do with how we see ourselves—what (or whom) we see when we look in the mirror. Healthy self-esteem is also crucial in developing positive attitudes and actions toward others. You’re much more likely to treat someone else with empathy and respect if you have a positive view of yourself.

Self-confidence is more active, and describes our willingness and ability to interact with the world around us.

Fortunately both qualities are built out of the same building blocks, and there’s plenty you can do to help with the construction when your children are very young:

  • Make your child feel special and loved. Spend individual playtime with each child. Read together. Be silly together. Say “I love you.” Close attachment to a parent will not spoil your children or make them overly-dependent. On the contrary, research shows that well-attached children are more likely to move out confidently into unfamiliar situations than those who are less well attached.
  • Model confidence and self-esteem. If you spend a lot of time putting yourself down or expressing worries and fears, expect your child to imitate that behavior—right down to the knit brow and bitten fingernails. Such attitudes are caught as well as taught, so make sure you’re modeling the attitudes you hope to convey.
  • Praise effort at least as much as the results. There’s nothing wrong with a big hurrah or going out to ice cream for winning the race, but children who are praised only for their accomplishments get the message that they’re worthwhile and important only when they’re winning. But don’t go overboard. I firmly believe that the rampant sense of entitlement exhibited by so many teenagers is a direct result of having grown up in an environment where everything they did was “fantastic” and “amazing,” and every kid on the soccer team got a trophy, whether the team came in first or last.
  • Identify and recognize special talents. Every child has certain special abilities. Maddie can run like a gazelle. Richie knows Pi up to the first 274 decimals. Amy can burp the Star-Spangled Banner. The “talent” itself matters much less than its uniqueness. Find ways in which each child can distinguish him or herself, and make a special effort to notice and praise it—not just to encourage it, but also to underline the feeling of specialness.
  • Give your child responsibilities. Nothing builds confidence faster and better than a job well done. Find family responsibilities for each child that are age-appropriate so success is possible. But don’t offer false praise. When the job is well done, say so. If it’s not, give positively-framed tips for how to succeed next time.
  • Encourage kids to express their feelings. Nothing works against the development of healthy self-esteem more than feelings that have been repressed instead of expressed. Getting practice expressing emotions while they’re young will help your children as they hurtle towards adolescence, when open communication is especially important and self-esteem especially fragile.