I was having a bit of a blogging ideas drought this week so I asked people if there was anything they wanted to read about and one person suggested the topic of confidence and how, as parents, we can instil it in our children. I thought it was a good suggestion and as it’s something I have spent quite a bit of time pondering over the years, here we are.
Now, I don’t profess to being an expert on the subject but, as is my wont, I do have some thoughts and ideas and bits of this and that to share with you.
Confidence and self-esteem are undoubtedly areas of difficulty for many of our children, especially those who have experienced an adverse start. For LB, I think his chronic lack of self-esteem can underlie some of his more challenging behaviours such as Demand Avoidance – he will certainly baulk at a new task and I feel it’s because he just assumes he won’t be able to do it. Certainly, when there have been times that I have been able to cajole him into doing new things anyway, he has made great strides with his confidence in those tasks. The whole jigsaw incident is still the best example I have of that, which you can read about here: Jigsaws .
That situation, and the many others we’ve had like it, convinced me that there is something in taking a child a little beyond their comfort zone on occasions. I absolutely don’t mean making them do tasks they hate or are afraid of. I just mean being beside them, offering verbal and physical encouragement and a high level of scaffolding, for tasks you know they are capable of, so that they can succeed. It can involve a lot of, “I can see you think this is too hard, but I know how clever you are and I know you can do it. How about we do it together?” chat. We generally did this for table-top activities like the jigsaws, but I have used it when park equipment has looked a bit daunting and now for homework tasks. I used it last night when I was reading The Cat in The Hat to LB. He began reading a bit then gave up as soon as he stumbled on a word and wanted me to continue reading instead. With just a little bit of encouragement (“I know you can read those words”, “You could smash that page easily”), LB chose to carry on and we finished the rest of the book, taking turns to read pages, as dictated by him. If I hadn’t pushed him just a little, he wouldn’t have read any. In that scenario, I believe he would have gone away still thinking he couldn’t read the book but, through a gentle nudge to persevere, he was able to prove to himself that he could read it.
For me, that’s how confidence is built – through succeeding at things you didn’t believe you could do. Doing the thing is the most irrefutable evidence that you are capable of it.
I do think this is about balance though and being very tuned in to a child. It is quite an art to know when to nudge and when not to. I have also written about a time we got it wrong – in Our Just-Right Challenge . On that occasion, I realised that the right level of challenge for LB is a little below what he’s actually capable of. I think that because he has to work so hard, all day, every day, to maintain regulation and to overcome the challenges of his Developmental Language Disorder , he doesn’t always have the resilience to be pushed to his full capability. It’s about getting it ‘just right’ – a level which will differ child to child and situation to situation. There will be days I can (and should) ask more of LB than others. On a day where the daily routine is challenge enough, he doesn’t need someone getting him to plough on with something even trickier. It comes back to being tuned in, something which can be hard to achieve in school if staff don’t know a child well enough.
So it’s about challenge and experiencing success. What else? I came across this quote yesterday, which is pretty pertinent:
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice” (Peggy O’Mara)
When you think about it, that’s quite a responsibility, especially as some of our children will already have experienced years of potentially negative or destructive voices surrounding them and may already have a self-loathing inner voice. For those children it is doubly important we surround them with positivity. I think this is a difficult area because some children’s self-esteem is so rock bottom they cannot cope with praise and overly positive language: it is too dissonant with what they already believe. I suppose this is where the ‘relating’ that Dan Hughes talks about comes in – those children need adults to empathise with how they feel now before trying to get them to think differently. A child who thinks that poorly of themselves may see praise as superficial or given in error. It may stop them from trusting the person giving it.
I don’t know enough to make suggestions about how to proceed in that scenario, other than to take baby steps and go back to the literature for more expert advice.
I’m grateful that LB has always accepted praise and tends to lap it up. I do try to be specific in the way I give praise – “I thought the way you did that sum so quickly in your head was brilliant” is meant to be much more effective at building confidence than the more generic “good boy”. Verbalising exactly what they have done well is more likely to lead to a child doing that again. A generic “well done” can be quite vague, leaving a child wondering what it is that they’ve done well – was it that they were quiet or that they were sharing or that they remembered to say ‘please’? It may seem obvious to you, but you can’t assume it is obvious to them, so, as I always talk about in workshops, it’s best to be explicit.
I think when Peggy O’Mara wrote this quote, she didn’t just mean that we should praise our children, although that’s part of it. I think she meant that the way we speak to them as we go about our daily business is just as important. I like these suggestions for positive phrases to use:
Using phrases such as ‘I believe you’, ‘I trust you’, ‘you are good at’, ‘I really enjoyed doing x with you’ is a powerful way of working on a child’s confidence outside of specific tasks. Children are extremely tuned in to the ways we express ourselves – they often know if we are lying or uncertain and equally, they will read into the positive phrases we use. Hearing ‘I trust you to do x’ will surely tell them something about our thoughts and beliefs in them. If Mum or Dad trusts you to do something, then maybe you are a trustworthy kind of person. Whereas if all you hear is, “You can’t do that, I don’t trust you”, surely you build up an opinion of yourself that you, in general, are not to be trusted.
It’s not that I trust LB to do all tasks, because I don’t. But, I am careful to give him opportunities to do ones that are within his just-right challenge and to succeed at them. If I don’t trust him to do something (yet), I don’t tell him that. I might say that he’s too young, or ‘when you can do x, you will be able to do y’ so he knows what concrete steps have to be achieved first. This comes up a lot at our house because he has an older brother who is naturally ready to have more freedom than him. I am at pains to get across that this is due to age/ maturity and nothing to do with anything lacking in him as a person because I know that’s the direction his thoughts will take.
I suppose another thing we do, on reflection, is play down the negatives where possible and make a big deal out of achievements. When LB has gone up a reading level or tried extra hard at something, we let him choose a way to celebrate – sometimes he has stayed up to watch a football match or asked all the grandparents to go to the park with us. He loves the fuss of everyone saying how well he’s done and how proud they are. When he comes home and tells me he got a red card, I ask him what for and say something banal like ‘oh right’ and then, ‘well done for telling me’ because I don’t want him to be scared of doing so. Whatever it is has been dealt with in school and I’d rather encourage openness and honesty than punish him again. I try to show him that my interaction with him won’t change because of it and we move on.
I hope that the bigger reaction to positive achievements will be more memorable and formative for him.
I suspect I am more inclined towards making a drama of achievements because there are so many challenges – calls to the teacher, comments in the book, red cards for this, that or the other. I am determined to make him see he is more than that.
I did realise though, that in so doing, I was inadvertently doing BB a disservice. He doesn’t get red cards and I don’t get called in about his behaviour – he is very steady, knuckles down and just gets on. Consequently, there aren’t the same extreme highs and lows in parenting or educating him so he doesn’t always get the same extreme shows of praise or validation. Now that I’m conscious of this, I am trying to rectify it – obviously if he does something fabulous, he too gets to choose how to celebrate. We tell them both we’re proud of them all the time, because we are, but I need to be more alert to not letting BB’s consistent positive behaviour disappear under the radar.
I suppose my only other thought is that confidence is a thing which grows and dips throughout our lives. I still have days I feel more able to take on the world than others and I suspect everyone does. This isn’t about working to achieve an end goal of Being Confident. I think it’s more about acting and speaking in certain ways to create an environment conducive to confidence – both for our children and ourselves.