One of my daughters was struggling at her school. In Grade 3, her schoolwork was average despite us being told she was an exceptionally deep thinking student. Her social skills were below expectation, and she was struggling to get through each day. We were experiencing tantrums and challenging behaviour. Her confidence was at rock bottom. Our daughter had no belief in herself, and her belief that she could achieve anything positive was low.
We unexpectedly changed our daughter’s school at the start of her final term in Grade 3, and things began to improve. When Grade 4 commenced, she attended the school swimming carnival. Our expectations were relatively low. Her performance at her previous school had been disheartening. We were thrilled when we watched her winning races. This was a change. Her performance was outstanding, and our little girl was crowned ‘age champion’.
She went on to the zone carnival.
Again our expectations were low, and we were astounded when she won several races and qualified to swim at the state swimming carnival. Her performances at state level were less noteworthy, but she had made it to state! We were delighted – and our daughter had a new feeling of confidence.
If confidence means we believe something to be true, then the best way to generate confidence is to do something consistently over time and to do it well.
Professor Martin Seligman, one of the world’s most pre-eminent psychologists argued in ‘The Optimistic Child’ that if we want our children to be confident kids, they have to be good at something – they have to be competent.
My daughter lacked confidence because in her old school environment she had not been competent at anything. At least on a comparable level to her peers, she had seemed generally lacking in competence. Because she didn’t believe she was good at things she showed no self belief – she lacked confidence. And she also chose not to participate, or participated with a frowny face because she had no self-efficacy – she lacked belief in her ability to find a way to succeed.
As she matured and embraced her new environment, she felt competent in comparison to her peer group, and that competence led to a blossoming of confidence in our daughter that we had never seen before. Her social circumstances improved, as did her academic work. She felt noticed in positive ways, and her self-belief increased as well.
If my child is to develop confidence in walking, then she has to take steps consistently until she believes that each time she moves her feet, she will stay upright. As this belief cements itself, her confidence will increase.
Similarly, if a child struggles to be consistent in a behaviour – let’s say it’s getting started on a bike – then we’ll usually suggest that he lacks confidence.
So confidence isn’t something that we are ‘born’ with, although some kids do seem to possess it in spades compared with others. Rather, it’s a learned behaviour that develops as we become consistently competent at things. I’ve already discussed praise at some length, but it bears repeating here. Research tells us that we DON’T get confident kids through praising them. Praising simply builds up hollow kids whose confidence is built on a house of cards that is bound to fall. Australian Idol is a testament to that! There are people on that show (and in the world around us) whose confidence is built without foundation – or a shallow, loose foundation of the praise of parents and loved ones. The world is typically less kind than those close to us, and eventually a house of confidence on a shaky foundation will fall.
Confident kids tend to do certain things well. They don’t have to be the best (after all, comparison isn’t generally healthy). But they have to feel competent at something and do it well. Whether it is music, sport, art, or something unique to them, competence boosts confidence.
For more helpful strategies (and what not to do!)
Creating Confident Kids: Scientific strategies that build self-belief in our children is available as a quick, easy-to-read eBook to help you boost your kids' competence and confidence.
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