Raise confident children

By Drum Digital
14 August 2014

Underestimating, overpraising and overprotecting children are common parenting mistakes. Here’s how to prepare your kids for life in the real world.

It’s every parent’s dream to raise happy, confident, successful kids – but let’s face it, it’s a minefield. One day we’re told to build them up by constantly giving them compliments, the next we’re advised to portion our praise. Of course it’s difficult not to be generous with praise when our offspring do wonderful things. But a recent study found children can be negatively affected by too much admiration.

Praising a child for mundane accomplishments sends the unintended message that their worth is linked to their achievements, says Eddie Brummelman, the study’s lead researcher. “Adults may feel praising children for their inherent qualities helps combat low self-esteem but it might convey to children that they’re valued as a person only when they succeed,” he says. “When children subsequently fail they may infer they’re unworthy.”

So what to do if we really want to show our children when we’re proud of their achievements? Our experts give great practical advice on how to raise a confident child with healthy self-esteem.

Go easy on the praise

A study conducted at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, recently published in the journal Psychological Science, found praising children all the time is bad for them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise them at all, the researchers say.

Children praised for their hard work and perseverance don’t suffer from the same insecurities – they don’t associate their selfworth with success. These kids see failure as a temporary setback, not a personal catastrophe. The research found kids who are constantly told they’re bright and talented are easily discouraged when faced with a challenging task. They tend to see it as “too difficult”, whereas kids who aren’t constantly given that feedback are more motivated to work harder and take on challenges.

“In general it’s better to praise the behaviour rather than the individual,” says Brad Bushman, the study’s co-author. “If you praise a child and she fails, it can cause shame and may inadvertently send the message: ‘I’m a bad person’.”

Cape Town educational psychologist Anel Annandale agrees: “A parent who praises only a child’s accomplishments puts pressure on them to attain some sort of standard,” she says. “When she’s unable to maintain this standard it may create a negative spiral leading to self-doubt and poor self-esteem.”

Don’t be overprotective

When we see our kids struggling with difficult tasks the temptation to swoop in and take over is great. But we shouldn’t give in to it, experts say. This is a big mistake, Annandale warns. It sends a silent but powerful message to a child that they can’t do things for themselves.

“If a parent always takes charge of a situation when their child is struggling, the child will believe he’s incapable of solving problems on his own and that he always needs to rely on others for help. It also prevents him from developing thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Parents should allow their kids to experience the joy that comes from completing a difficult task. This helps them gain self-confidence in their abilities and encourages them to take on future challenges with gusto. As their skills improve so will their self-confidence. But this doesn’t mean we should let our children struggle on their own. For example, if the child has a difficult science project, offer guidance and useful tips but don’t do it for them. This is also a good opportunity for them to learn they won’t always be able to solve problems immediately.

With older children don’t be tempted to offer advice too quickly, says Dr Cristine Scolari, a clinical psychologist of Bedfordview in Gauteng. “Rather let them think about solutions,” she says. “For example if a child comes home from school and says the schoolwork is difficult, instead of saying, ‘You need to work harder’, ask what they think will help the situation.”

This also applies to physical activities. If a child plays on a jungle gym don’t rush over and tell them to get down because you’re scared they’ll fall and hurt themselves. Skinned knees and hard knocks are part of growing up and a child who climbs to the top of the jungle gym by themselves will gain self-confidence in their physical abilities.

Create learning opportunities

Children gain confidence by learning to do things for themselves. “Parents should provide their kids with learning opportunities, which will give them a sense of accomplishment and competence,” says Megan Robinson, an educational psychologist of Johannesburg.

These can be simple things. The next time your child asks for a sandwich, show him how to make it himself. Chances are it’ll be messy but resist the temptation to take over.

“If you interfere when they don’t do something perfectly you imply perfection is more important than the process of learning a new skill,” Robinson says. Allowing them to make a mess also teaches them that it’s okay to make mistakes, she adds.

Remember to take the child’s age and development into account. Don’t set them up for failure by expecting them to do things above their developmental level.

“Choices help children feel more independent and help build confidence,” Dr Andrew Lewis, an educational and sports psychologist practising in Stellenbosch and Somerset West. “But you can’t expect a three-year-old to choose a pair of shoes in a department store that stocks hundreds of shoes. This will completely overwhelm her. Rather give her a choice between two pairs. She’ll feel empowered without feeling overwhelmed.”

Encourage hobbies and sport

Participating in sports and hobbies builds confidence because it allows children to develop and master skills. “It helps them build self-esteem through demonstrating to both themselves and others that they have skills and can accomplish tasks,” Robinson says. “For example, an art class can boost confidence because they are creating something to be proud of. And taking part in a team sport gives them a sense of belonging.”

Hobbies can also help kids discover what they’re good at, Annandale says. “A child may discover she’s a good artist but not particularly good at sport. This also helps them to understand that everyone has both strengths and weaknesses.”

How to praise constructively

  • Praise hard work, advises Dr Andrew Lewis, an educational and sport psychologist based in Stellenbosch and Somerset West. If your child gets a gold medal, remember to praise the work he put into achieving it. Explain to him that the medal is important but even more important are the life skills learnt along the way.
  • Make sure the praise matches the effort your child puts in, says Cape Town educational psychologist Anel Annandale. “Praising a child for something minor could either lead him to develop an inflated self-esteem, which is bound to get crushed when the outside world doesn’t respond with the same enthusiasm, or lead him to believe you’re not sincere.”
  • Don’t praise your child for doing something they should be doing anyway such as putting away their toys or eating all their vegetables.
  • The same goes for achievements that come easily. “If your child has always been a maths whizz, praising her for doing her maths homework is a little excessive,” Annandale says. “Rather praise her for learning to spell a word she’s always battled with.”
  • Don’t compare siblings’ achievements and always applaud the effort rather than the outcome. “This will help ensure the praise given to siblings doesn’t affect your other children’s self-esteem,” Annandale says. For example, if you have an athletic but academically underachieving child, praise the hard work he puts into his schoolwork. The same goes for his academically gifted sibling. Don’t over-praise her for scoring top marks in her favourite subject. Rather applaud her for the effort she puts into the subject or sport she struggles with.

Why confidence matters

Confidence is a building block for success because how you feel about yourself affects how you act. According to Bedfordview clinical psychologist Cristine Scolari, confident children:

  • Aren’t easily influenced by others
  • Have the inner resources to deal with disappointments
  • Are more likely to stand up for themselves
  • Are happy with who they are
  • Are more skilled socially
  • Are less likely to suffer from depression
  • Are more aware of their needs and how to fulfil them.

- Petro-Anne Vlok

Extra sources: apa .org, psmag.com, ahaparenting.com

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