“You can do it if you set your mind to it,” my mom liked to tell me as a kid. It was just a simple sentence but it always empowered me, whether I was tackling a tough school project or having performance anxiety at the piano recital. I say the words to my kids, too.
There’s a lot of focus these days on feeding kids healthy foods and making sure they have a steady diet of brain-boosting activities, but nurturing confidence is equally vital to well-being. Believing in your abilities is just as key, if not more so, than your actual level of ability. (See: half of Hollywood.)
These are the strategies for raising confident kids that I’ve picked up as a parenting magazine editor, and through my own adventures in motherhood.
Consider your kids experts
Child development pros make a big deal about encouraging kids to take on tasks they can master, whether it’s a craft project or a Wii game, to instill a sense of accomplishment. I try to further bolster my children’s sense of competence by seeking their advice instead of insta-Googling everything. My 11-year-old, who has special needs, is an iPad whiz. And so, when I can’t figure out how to, say, change something in settings, I ask him. I’m still working on convincing him that he’s an expert at cleaning up his room, though.
Don’t overdo the praise
Telling a kid “You’re incredibly good at this!” instead of just saying, “You’re good at this!” can backfire, shows new research from The Ohio State University. In one study, 240 children drew a famous Van Gogh painting. Afterward, they received notes with either inflated praise, no praise or straightforward compliments, and were told to choose another picture to copy—either an easy one or a more difficult one. Kids with lower self-esteem were more likely to go for the easy choice if they had received inflated praise. Researchers say that over-the-top props can put too much pressure on kids. They may worry about always meeting overly high standards, and opt out of challenges—the very ones that instill can-do confidence.
But do give detailed props
A child psychologist I once interviewed told me that when you praise a child, it’s ideal to give specifics—they’re more meaningful. So rather than saying, “I love that picture you made!” instead say, “That design is really cool—I like how you made those swirls everywhere!” or “The blues and greens you chose go together really well.” This way, too, you are praising kids for their skills, not just for the outcomes.
Get into routine
When your kids are little, you’re totally in the routine groove: Feed, nap, change, repeat. As kids get older, though, routines can fall to the wayside. Thing is, they are still key to helping kids of any age feel safe, secure, confident and in control. So stick with wake-up, mealtime, bathtime and bedtime routines for as long as you can. They’re prime bonding opps, too.
Let ‘em make choices
This is a classic confidence tactic: Enable children to make decisions so they learn to trust their judgment. This one’s as simple as offering toddlers a choice of food at meals, or giving an older child freedom to choose…within reason. My daughter, who’s 9, is going through a feather-earring phase. I personally think she looks like she had a fight with a peacock, but I’ve kept my yap shut. That’s not to say she gets to rule our house, but when it comes to style preferences, they’re proudly her own. (And her peacock’s.)
Show your child how you solve problems
When my daughter complains about a friend’s behavior, I’ll ask for her suggestions instead of jumping in with my own. But I also let my kids see how I deal with minor situations, whether I’m talking on the phone with a handyman who didn’t get a job done quite right or finding an alternate route when we’re stuck in bad traffic. One of the best ways kids learn is from your behavior. Model how capable you are of handling problems and they’ll develop that power, too. Self-sufficiency: an amazing ego booster.
Pay real attention
Years from now, I’ll bet studies will emerge that children of parents who constantly text and check email on their smartphones grow up to have lower self-esteem than parents who aren’t iObsessed. Kids need love and attention to thrive. Inherently, parents know this, but it’s easy to forget. The other night, I was working on my computer in our living room while my daughter was doing cartwheels, a newfound skill. This went on for a good 10 minutes. Finally, I looked up from the screen, watched her in admiration and told her how proud I was that she’d nailed them. “I couldn’t do cartwheels when I was a kid,” I told her, and she beamed. And suddenly, my daughter wasn’t just doing cartwheels; she was standing on top of the world.