Believe in Your Child and He will Believe in Himself

“I’m not good enough. I’m dumb” was the three-year-old’s answer when the teacher at his child care center asked why he didn’t want to join in the next activity with his classmates.

He had drifted to the back of the room as the other children gleefully lined up for the chance to hit a ball with a bat. “It just made me hurt,” said the teacher, who understood that young children are usually optimistic about their ability to learn a new skill.

As a result, she asked the boy’s parents about his behavior. Their response was that their own parents had been tough and strict and they were raising their son the same way. They didn’t want him to get “too big for his britches.” But their approach was not encouraging positive behavior in their son. Instead, it was hindering the development of his self-confidence, one of the cornerstones of healthy social and emotional adjustment.

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The Crucial First Three Years

In a child’s first three years, he forms opinions and expectations of himself, deciding if he is important, if he is valued, and if he is capable. By the time children are three years old, they have developed a concrete way of viewing themselves with labels like “short or tall,” “boy or girl,” or “good or bad.”

We know that stressful conditions – poverty, domestic violence, and harsh parenting – can take a toll on the development of children. Yet many children facing those conditions are able to overcome them and avoid negative outcomes like behavioral problems, early parenthood, or involvement with the juvenile justice system.

In the case of the boy described above, negativity from his parents informed the beliefs he developed regarding himself. His self-esteem was diminished, and because self-esteem is a core ingredient in resilience, so was his ability to adapt well to future challenges and difficulties.

Risk Managemen​t

It is inarguable that a child is more likely to develop positive self-esteem when his parents are caring and nurturing, showing through their actions and words that he is important and capable. His self-confidence reduces risks for social, emotional, and academic difficulties.

A young parent with her two young children in tow was overheard recently saying to a friend: “I didn’t know parenting was going to be so hard, but I’ve decided it’s all about finding the balance.” That is certainly true when it comes to building a child’s self-confidence. Parents need the ability to encourage without being intrusive, to protect without being overprotective, to guide without getting in the way.

Finding the Perfect Balance

How can parents, families, and caregivers ensure that they promote the development of children’s self-esteem?

  • Demonstrate and express genuine interest in your children. Engage them in age-appropriate activities that encourage problem-solving. Be spontaneous and affectionate.
  • Acknowledge children’s expressions of their emotions, for example “I know you are mad because you wanted to play with your toys without stopping to eat dinner. It’s hard to wait, but you can play when you finish eating.”
  • Give meaningful, positive feedback rather than empty praise and flattery, spelling out the accomplishment that you are commenting about rather than just saying “good job.”
  • Be a positive role model. Display optimism, honesty, and compassion so your children can mirror your positive behavior.
  • Help your child develop positive beliefs about himself, whether they are about his appearance, his skills, or his achievements.
  • Create a safe, loving home and family environment.

Healthy self-confidence has been described as a child’s armor against the challenges of the world. When parents and caregivers help him forge it in the early years, they promote his long-term social and emotional development.