Ways to raise a confident, happy kid -- hint: don't just tell her she's the best

abredeson@islandpacket.comMarch 9, 2014 

20100312 Reading

Instilling self-confidence in children is important. It makes them feel competent and loved, safe and inspired. It sets them up for future happiness and success, however one defines it.

NEASE — McClatchy-Tribune News Service


    Hilton Head Island licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Maureen Hawkins specializes in helping children and adolescents. She recommends these books for parents wanting to boost their children's self-confidence:

  • "Teach Your Children Well," by Madeline Levine

  • "The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied," by Brad Sachs

  • "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," by Wendy Mogel

Every morning in February, Bluffton mom Coco Jozic stuck two construction paper hearts to the back door of her home.

One was for her daughter, Madigail, and the other for her son, Jack. Each day, Jozic wrote a new message, saying something nice about her children, letting them know how loved they are and how proud she is of them.

To her 7-year-old, she wrote, "Madigail, I love how you read to Jack last night." A heart to her 5-year-old said, "Jack, I love how you open the car door for me."

"The kids loved it," Jozic said. "They smiled each morning reading them and were excited to hear what each other's said too. ... I think it's a real confidence booster."

Instilling self-confidence in children is important. It makes them feel competent and loved, safe and inspired. It sets them up for future happiness and success, however one defines it.

Without confidence, how can a child ask his teacher a question or stand up and give a presentation in front of the class? Without it, how can a teenager audition for a part in a school play or resist peer pressure?

Parents have a variety of ideas on how to instill confidence in their children. Some say that words of encouragement are what kids need. Others say they need quality time with their parents.

Dr. Maureen Hawkins, a licensed clinical psychologist on Hilton Head Island, said it's important for parents to be specific when praising their children, especially the little ones.

Parents and teachers should encourage the effort that kids put into something as opposed to just telling them they are great. Instead of saying, "You're the smartest boy in the whole world," say, "Great job doing your homework."

Let them know that effort can pay off. Even if they studied hard and did not do great on a test, they probably learned something in the process.

Hawkins, who specializes in adolescents and children â€" and has three kids of her own â€" said giving children a blanket compliment, such as, "You're so smart" sets a standard that if they don't do well on the next test, they are not really smart.

"Kids seem to interpret it that way," she said. "Praise what they've put into it, you know, 'Wow. I see you've really spent a lot of time working on that paper, and look what an excellent grade you got. That's awesome.' "


Hilton Head mom Amy Rosene has found that setting a goal for her kids and allowing them to struggle through it -- rather than doing it for them -- is a huge confidence builder.

She and her husband, Bob, set up opportunities for this by explaining to their kids how to do something. Whether they are learning to make the bed or write a paper, they need to work hard to get it done. Rosene said there's a benefit in allowing them to truly experience an achievement on their own.

"When (they) get to take 100 percent credit for coming out the other side and having crushed that, whatever that might be, (it) is going to be so much more gratifying and so much more satisfying and so much more confidence-building than for me to sit back and say, 'Oh, I know you can do it,' " she said.

Parents should recognize the individual traits of their kids. Try to figure out what your child's talents are, Hawkins said, and focus on those. She suggests setting up opportunities for children to practice and master skills. It's difficult for parents to let go and allow their kids to do things on their own sometimes, but it can be very beneficial to them.

For example, you could let your child do some cooking. You can be there with him to help, but don't do it for him.

"Even if it's something as small as cracking an egg, if they do it, they're like, 'Wow.' They have a sense of competency, like, 'I did this,' " Hawkins said.

Give kids responsibilities. Teach them to do the laundry or use the dishwasher. When they see they can do things on their own, it really builds confidence. Hawkins taught her daughter how to make coffee when she was 8, and she loves being able to do that for her mom every morning.

When you're setting up an opportunity for your children to learn something or accomplish something, make sure you have enough time. If they want to make their lunches, it's probably not best for them to do it when you're running late in the morning. Have them make their lunches the night before.

"It takes a lot of patience," Hawkins said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could all do this all day long, nurture them in such fabulous ways, but the reality is, you are running in 16 directions. A lot of people are working and raising their kids and cooking dinner and cleaning their house. We're very busy. People are busy."


Parents do need to carve out some time from their busy schedules, though, to talk to their kids, even if it's just chatting in the car on the way home from school or lying in bed with them before they fall asleep at night.

Hawkins urges parents to really listen to their kids. Put down the cellphone. Ignore the emails, and pay attention to what they have to say.

One thing that builds self-confidence in kids is when they feel like what they have to say is important. Whether they are 3 or 18, remember that what they are saying means something to them.

"You might not care that Jill just broke up with Johnny and she's absolutely devastated, but they do," Hawkins said.

Kids need to feel like you are connected and thinking about what they're saying. It validates them. Instead of brushing off their feelings, say, "Oh, wow. That must've really hurt."

"A child who feels confident is a child who feels supported," Rosene said.

It's not enough to tell kids that you are there for them. Parents need to show their children that they support them. Rosene said it's the little everyday decisions she and her husband make to be present, to be engaged, that really demonstrate that unconditional support to them. She said the confidence her boys have has very little to do with the words of encouragement or praise she and Bob have given them over the years.

"I think that the strength and the conviction and the confidence they have really comes from that unwavering knowledge and that core belief that they're loved," she said. "I think we all gain strength and confidence to kind of push ourselves when we feel supported, and I think that's a powerful feeling."

Rosene and her husband have made it a priority to be at every game and every event for their three boys, Will, 11; Jack, 9; and Nate, 7.

"Just by showing up at the field or being there for those little moments, that's what says, 'I support you.' That's what says to them, 'I'm here for you, regardless of your performance.' "


If your children don't open up to you on their own, Hawkins said to ask them what is going on with them. Instead of saying, "This is a great paper. You got an A," ask how your child came up with the idea for the paper.

The younger you start with this type of questioning, the more your child will share in the future.

"When they're a junior and they're writing their college essays, they're going to really believe that you want to know, and they might actually kind of talk to you more. And they're going to feel more confident about what they've put into it," Hawkins said.

It's also important to be consistent. If you say you will pick up your child at 4 p.m., be on time. If you say you're going to take him somewhere, take him. Then they will believe that you mean what you say.

The same goes for rules. If you say no R-rated movies, stick to it. Don't make exceptions.

She said kids are constantly pushing to find structure, and they're going to test it. Being able to predict what's going to happen helps kids feel more confident and comfortable in their environment.

Hawkins said as your children get older, let them try things. Let them make mistakes. If your child really wants to go to a basketball game, but has homework to do, problem solve with him. Can he do his homework at lunch or after the game? How can he make it work?

"You kind of have to give them enough room to make the mistakes and obviously not just let them completely fall on their faces constantly, but to have enough learning experiences," she said.

And when they do make mistakes or something doesn't go their way, help your child understand that that's how life is. Tell them they are not the only person who stuttered during a class speech or tripped on the basketball court.


Laughter can go a long way with improving self-confidence. So can a simple touch. Hug your children. Snuggle with them. Make them feel like they're wanted.

Invite your children to do things with you, such as going for a bike ride or even running errands. And surprise them every once in a while with special treats like lighting candles at dinner or using the fine china.

"That kind of attention to detail is fun," Hawkins said. "It makes their environment positive and enhances it, and that gives them confidence."

Be careful not to overschedule. It's fun to have activities, but if your child is constantly running from one thing to the next, then you don't have time for doing the smaller tasks or spending time with him.

Encourage your child's interests, and do not limit what they can do. If your daughter wants to do ballet, but you don't think she'll grow up to be a dancer, don't tell her that. Let her try ballet. Let her figure out on her own what she can and can't do.

And finally, talk to your children about the fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. As long as you eat right, get enough sleep and exercise, it doesn't matter what size you are. They do not need to look like the images in the magazines.

Hilton Head mom Shelly Harrell has made a point to teach her kids that everyone is different and everyone is beautiful in his or her own way.

Harrell has 10-year-old triplets -- two boys and a girl. Her daughter, Avery, has Down syndrome.

Every morning and every evening, Harrell tells Avery she is beautiful -- not just for Avery's benefit.

Harrell heard from another parent that her sons approached a little girl at school with cerebral palsy. They carried her backpack for her, walked her to class and introduced her to the other kids.

"Not only are they confident enough in themselves, in their differences, whatever they are, but they are huge encouragers of other people to celebrate their differences," Harrell said.

She has also heard from the special needs teacher that her boys have helped change the face of her classroom. She said the special-needs students walk down the hallway now high-fiving the perceived "cool kids," whereas before, they weren't even noticed.

"I want them to have the confidence to walk into a room and be OK," Harrell said. "And if somebody decides to pick on them ... that they can hear it and not be affected by it, they can let it roll off, that they can be able to laugh at themselves, too. I guess that's another thing that we talk about a lot. 'You know what? We all fall down, and you just have to laugh at yourself because it's funny.' "

Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.


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