While confidence is important, competence is a better trait to nurture. Learn why you should encourage competence not confidence in children.
We hear tons of advice about how to instill self-confidence in our kids. We want them to feel confident and believe in themselves. We see confidence as the key to thwarting self-doubt. And self-confidence seems to be an effective way to rebuff peer rejection.
These are all great reasons, but I’m learning there’s something even more important. A trait that doesn’t get much recognition but paints a more realistic picture of our kids’ capabilities:
What’s the difference between confidence and competence? Confidence is how you feel about your abilities. It’s believing you can do certain things based on what you think about yourself.
Competence is the actual ability to do something well, and it’s earned from a lot of effort and assessing our risks and skill levels.
The problem with confidence? Thinking you can do something is different from actually being able to do it. And too much praise lathered on our kids in the hopes of raising their self-confidence can be damaging. It can lead to an over-confidence that’s difficult to shake off.
For instance, a young child can feel confident about using a hammer just like his dad. As you might imagine, this can lead to disaster. But a child who observes, studies and practices using tools with his dad can learn to feel competent, especially over time.
His competence is based on knowing his abilities thanks to many tries, assessments and even mistakes. He understands his limits and knows his capabilities.
So, does that mean we should stop encouraging confidence? Not necessarily. But it shouldn’t be the focus or goal.
Instead, focus on nurturing your child’s competence. Help him feel the delight in mastering something, not for the sake of feeling confident, but for learning and achieving something challenging. And let experience be his guide toward that mastery, not false praise.
How to encourage competence not confidence
Parents can do a lot to instill a sense of competence in their kids. Below are six “do’s and don’ts” on how to do just that:
1. DO challenge your child with age-appropriate play and tasks
Kids will only feel competent if we challenge them out of their comfort zone. What are your child’s current interests? Is there a way you can bring it up a notch to stretch his capabilities?
I love when my kids surprise me with things they can do that I initially didn’t think they could. Recently, they’ve been solving puzzles. It took all of me not to hover and “over help” with this task, especially when they’d get frustrated or would almost want to give up.
But I found that these challenging games were just the thing to teach them about problem solving. And guess what? They did eventually learn to solve the puzzle on their own, without my help.
2. DON’T praise for everything or try to boost their self-esteem
Decades ago, the self-esteem movement encouraged parents to heap praise onto their kids. Self-esteem was the key to further success, many believed. But research has found it ineffective and a disservice to our kids (from Psychology Today):
“The self-esteem movement has done an entire generation a deep disservice. It started with the best intentions. In 1969, Nathaniel Brandon wrote a paper entitled ‘The Psychology of Self-Esteem’ that suggested that ‘feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.’ Hearing this, many people started to find ways to confer confidence upon our children. This resulted in competitions where everyone gets a trophy and no one actually wins. ‘New games’ attempted to engage children without any winners or losers.
“The parents who embraced these efforts did so out of love and with the most noble of intentions. The only problem is that these efforts simply do not work. Self-esteem is not something conferred, it is earned through taking risks and developing skills. When children stretch themselves, they expand their sense of their own capability and then feel confident to tackle the next challenge. Confidence comes form competence — we do not bestow it as a gift.”
Check out that last line: “Confidence comes from competence”—not the other way around.
3. DO let your child contribute and help
Kids crave opportunities to show their competence. And the best way is to welcome their desire to contribute and help.
Think of ways your child can help around the house, from doing chores to helping to feed the baby. Better yet, allow them to pitch their own ideas of how they can help. Not only are you encouraging competence, but the initiative they took to show it.
4. DON’T rescue or fix
Kids can only learn so much if we solve every problem they run into. And this is hard for parents to do. After all, it’s difficult to watch our kids struggle and experience failure and discomfort. If we had it our way, they’d never make mistakes or have to keep trying.
But with each rescue comes another ding to their desire to display their competence. Just as they were trying to prove they’re capable, mom or dad comes in and shows that they’re not. As you can imagine, this feels discouraging.
5. DO let your child take risks
Assessing and taking risks are important factors in raising competent kids. A child won’t know what he’s capable (or incapable) of if he doesn’t understand the risks.
Taking age-appropriate risks can happen in simple, everyday ways. Let him try to walk across the balance beam on the playground, even if there’s a slight risk of falling to the ground. And only shelter him from risks you know for certain aren’t age-appropriate. A toddler, though willing, would not do well on such a balance beam.
Risk-taking isn’t about being reckless. Instead, it’s the necessary tool for kids to dip their toes in the water. They can weigh their current capabilities with the goal they’re trying to achieve. A child sheltered from any dangers just might see that balance beam and think he can run across it on the first try.
6. DON’T project your own worries or anxieties
It’s tough for me not to shout “Be careful!” from the sidelines of a playground. I’m already imagining my kids running to the edges of a structure and falling seven feet down.
But it’s those worries that paint an unrealistic picture of your child’s capabilities. Hearing the worry in your voice allows self-doubt, fear and his own worries to creep in. Mom’s freaking out, he might think. Maybe this IS too hard for me.
Instead, offer constructive feedback, such as “Make sure you’re gripping the bar when you take a step.” Or, if need be, remove your child from situations out of his range.
Confidence is a good thing, but it can also damage a child’s sense of self when that’s all he focuses on. Think of confidence instead as a byproduct of competence.
Instill competence by challenging your child and welcoming the necessary risks he has to take. Encourage him to contribute around the house while avoiding fixing all the mistakes he makes. And don’t praise your child for every little achievement as if that’s the only way he’ll feel confident.
Aim for competence, not confidence. After all, a competent child is almost always confident. But a confident child isn’t always a competent one.
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Get more tips:
- Don’t Say “I Can’t”: Encouraging Effort with Children
- The Secret to Raising Hard Working Kids Is Easier than You Think
- The Reason You’re Probably Not Giving Your Child Enough Autonomy
- Why Parents Really Need to Stop Hovering
- How to Teach Our Kids to Embrace Mistakes
Tell me in the comments: How are you raising a competent child?
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