While confidence is important, competence is a better trait to nurture. Learn the do’s and don’ts of encouraging competence in children.
We hear tons of advice about how to instill self-confidence and motivation in our kids.
We see confidence as a way for them to believe in themselves, erase any self-doubt, and rebuff peer rejection.
These are all great reasons to promote confidence, 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 their capabilities:
What’s the difference between confidence and competence? Confidence is how your child feels about his abilities. It’s believing he can do certain things based on what he thinks about himself.
Competence is your child’s ability to do something well, and it’s earned from a lot of effort and assessing his risks and skill set.
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-confident behavior that’s difficult to shake off.
For instance, a child can feel confident about using a hammer just like his mom or dad. As you might imagine, this can lead to disaster. But a child who observes, studies, and gradually practices using tools with his parents 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.
The do’s and don’ts of encouraging competence
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 and persistence. Help her feel the delight in mastering and understanding something, not for the sake of feeling confident, but for learning and overcoming a challenge. And let your child’s experience be her guide toward that mastery, not false praise.
We can do plenty to instill a sense of competence in our young children in the early years. Below are six “do’s and don’ts” and best practices on how to do just that:
1. DO let your child 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 feed the baby. Invite him to pitch in, whether it’s washing his snack bowl or pushing his chair into the table.
Better yet, allow him to pitch his own ideas of how he can help. Not only are you encouraging competence, but the initiative he took to show it. He might come up with new ideas you’d never have thought of on your own.
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2. DON’T praise for everything
Decades ago, the self esteem movement encouraged parents to heap praise on their kids. Self esteem was the key to further success, many believed. But research has found it ineffective and a disservice to children (from Psychology Today):
“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 from competence — we do not bestow it as a gift.”
Check out that last line: “Confidence comes from competence”—not the other way around.
Avoid praising your child for every little thing—this only makes her rely on you to feel confident about herself. Instead, praise the effort it took to master the task, as well as the progress she has been making along the way. This can encourage an internal pride that persists regardless of anyone there to witness her achievements.
3. DO challenge your child with age-appropriate play and tasks
Kids can 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 her capabilities?
I love when my kids surprise me with things they can do that I initially didn’t think they could. For instance, they were huddled over a puzzle they were trying to solve. It took all of me not to hover and “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 social interactions. And guess what? They did eventually learn to solve the puzzle on their own, without my intervention.
And don’t forget to aim for activities a notch above your child’s level. As I say in my book, Letters and Numbers:
“There’s a delicate balance between giving your child something challenging, and something too hard. How do you know the difference? A challenging task holds her interest. She may make mistakes, but she understands and could continue with enough time and effort.”
4. DON’T rescue or fix
Kids can only learn so much if we solve all the difficult problems they run into. And this is hard for parents to do. After all, it’s difficult to practice patience and watch our kids struggle and experience failure. 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 when 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.
Instead, allow them to experience their mistakes and setbacks—this gives them an opportunity to learn from these moments. They might learn self-control and how to calm down and try again, or empathy for their peers in social situations.
5. DO let your child take risks
Assessing and taking risks are important factors in raising competent kids. Your child won’t know what he’s capable (or incapable) of if he doesn’t understand the risks or practice critical thinking and self-regulation.
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. Only shelter him from risks you know for certain aren’t age-appropriate. For instance, a toddler, though willing, would not do well on such a balance beam.
Risk-taking isn’t about being reckless, either. Instead, it’s the necessary tool for him to dip his toes in the water. He can weigh his current capabilities with the goal he’s trying to achieve. If he’s too sheltered from any dangers, he might see that balance beam and think he can run across it on the first try.
6. DON’T project your 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 her worries to creep in. Mom’s freaking out, she 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 her from situations that aren’t age-appropriate.
Confidence is a good thing, but it can also damage a child’s sense of self when that’s all she focuses on. Think of confidence instead as a byproduct of competence.
Instill competence by challenging your child and welcoming the necessary risks she has to take. Encourage her to contribute around the house while avoiding fixing all the mistakes she makes. And don’t praise her for every little achievement as if that’s the only way she can 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.
Get more tips:
- 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
- 12 Ways You’re Already Practicing Montessori Parenting Without Even Realizing It
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