I have three girls – the oldest is 5 – and I would love some advice on how to instill confidence in them at an early age. What can we do as moms to boost their self-image without building too much ego?
MOLLY: This question came from a reader based in Southern California.
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): Really, the best way to instill confidence in a child is to notice and compliment her when she actually does something that’s positive. Some parents tend to compliment their children on everything, which tends to build up unwarranted ego issues, rather than providing a solid basis of self confidence for the child. I think kids tend to know the difference.
MOLLY: I read this study that said if you’re just complimenting the child – let’s say, when they are drawing a picture – “that’s such a great picture, you’re amazing…” then the kid gets to the point that they always think they are doing a good job and are then they become afraid to do a bad job and will just stop trying when the tasks get tougher.
MOM: Right, they get a distorted view. You want to look at what the child produces and you certainly want to support your child verbally, there’s no question about that, but if you don’t discriminate between a so-so job and a better job, the kid will grow up feeling like she’s perfect.
MOLLY: Right and that’s a real problem. What if, instead of saying, “Great job on your picture,” you say, “Great job on your use of different colors, or shading,”? You could point out what is more striking, not just a general great job.
MOM: Exactly. So that they get a sense of what it is they are accomplishing.
Another important way to help build a solid self-image is to encourage them to accomplish tasks that they are biologically ready for, rather than let you, as the Mom, take over for them, even though it’s sometimes easier to do it yourself. This provides a solid foundation of confidence in her abilities that shows the child she can function semi-independently.
Encourage your child to do activities away from you for appropriate periods of time. For instance, when she is ready for an overnight at grandparents or friends, encourage her to do it so she gets the idea that she can function without Mommy for short periods of time. Too much “hovering” can cause the child to feel that she can’t “make it” on her own.
MOLLY: What does biologically ready for mean?
MOM: The rule of thumb is: don’t take over doing things for your child that she can perform herself. You supervise her when she is really young, and then you let her know that you think she might do the project on her own when she’s ready.
MOLLY: So later, when she is older, when your kid needs to look something up, a phone number or something, instead of you doing it for her, she does it herself and she builds up more self confidence.
MOM: Right, the more self-confidence… On the other hand, one of the most important things for children learning self confidence, for both girls and boys, is the participation by the father. A lot of studies have shown that the women who are successful professionally have been supported by their fathers while growing up.
MOLLY: Supported? You mean, present in their lives?
MOM: Yes, present in their lives. Involved in some of the intellectual pursuits of the child and also the sports of the child. He has an involvement with the child. When the father is completely absent from raising the children, the kids really miss out a lot and it’s harder to feel confident.
MOLLY: That begs the question: what do you do if you’re divorced and the father isn’t involved or the Dad just isn’t in the picture.
MOM: I think you try to find a father substitute. Like an uncle or even a boyfriend… a male figure. I’m not saying that a child won’t become successful if they don’t have involvement with their father. It’s just a sense of self-confidence that they get from this kind of involvement.
MOLLY: It’s interesting that that wouldn’t come from the Mom, especially if she’s doing the bulk of the child care stuff.
MOM: It does come from the Mom for sure. In the not-distant past the father was generally associated with the outside world more than with the family, the working world. Now, I think most moms work, too.
MOLLY: Even if the Mom is working, usually the Mom is doing most of the work in the home, too. So even if they are working, the child thinks of them as the Mommy for bathing, bedtime…?
MOM: I think this kind of parental support can start having an effect on the very young, and it’s certainly a big role in the teenage years. I don’t know if it’s essential to raising confident girls, but it’s a very helpful element.
Back to the initial question: the other thing is, if possible, I would recommend getting her girls involved in some kind of sport activity. There’s a lot to be learned by just the process of working with other people.
MOLLY: Any sport?
MOM: Sure, dance class even. Something where you’re working with other kids and it’s physical.
Self-esteem comes from a couple of different directions. It comes from how parents view their children, because children sense that, especially early on, and how the children begin to view their own accomplishments that are age-appropriate. That’s the substance of self-esteem.
If a child is expected to do a lot more that she is biologically capable of doing, what happens is that the parent expects her to perform well, and she often will, but she will feel very un-solid inside. It becomes what we call, a “pseudo” maturation where you look strong on the outside but on the inside you feel like it’s a house of cards and at any moment someone’s going to blow it all down. It can create a kind of chronic anxiety in a child that follows her into adulthood.
MOLLY: What kinds of things would you say a child is not “biologically ready” for?
MOM: For instance, suppose the family relies on a child under 10-years old to take care of younger siblings. Over-performing when they’re really not ready for it. They’re not really biologically or psychologically ready for the responsibility. Or, maybe they’re asked to make dinners for the family before they are 10, or to do other chores that they are not quite ready to do. They do it to please the parent and they look very competent and very grown up, but it’s not matched by what’s going on inside of the child.
MOLLY: What happens later?
MOM: There can be major effects from this. The kid grows up and she looks very competent on the outside, but as a teen or an adult she might come into therapy feeling very incompetent inside. Like she really can’t perform up to an expected level, and it’s as if her insides have not caught up with how she looks on the outside.
This internal feeling of incompetence she has may spill out everywhere: in her marriage, in her workplace, in taking care of kids…
MOLLY: So it’s not that she can’t do something, because she can, but it’s how she feels about doing it?
MOM: Yes, exactly. On the outside she looks like she’s very competent, and she performs very well but it’s not matched with how she feels on the inside. That’s why it’s so important that you think about the age of your child and what that child is really capable of before you expect her to do something.
Feelings of incompentence can lead to depression, anxiety later in life. Some people carry these feelings all their lives and it interferes with the development of self-esteem and self confidence.
MOM: Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University (NYU), and the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.
This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects.