Updated: Oct 21
We all want our children to be healthy—which is my main concern as an integrative family physician—right?
But we also want our children to thrive. We want them to feel good about themselves without having inflated egos. We want them to feel confident and competent and have good self-esteem. We want them to be kind. We adults want that too, don’t we? Good health, a good sense of self, competence in our jobs, compassion towards others? So far so good.
But imagine you’re only three feet three inches tall. You talk, but not always in a way others can understand. You have very strong ideas about the world but very little experience in it. When you try to drink water from a cup, you spill half all over yourself. When you want to climb the outside of the staircase (one of my daughter’s favorite activity), you get intercepted. When you leave the house in nothing but your birthday suit to tow your little red wagon down the sidewalk, your mom freaks out. (These aren’t real-life examples or anything…)
It can be frustrating being a little kid. Wonderful. Fun. Funny. But also frustrating as heck.
As you undoubtedly know because you’re reading this blog, it can also be frustrating being the parent of a little kid. Wonderful. Fun. Funny. But also frustrating as heck.
Parents model self-esteem for their kids
How we act around our kids is a model for them. Our actions affect theirs even when we aren’t aware of it. We are their first teachers. So we need to try to model good self-esteem, patience, and kindness if we want our children to have these qualities. Easy to advise! But not always so easy to do.
What does this mean?
If you don’t want your baby girl to have weight issues, don’t look in the mirror and say, “I’m so fat.”
If you don’t want your son to be a bully, don’t scream at him when you’re mad.
If you want your children to be gentle and kind, don’t harm them physically or emotionally
That’s the whole concept idea. But there are also concrete hands-on things that we can do to set our toddlers and small children up for success. It turns out that even really little kids like to do things for themselves. And when they are able to do things for themselves, they feel more self-confident and have better self-esteem. A win-win for everyone.
3 Tips to build your toddler’s self-confidence and boost his self-esteem
TIP #1: Give Kids Their Own Drawer In The Kitchen
My friend Jennifer calls it a “stash.” Create a place in the kitchen—preferable an easy-to-open drawer (but a basket or a box on the ground will work too)—where your kids can keep plates and cups and other things they use regularly. Once you set it up for them, your kids can arrange their “stash” of glasses, plates, cups, and silverware any way they like.
TIP #2: Give Kids Jobs They Can Do and Have Them Do Chores
Writer Christine Gross-Loh, Ph.D., explains in the introduction to her book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, that “…the keys to raising resilient, compassionate, competent children can be found in the simplest practices. Often it means doing less, like giving kids time to play away from adult eyes, even if that means they will have disagreements with their friends that an adult won’t help them solve. Sometimes it means doing more, like requiring them to do regular chores so they feel competent and needed.”
Children as young as three years old run errands in Japan, according to Gross-Loh! She and her family lived in Japan and used to watch a popular Japanese TV show called My First Errand that featured kids as young as three years old taking lunch to a parent, buying something at the corner store by themselves, bringing a gift to a neighbor! Okay, so that’s Japan. But, still, we Americans sometimes forget that kids can do more and are way more capable than we think.
Even toddlers are able to …
Empty (some of) the dishwasher: They can take the stuff that belongs in their stash out of the dishwasher and put it directly into their drawer/stash. This makes your job easier too!
Set the table: Since they can easily reach what’s in their stash, children as young as two or three can help set the table, at least for their own place setting. When they get old enough to reach the regular dishes, have it be their job to set the whole table for the family.
Help you cook: When they’re old enough to cut with a scissors, you can give them a blunt pair and some lettuce or scallions. Have them stand on a chair next to you and cut the vegetables into a bowl for salad. Check out this blog by Jennifer Margulis, author of Your Baby, Your Way, for more good ideas.
TIP #3: Don't Praise The Outcome, Notice The Effort
This is a hard one for me. And for a lot of parents, I think. But it turns out that we should NOT be telling our kids “good job,” or “well done.” Empty praise like this has actually been found to harm, not help, their self-esteem!
So, instead of saying to my daughter, “Awesome drawing” (she really is an awesome artist), I should notice something about the painting: “Wow, I like how you used a swirl of colors over here.” That way I am pointing out something concrete and showing her that I’m actually paying attention.
Experts also recommend that parents praise the effort a child has put into a task (only possible if the child was actually making an effort). “You worked really hard on that drawing,” I could say to my daughter. Or, “I noticed you were really concentrating for a long time.”
Praising the results actually makes children only want to do things they are good at. But praising the process or the effort itself sets them up for a lifetime of doing interesting things, whether those things come easily to them or not.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. What are your best tips for raising self-confident kids? You can share your ideas here or find us on Facebook.