How To Raise A Confident Kid — But Not An Arrogant Jerk

It comes down to the right kind of compliments and a good dose of honesty.

Originally Published: 
A confident boy spins a basketball while walking with his dad.

From the moment children are born, they develop an array of new abilities as well as the confidence to use them. They blink. They cry. They turn over. They eat. They laugh. They speak. They walk. They run. As they become older, however, they’ll need to sustain their confidence, as it will help them learn new, more difficult skills, have faith in their own abilities, understand more about their strengths and their weaknesses, and understand how to overcome obstacles that they encounter. Instilling healthy confidence in your children is essential. But how do you do it? Above all else, it requires good communication and honesty.

Why Confidence Matters

Kids should be able to talk about themselves positively. They should know what they’re good at. They should feel good about being good at things.

“Kids should be able to say: I’m confident in these areas, because I’ve worked hard. I’ve practiced a lot. I really want to get good at this,” says child psychologist Roseanne Lesack, Ph.D., director of the Unicorn Children’s Foundation Clinic at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Confident kids tie their level of effort and work into their ability. With a good dose of confidence, they’re primed to excel in certain areas, be it soccer, piano, writing, or math. They’re also better discerners of what they’re not good at and understand that has no bearing on their overall sense of self.

When to Teach Confidence

“As soon as kids are verbal and are able to express what they’re good at, you can immediately start working on their sense of confidence,” says Lesack. Having consistent conversations where parents compliment their kids and ask them what they think they did well will help them learn how to be comfortable talking about themselves, complimenting themselves, and being honest about their strengths and their shortcomings, from a very early age.

How to Model Confidence

Teaching a child confidence isn’t just a game of shouting “You’re great!” at them until they have a healthy sense of self-esteem. Modeling confident behaviors, getting to the nuts and bolts of their strengths, and making success a product of communal efforts are all parts of helping kids develop confidence.

Compliment Regularly, But Be Specific

Compliments can backfire, yes. But used wisely, they’re an important tool for helping your child know their strengths. “It’s not worthwhile to compliment kids and tell them that they’re smart,” says Lesack. “You want to compliment the behavior that leads them to success.”

For instance, telling a child “The way you solved X problem with Y creative solution” or “You did such a good job staying focused on that math problem” are the right kind of compliments because they’re specific and not holistic. It’s the same across all fields. Parents shouldn’t just tell their kids they are great at sports. Rather, they should tell tell them what they did that day in their game of soccer that was great. Like, “you were really good at kicking that ball.” Or, “you defended that goal really well, especially when you were backed in a corner.”

Specifics both increase a sense of self-awareness and don’t lead kids to think they’re good at everything.

Talk Up Your Own Accomplishments (In Front of Your Kid)

Parents need to show their kids that they personally have a healthy sense of confidence, stresses Lesack. The best way to do this is through self-talk. “At the dinner table at the end of the day, parents should talk about their accomplishments,” she says. “I put in a lot of effort at this project at work, and I did a nice job because I spent so much time on it.” Talking about yourself positively — saying, I like my level of effort there, or I like the color of my eyes, shows kids that self-love is okay — and even encouraged — in your household.

Always Talk Up What Others Do Well

Parents, per Lesack, should always bring up what others do well to make sure their kids don’t think their successes occurred in a vacuum. For instance, when talking about their own wins, parents should mention the team that worked on their project with them. When they talk about their kids’ great performance in the game, they should encourage their kids to mention other team players who also played well, and ask them to talk about specifics. Did their friend give them a ton of assists? Did they rely on a particular defense player? Did their other friend paint really well in class today? What was great about the painting?

Even if these conversations don’t happen in front of teammates and friends, making sure that kids know that other people contributed to their success is critical to achieving healthy confidence.

What Does Teaching Confidence Look Like in Practice?

Say a child has aced a math quiz. Their parents should compliment them for their success. They should them that they did great, yes, but then, ask them the steps it took to get them there. How did they study? Did they do something different this time than the last time? Did they pay extra attention in class, or ask questions? Did their teacher provide a lot of help and do a great job at teaching them?

Talking to the child about the process of their success, complimenting them on taking those steps, pointing out what steps are replicable in case there’s a quiz down the road, and pointing out people who helped them get there, will help them feel confident in their work, and ultimately, recognize that it is not all about them.

When Confidence Becomes Arrogance

There are different types of confidence,” says Lesack. “There’s an ideal: the confident kid, always at the front, leading, the first one to raise their hand, the one who just has that sort of stature and presence. Not every child should be that,” says Lesack. That type of confidence might work for kids who are outgoing and expressive, but the most important type of confidence doesn’t need to boast — especially when it’s not warranted.

If kids don’t recognize that sometimes they might not know the answer, that they might have off days, or that occasionally, they might mess up, they might not be able to own their mistakes. That’s when confidence becomes arrogance and an unearned sense of accomplishment. Honesty is key, and parents need to foster that.

“Kids also need to know what they don’t know. You don’t always want your kid to be confident. In fact, you want the opposite. Because you don’t want them to be cocky.”

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