How To Raise A Self-Aware Kid (But Not An Overthinking Neurotic)

Kids need to know who they are, and feel good about it, too.

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A child thoughtfully staring out of a window.
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Self-awareness — a person’s understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and personality — is not innate; it’s a skill that needs to be nurtured and developed. Self-aware kids understand how their actions are perceived by others, know when to engage their strengths, when to pull back, and how to discover areas in which they need improvement. They also tend to have happier relationships and more professional success. In short, self-awareness is one of the most essential attributes a child needs to develop.

So, what can parents do? Raising self-aware kids requires a gentle hand and a deft touch. Too much prodding and parents are virtue-signaling; too little and kids don’t have a proper sense of their skills or who they are. It’s not easy, says Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, Educational Board Advisory Member for The Goddard School, and award-winning author. But it’s imperative for parents to actively nurture their child’s self-awareness without boxing them in. Here’s what parents who raise self-aware children tend to do.

They Help Define Their Children

One of the simplest things parents of self-aware children do is take note of their kids’ interests and strengths and provide access to more of the same.

“Parents who are telling their children, ‘I noticed you just love to do those puzzles; let’s do some of those puzzles that you love to do’, or, ‘I know you love yellow. It’s your favorite color. Let’s find some yellow markers and make a welcome sign for your door,’ help children feel defined,” says Pruett. “When we reflect back to our children on their traits, their tastes, their desires, and we articulate them, we are helping them develop a language and a vocabulary for being self-aware.”

They Go Big During the Toddler Years

It’s easy to think that the pre-teen and teenage years are when kids are toying with self-awareness. Those are, after all, some of the toughest years for parents. Teenagers have more power over their surroundings, so as they experiment with who they think they might be, the damage or benefits could be far more extreme and immediate.

But that instinct is not true, says Pruett. “The Armageddon of self-awareness is toddlerhood, not being a teenager,” he says. “It’s scarier in the teenage years, but we often call the ‘terrible two’s’ are really our children’s struggle for autonomy, and the desire to ‘be who I want.’” So all of the temper tantrums and the “no’s” and the refusal to brush their teeth are, while frustrating, signs of a self-aware child.

They Are Very Careful With Modeling

Unlike most other traits, self-awareness is not something that should be modeled too harshly. Pruett argues that modeling self-awareness sometimes becomes like virtue-signaling; parents are expressing what they think it means to be a person to their kids, rather than letting their kids figure it out on their own.

“[Modeling self-awareness] is very hard to do neutrally,” he says. “We’re usually conveying values when we’re talking about ourselves.”

If a kid comes to a parent upset about not being invited to a birthday party, for example, parents should tread very lightly. “If you go beyond, ‘I know how that feels,’ you’re adding a little too much spin. If you can leave it at empathy, rather than instruction, you’ve been really helpful to your child,” Pruett says. “If you want to use your own experience, make it a very light and quick reference, full of empathy, and that’s it.”

They Don’t Worry About Conflict Along the Way

Children don’t develop awareness that they are different than the people around them until the end of the first year of life, around the same time that speech starts to develop,” says Pruett. “The first struggle is with pronouns. [Kids ask]: ‘Who are you and who am I? What is I? How is it different than you? Since you’re the one who has been raising me and caring for me what is the I?’”

If that sounds a bit like a fight, it kind of is, says Pruett. “There’s a back and forth that goes between our children pushing our limits and us pushing back,” he says. “That helps them define who they are, in time and in space. By the time they are preschoolers, they’re using phrases like, ‘I did it’ when they tied their shoes. Now you know you’re on the track to self-awareness, because they feel like they committed an act, which has had an outcome that they desire and you desire. They begin to feel like active players in their world, achieving the things they want to achieve.”

That is, of course, for better or for worse. Tying shoes is good. Screaming for French fries is annoying, but a good sign that kids perceive themselves as people in charge of their own reality.

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