How do children develop self-esteem? What can you do to help your child develop a healthy sense of self-esteem?
There are many factors that shape self-esteem in childhood. Genetics plays a part, but upbringing and experience (risk, failure, and so on) are also critical. Failure, in particular, builds resilience—the more you experience it, especially when you’re young, the less you fear it.
Below are some techniques for helping children develop self-esteem.
Building Confidence in Children
The earlier in life we encounter the confidence builders (risk, failure, and so on), the faster and more effectively we build confidence.
- For example, when Jane Wurwand was four and a half, on her first day of school, her mother walked her to class but expected her to get home by herself. Jane was afraid and cried, but she successfully navigated home that first day and continued to do so, developing confidence. As an adult, Jane used her confidence to risk her life savings to start the skincare company Dermalogica.
Here are some strategies for raising a confident child of any gender:
1. Slowly expose children to risk—too much all at once might traumatize them. Celebrate successes and discuss what worked. Be intentional and constructive about failure. For example, if your child needs to learn to swim, don’t push her off the boat in the middle of a lake. Teach her the strokes, give her the chance to practice, and help her when she’s struggling. If she does something wrong, don’t tell her she’s bad at swimming—tell her she made a mistake, explain why things didn’t work, and suggest trying something else.
2. Be specific about praise. For example, if your daughter helps set the table, instead of saying “good job” or “you’re a perfect daughter,” say something like, “I like how you folded the napkins.”
3. Control your reaction to their disasters. (Shortform example: If your son burns dinner, don’t make a big deal out of it.)
4. Don’t fix their problems—this will make them overreliant, and they’ll expect that when they face a problem, they won’t have to deal with it. It will also impede their ability to develop tolerance for frustration.
5. Teach them to master small life skills. For example, Jane Wurwand has a list of 20 small tasks that her children should be able to do, which includes things like cooking an egg and doing laundry.
6. Don’t attach your status to their achievements. An Irish study found that young people thought pressure to meet their parents’ expectations was mentally damaging.
7. Lead by example. Your children will copy you, so if they see you emulating confidence-building behavior like working hard or struggling, they’ll pick it up too. For example, when lawyer Tanya Coke was a child, her mother (and all of her friends’ mothers) worked, so the girls learned that they needed to support their families financially.
Recommendations for Daughters
Here are some daughter-specific tips:
1. Discourage your daughter from being too good:
- Don’t excessively reprimand bad behavior. Especially don’t reprimand it by saying it’s out of character—for example, nothing along the lines of “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, you’re not normally like this.”
- Don’t excessively praise good behavior. Excessive praise might make her so addicted to praise that she always behaves well to get it. Excessive praise can also encourage perfectionism.
2. Discourage perfectionism. High-achieving girls are especially prone to perfectionism, and it doesn’t help them. For example, in the workplace, perfectionism leads them to take ownership of projects (believing no one else is capable), becoming so detail-orientated they don’t see opportunities and don’t progress. To discourage perfectionism:
- Praise her appropriately, as recommended in tip #1.
- Encourage her to be happy with doing her personal best rather than compare her achievements to others’.
- Let your daughter see that you make mistakes and that nothing catastrophic happens. Let her see you laughing about them.
- Encourage her to reflect on past challenges, how she got past them, and how they no longer bother her. This helps develop resilience.
3. Remember that confidence presents differently in different people. Confidence can show up as determination, stubbornness, speaking your mind, or refusal. Your daughter can use whatever style is most natural.
4. Push her toward math and science (it’s fine if she’s also interested in traditionally feminine things like dolls). To do this:
- Draw her attention to the science she encounters every day, such as weather, food, electronics, illness, and so on. Teachers have found that middle-school girls are less interested in science as an isolated subject, and more interested when it’s part of social studies.
- Point out how useful math is in small daily tasks.
- Never make fun of your own science and math skills—doing so reinforces stereotypes.
5. Encourage your daughters to play sports. Competitive team sports are one of the few opportunities girls get to practice teamwork, deal with loss and failure, and recover from it. (If her team is overfocused on winning, she might do better on a team that focuses on long-term development.)
To encourage your girls to play sports:
- Enroll them when they’re young. It’s easier to get used to the physicality of sports when you’re young.
- Don’t allow them to quit if they fail.
- If they don’t like aggressive team sports like basketball, suggest individual sports like track.
6. Draw your daughter’s attention to female role models. This will show them what they could achieve.
- For example, when Claire was interviewing the Mystics basketball team players for this book, she took her basketball-loving daughter along. Seeing women basketball players in real life showed her she had the potential to be one too.
7. Encourage a “growth mindset”—the belief that you can learn new things and improve if you put in effort. This mindset turns failure into a learning experience. Most men have a growth mindset, but most women believe that their talents and abilities are fixed.
- For example, women think that they’re either bad or good at driving; they don’t think they can improve.
Build this mindset in your child by starting small. For example, if she’s good at soccer, don’t tell her she’s a natural athlete. Tell her how hard she’s worked on her skills.
(Shortform note: For more on helping children develop a growth mindset, or developing one yourself, read our guide to Mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck.)
Avoid the Self-Esteem Movement
Parenting inspired by the self-esteem movement (reward children for everything) builds hollow, not true, confidence. This is because if children aren’t given real responsibility, they don’t face challenges they can fail at, and they have no opportunity to use the trial-and-error cycle that builds confidence and mastery.
- For example, if a child plays in a soccer league that doesn’t keep score (so everyone wins), the child has no opportunity to cope with loss.
Hollow confidence is dangerous. If there’s a huge gap between what you think you can do and what you can actually do (remember real confidence is based in mastery), the first time you face that gap—perhaps not until you’re an adult if your parents were sheltering—you’ll be crushed.
- For example, due to their upbringing, some new graduates have unrealistic expectations about the working world. They think they know everything and deserve jobs. But in reality, when they face a challenge, they have no experience and falter.
Some children of the millennial generation were raised on the ideas of the self-esteem movement, and they’re suffering for it. Millennials believed their parents who told them they were perfect, so the children grew up to be narcissistic. They make no effort to build skills, and they avoid challenges. This upbringing can result in:
- Trouble creating meaningful relationships
- Obsession with looks and status
- Lack of confidence
Lack of self-esteem in childhood is especially a Western problem. American parents often don’t push their kids out of their comfort zones, and the Western world encourages children to focus on what they’re good at. In the East, pushing kids outside their comfort zone is common, as is encouraging children to work on what they’re bad at to bring it up to the same level as their strongest skills.
- For example, when psychologist Jim Stigler observed classrooms in Japan, one child was struggling to draw 3D cubes. The teacher called him up to the board and asked him to draw the cube in front of the rest of the class. Stigler thought the boy would be humiliated, as an American child would be, for being singled out for doing something wrong. But even though the boy kept getting it wrong, he also kept trying. When he finally got it right, the whole class clapped for him, and he was proud of his work.
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- An examination of the art and science of confidence
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- How to build confidence in yourself and others