I was not a confident child. I hung back in social situations (if I hadn’t been able to avoid them altogether) and I always worried about failing tests at school, even though I had a history of achieving well. When I became a primary school teacher, I taught children who reminded me of myself as a child. Sadly, low confidence was quite “common” amongst the 7 year-olds I taught. For some of my students, it was a struggle even to begin a piece of work for fear of making a mistake. As a teacher, I just wanted them to care less and give and things a go but, at the same time, I understood the anxiety that they felt.
When we worry about our kids not being confident, we worry both about the anxiety they feel and that they will miss out on valuable experiences – experiences we know they really would enjoy and experiences they could learn from, if only they could forget their self-consciousness for a moment. We feel how much they’d love to play that birthday party game but they’re too unsure of themselves to join in. We know they need to develop their literacy skills but they won’t give new words in their reading a go, appealing to us to tell them instead.
So, I’ve been thinking lately, what is confidence? Of course, the first thing I did was Google the definition and this is one I came across –
a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.
This seems like a useful summary of confidence but it doesn’t give much clue as to how one gets to that place of appreciating their own abilities and qualities in the first place so they can feel self-assured. In fact, I realised, childhood is inherently an experience of trying things without knowing one’s own abilities or qualities! We sit here in the relative comfort of adulthood, largely operating within the comfort zones we’ve established for ourselves, based our abilities & qualities. Meanwhile our children are being stretched into the unknown daily. Childhood is risky business! Why do some kids thrive and others recoil from these challenges?
I think I struck something when I realised that the difference may lie in their relationship to failure. Every new experience comes with it the potential to fail. I’m using “fail” in a very broad sense here. It includes trying a tricky maths problem at school and getting it wrong. It includes being excluded by a peer group in the school playground. The list goes on. Those who are comfortable with the potential for failure within a situation have the confidence to try it. Those who believe that failure is disastrous, cower from the experience.
A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH FAILURE
Low confidence is likely to be a trait we can attribute partly to nature and partly to nurture. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we can turn a very anxious child into a confident one overnight. But, I do think we can nurture a positive relationship with failure within our children that will make them more willing to give things a go by teaching them these things –
Fear of new things is normal – Presumably, fear of new situations and what could “go wrong” is a biological mechanism, designed to help us keep ourselves safe. We all experience it. If we’re honest with them about our own fear, our children will be more accepting of their’s. For example, when I facilitated my first workshop this year, I told my son, Jake, that I was scared because I hadn’t facilitated a workshop before. (Bless him, he offered to come with me for support – but it was after his bedtime.) We can also help our kids to become more comfortable with their fear by responding sensitively to them when they are fearful. Sometimes, we try to convince them there is nothing to be afraid of or we dismiss their feelings with comments like, “You’ll be fine”. These responses gives the message that there’s something wrong with them for being fearful and that we’re really not willing to support them in their fear. Acknowledgement and a hug of reassurance is much more useful – and so easy to do.
Some risks are worth taking – As I said earlier, one of our main concerns about our child’s low confidence is that they will miss out on an experience which is fun or from which they may learn something valuable. Seeing us take risks because we believe in the benefit provides them with a great example. I was nervous that I might not be able to explain myself clearly at my first workshop and that it might not being well-received but I went ahead anyway because helping parents and children was worth it to me. If we can help our children to see the benefit of taking a risk, they may be more willing to take it. I think we have to be careful here, though, not to project benefits onto situations that they don’t genuinely feel. When stretching them out of their comfort zones, it is better to do so in situations that they are motivated by eg. going to a pool party even though they’re not confident in large groups because they love to swim, rather than taking them to an event they’re not interested in.
Failure is OK, good even – If we respond positively to our own failures as well as our children’s, taking the chance to fail will feel less risky to our children because they know our support and acceptance will be there whatever happens. A term we often hear these days is to “fail forward”, meaning to look for the opportunity to learn and grow in our failures. Failing forward shows our children that failure is not failure at all, it shows us the way ahead. When they experience failure themselves, we can help them to reflect on what went well and what didn’t and to learn what to do differently next time. This gives them some optimism, resilience and willingness to try again.
I think that confidence is a multi-faceted thing and that giving our children a positive relationship to failure is only one part of it, but a very powerful part.
Failure is inherent in growth and living fully, unavoidable. Trying to avoiding failure is pointless, exhausting and anxiety producing – the opposite of meaningful, invigorating and confident. If we can help our children to approach risk with a sense of fun or growth, they will feel a lot better about giving things a go. As soulful parents, we want to empower our children to be themselves and to take the risks worth taking. One way we can do this is not by removing the potential for failure but removing the pain of failure to give them a little more courage to step into the unknown.
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. – e e cummings
Much love to you and your little souls,
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When a child has fallen and scraped their knee, the adult on hand usually praises them “you’re so brave” – even if they do cry.
When a child is facing a fear, perhaps about to slide down a pole at the playground for the first time, we’ll often coax them to do it by telling them to “be brave”.
Of course, we’re meaning to be supportive and to encourage the child when we say these things, but let’s think about the messages our words are really giving them –
* what you feel is a problem.
* do not show the way you really feel – pretend if you have to.
The Short- Term Problem
When our children are encouraged to feign bravery rather than be honest about their feelings, it tells them that they cannot come to us with all of their emotions, certain ones have to be kept neatly tucked way, out of sight.
But, if they can’t come to us, the adults in their lives, when they are fearful or in pain, who are they going to go to?
After being told to “be brave” often enough, they may eventually conclude that it’s best to avoid putting themselves in any situation where they’ll potentially experience pain or fear – because there will be no real support for them and the adults around them will likely disapprove of their feelings. In trying to avoid pain and fear, they avoid the fullness of Life also.
The Long-Term Problem
If our kids learn that they must “be brave” as children, they will take that belief with them into adulthood. Concerned with appearing brave, they risk becoming one of the emotionally disengaged adults we meet all too frequently. They may even use negative behaviours to avoid their emotions in order not to let slip how they’re really feeling.
Most of us can probably think of a number of people we’ve met who are distant. There’s a feeling that their walls are up and they’re hard to connect with or develop a meaningful relationship with. So we don’t usually bother. If we do have a relationship with them, communication is difficult and frustration is high – for both parties.
When I was at university, I did an assignment on friendship. I learned that personal disclosure is the number one way people make and deepen friendships, including disclosure of emotions – the good and the bad.
We want our children to be emotionally available to the people in their lives so that they can enjoy rich relationships. Being honest about difficult feelings is a life skill that helps them to do this. But they have no way of learning how to do this if they are told to “be brave” whenever they’re in pain or fear.
Of course, not every “be brave” is going to make a child risk-adverse and turn them into an emotionally distant adult who leans on destructive behaviours to help them avoid their feelings. But I want to be intentional in my response to a child’s pain and fear, to make sure I am giving them the support they really need. We can teach our children that all feelings are normal, even uncomfortable ones, and that they are better expressed than avoided & denied. The ability to both accept and express how they feel are skills that help them to be their authentic selves, which, from my spiritual point of view, is the purpose of parenting.
A BETTER WAY TO RESPOND
Thomas had his 4 year-old vaccinations this week. I waited until the morning of the appointment to tell him about it. I used a picture book he has in which a vet gives a kitten its vaccination to help me explain what was going to happen. He was not pleased to get the news, saying he was scared and worried that it would hurt. I sat him on my knee and listened to his feelings. I told him I understood it was scary and it would sting for a short while and also that I would be right there with him. Once we were in the nurse’s office, he inched his way under my chair, trying to hide from the inevitable. I talked to him about how he was feeling, not labouring over it or trying to coax him to feel differently. When it came time for the pricks, he squirmed and squealed a bit in anticipation and needed to be held firmly so the nurses could do their thing. Afterwards, he had a bit of a cry and cuddled up on my lap for comfort. Within a couple of minutes, though, it was if the pricks hadn’t happened.
My approach was to acknowledge how he was feeling and show my caring but, basically, to just be with Thomas, his fear and his pain. He got through it and he learned that feelings are okay & they pass in their own time.
When we show that we accept their feelings, our children learn to do the same for themselves and for others. At the moment, we’re talking grazed knees and vaccinations but we’re teaching our children to navigate the bigger fears & pains that they will face when they’re older – new jobs and broken relationships, perhaps.
CONCLUSION: WHAT IS BRAVERY, ANYWAY?
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers was my first self-help book. In my mid-twenties, I would listen to it in my car (on cassette tape!), trying to muster some courage after years of fearful living. The title sums up the best strategy for using in times of fear & pain – allowing ourselves to feel the feeling while moving forward.
Perhaps this is where bravery and courage are a little different. Bravery is about hiding our feelings and white-knuckling the situation at hand, essentially so that everyone else is impressed by us or to avoid their disapproval. Having courage, is to experience the feeling in full and show up for the situation on hand because we know it’s worth doing.
Bravery is putting on a face. Courage is facing the fear & pain.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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