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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