Wednesday, August 25, 2010


You often hear parents talk about wanting to give their kids self-confidence. Of course, you can't actually give someone else self-confidence. It's somewhat an oxymoron. However, you can provide others the opportunity to develop self-confidence and to explore areas where they seem to lack it.

In many ways, the best way to help a child develop self-confidence is to do absolutely nothing. We often undermine development by doing things for our children that they could otherwise do for themselves. Sometimes we do it because we believe they need us to do it. Sometimes we fear the side-effects of their failed attempts. Sometimes we fear what others might think, e.g., seeing your daughter walk into school with her mismatched leotards, socks, t-shirt and floppy hat. Sometimes we simply don't want to wait for them to experiment.

The problem is that doing things for our children builds dependence and undermines self-confidence.

When we let children do things for themselves, we often feel compelled to provide guidance and correction. Doing so can be quite helpful. It can also be quite unhelpful.

The first rule of providing guidance is to understand what motivated the decisions or actions that you want to guide. Rather than saying, "Hey, don't use that butter knife to open the paint can!", you could start with, "So, what are you going to do with the butter knife?"

Ideally, you'd never tell her to do anything, nor would you ask any yes/no or multiple choice questions. You can lead the witness, but lead him with open-ended questions. Ask questions that evoke imagination: How will you use the knife to open the paint can? Can you think of anything that might work even better than a butter knife? What will you do with the knife after you open the paint can?

As hard as it might be, try to limit your correction and guidance to things that make a material difference; leave aesthetics out of it. Helping a child select clothing that will be comfortable is much different than helping him select clothing that looks good to you. Many people grow up completely confused by parents whose correction has been a matter of taste, not being able to tell the difference between quality and aesthetic.

There are times where immediate intervention and guidance is merited. However, they're far fewer than the occasion of intervention and guidance.

There are many who confuse self-confidence with what I would call skill-confidence or situational self-confidence: confidence that ebbs and flows with task and circumstance. In fact, I would say that most people to whom others ascribe self-confidence are only situationally so.

You see it all the time with people who've trained extensively in a specific skill or discipline. When doing what he's been trained to do, he's extremely confident and strong. However, if you put him in a different situation, he shrinks and hides. Oftentimes the contrast is so high and the discomfort so great, that he'll avoid situations that are outside his area of skill and expertise. What passes as self-confidence is not. It's confidence in training and acquired skill.

The difference may be subtle, but it's meaningful. Skill-confidence relies on knowing how to do something. Self-confidence relies on knowing how to figure out how to do anything. It's learning something versus learning how to learn. The problem is that most education is spent on teaching things, not teaching how to learn.

To teach how to learn, you don't provide answers and guidance. Instead, you provide problems and situations, and then you ask questions.

Bad Idea
Of course, for all the positive talk about self-confidence, not everyone sees it as a good idea. Self-confident people tend to be less-easily controlled than others. They're also not very predictable as they don't buy into doctrine and party-line, but instead make each decision independently; one moment she seems to be a republican and in the next, a democrat. One moment she's totally on board with the corporate goals, the next she's criticizing one of the president's decisions.

Self-confident people are also hard to interpret. They present their ideas clearly and strongly, seemingly set on their decisions. And yet, when you confront them with reasonable data to the contrary, they roll over quickly. They seem not to be wed to the ideas they put forth so confidently. This contrasts sharply with the false-confidence exuded by many where they strongly espouse beliefs and then cling to them doggedly despite all evidence to the contrary.

And of course, you just never know what you're going to find when you get home when you have self-confident kids. For example, one night my folks were out with friends who had left their kids home with their oldest son who was twelve. The mom called home to check in. One of her younger daughters answered. She matter-of-factly informed her mom that Mike couldn't come to the phone because he was busy; he'd put out the fire and was now patching the hole in the wall.

In the end, you can't give someone self-confidence. You can give them confidence in you. You can give them confidence in knowledge. But self-confidence is something that each of us develops through trial and error, learning to learn, and learning to succeed even when it doesn't feel as though we will.

Happy Wednesday,

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