A Former Nanny Shares the One Quality That Makes Kids Happy, Successful Adults

Updated 06/07/18

Confidence: The "belief in oneself and one's powers or abilities; self-confidence; self-reliance; assurance: His lack of confidence defeated him."

As I was working on this piece, I informally asked my friends (and some strangers) how important it is for kids to land on the other side of childhood with self-confidence—or how high up it should be on a parent's list of qualities to instill. Most, if not all, were wary. What does an emphasis on confidence yield, if not arrogance and entitlement? As adults, we might suppose that over-confidence, bread by codling and praise, gets in the way of certain strains of success and happiness later on. Others may see the value in confidence but believe "you either have it or you don't," making it a waste of energy to nurture. Well, maybe we've forgotten what healthy confidence actually looks like, where it comes from, and why we need it.

Confidence doesn't necessarily mean the opposite of being shy or modest, nor is it about self-importance. It's about integrity and resilience and measuring yourself against only yourself; it's about wanting to know yourself and not always falling in love with what you find right off the bat, but being honest about who you are and growing from those shortcomings, really sitting with them, and weighing their price, and later, their reward. Sure, this all sounds very "me, me, me," and it does buoy you up in the most vulnerable and private moments, but that's because it has nothing to do with extrinsic motivation and superficial perceptions. The truth is that people with confidence have a positive effect on the world because they believe in themselves and their potential more than they believe in fitting in.

And you definitely don't have to be born with it (just think how far you've come since middle school). So now that we've identified the need to nurture confidence from a young age, we asked professional child caretaker Florence Ann Romano how to raise a confident kid. Read through the tips and ideas below on how to nurture confidence from a young age.

Celebrate Their Positive Qualities and Focus on Effort

"I always say there is a fine line between confident and cocky," Romano says. "Our world today presents many challenges when raising kids, but a big hurdle to jump is the overwhelming epidemic of entitlement. We're seeing a trend where children think everything should be handed to them," she continues. But that doesn't mean there's not a place for praise. In fact, she encourages you to "celebrate the things your child does well [to] reinforce that good behavior. It helps drive them to be the best version of themselves and motivates them in the moments they feel less than capable."

If you're wondering how to strike the balance between confidence and entitlement, focus on celebrating certain qualities and characteristics that lead to an achievement. The key here is to focus on things that bring them happiness and display character.

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Have they exhibited integrity? Kindness? Compassion? Leadership? Courage? Problem-solving? Hard work? Show them you're proud of those things in relation to a prize, trophy, award, or grade they received. In other words, congratulate them on the hard work that went into something, not just the results.

Similarly, praise—or rather, warmth and admiration—shouldn't only be expressed when they get an accolade or official recognition; the effort and intention behind something are worth pointing out. This will also help instill intrinsic motivation early on, rather than encouraging them to be motivated by external validation. You can also think of it as evaluation versus assessment, the former emphasizing judgment and the latter being rooted in improvement and growth.

Foster Passion Instead of Striving for Perfection or Convention

Confidence is about being who you are and liking yourself for it, not measuring your self-worth by what you look like or how successful you are. Celebrating your kids for who they are and what makes them an individual, not what they look like or how well they fit in, is a recipe for self-love. You want them to have a positive self-image and to believe in their ability to accomplish things through hard work. So even if your interests look different than theirs, or something they like or do is offbeat or unpopular, encouraging them to try new things and to discover what excites them and what they're good at can breed a ton of confidence. This is partly because passion fuels hard work, joy, and fulfillment.

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Beyond that, having the freedom to discover who they are on their own usually involves making difficult choices and accepting new parts of themselves, a process that teaches them to trust themselves and their own judgment (that means you have to trust it too). And we're not talking about a total free-for-all. In fact, structure is super important too. Giving them a routine that lets them predict what's next gives them a sense of stability, which makes it more likely that they'll feel secure and comfortable in general. If they're at ease going through their day-to-day life, they'll also be more confident when harnessing their individuality and practicing decision-making skills in tougher moments.

Let Them Fail and Encourage Dialogue About Mistakes

And here comes what I presume to be the hardest part: When they fail, let them. How else can anyone learn that risks come with rewards and that failure is a part of life? Getting hurt is painful, as is hurting others, but if we've never done it, how would we know? This is one of those lessons that we continue to learn with each failure for the rest of our lives. And letting go of the reigns a bit is scary, but it doesn't mean your kid will be completely on their own to deal with the consequences when they do get hurt. In fact, you should be there to help them navigate and overcome those failures so they learn to do so independently later on.

As Laura Markham, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today, "stop controlling and start coaching." Why? Because "doing things for [your child] robs them the opportunity to become competent," she explains. be applied when a child gets in trouble at school, struggles in a class, or even just when they fall on the playground. If they feel like they are active participants in the growth that springs from messing up, they're more likely to understand why their choice was wrong or what led to the failure (and moving forward, how they can also be a part of the solution).

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This isn't to say that discipline doesn't have its place if the failure has hurt someone else or has gotten them into trouble. In fact, this should be applied in conjunction with discipline.

As Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., also explains in Psychology Today, parents help children navigate failure or mistakes by staying calm, connecting on an emotional level, and seeing it as an opportunity to teach empathy rather than just isolating them. Sometimes, these very mistakes are born out of insecurities, so maintaining confidence in the face of failure (while also taking full accountability) will help them learn from these mistakes rather than become defined by them.

Try Not to Make Comparisons

Ultimately, the goal is to help children learn "that they are enough—as they are—and shouldn't compare themselves to everyone else. That is where low self-esteem comes from—the comparison to what a child wishes they were," Romano reminds us. Of course, this is much easier said than done, especially if you're reasoning with a teary-eyed third grader who is struggling with their homework and just wants to play. Showing them they're not alone is a good approach at times like these. Romano recommends showing "them your weaknesses—things you have struggled with; give examples from your childhood or, even better, how you are currently able to relate to their hurt/weakness/challenge. Give them something to relate to, and let them know that this too shall pass."

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However, one of the common pitfalls is mistaking relating to your kids with comparing yourself to them, which can put pressure on them to be like you instead of themselves. Romano says to be especially mindful of this when "you do something well that your child struggles in. For example, I am absolutely math illiterate—I have always suffered greatly in that subject my whole life. My mom, however, was great at math. When growing up, my mom never got mad at me for not being able to do something that came so easily for her or made me feel like I was stupid. Instead, she always gave me the help I needed to get through the moment. [And] she had me focus on the things I could do that she said she struggled with and wished should siphon from me! Wow, what a goosebump moment. These conversations reminded me that everyone is not great at everything—not only is that okay, but it makes the world a much more interesting place to collaborate and create."

Practice Active Listening and In-Depth Feedback

Having conversations in moments of mistakes and mishaps is an essential step in building confidence. But learning how to be assertive can also be nurtured during smaller moments and conversations through active listening. Personally, my mother loved reminding me that her own mother always said, "children were to be seen and not heard," until I finally refused to be dismissed or shushed simply because I was a child (a first grader, to be exact).

She realized that perhaps my outspokenness was a good thing and that children should be heard too. But more importantly, that it was a part of my essence and dimming it down wasn't an option. Allowing me to speak up freely with her at home—whether it was to tell a joke, share a nonsensical thought, to advocate for myself, stand up for something wrong I was witnessing, or even just because she wanted to see what wisecrack question I'd bless the family table with next—fostered a relationship of trust, open communication, and most importantly, radical self-expression.

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Romano echoes this idea, saying, "I am always a big advocate of transparency with your children. Talk, talk, talk. And I don't mean you, I mean the kids. Do a lot of active listening with your children. Get to know them, get them comfortable speaking about their feelings." As Romano tells us, "if you can teach your child, by example and through others, to have these qualities, you'll have a confident child who not only is going to take the world by storm but leave it in a better place than they found it."

Teach Positive Self-Talk and Model Confidence

As researcher and author Brené Brown says in her speech on the importance of vulnerability, "you cannot give your children what you don't have yourself." Since kids watch the adults in their lives and model that behavior, it's important to work on your own self-image and confidence through positive self-talk. If you're constantly putting yourself down, this will seem normal to them. If you catch yourself saying something you'd never say or think about a dear friend or family member, this is probably destructive self-talk. On the flip side, if your child sees that you are confident and self-assured, they will be more likely to do the same.

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"Being kind and having courage; being tolerant and compassionate—all these things make for a confident child." This includes being kind to ourselves. Though it may sound simple, Romano reminds us that "happiness is the gateway to most power in this world: the power to do good, change what needs changing, and become whoever they are becoming. It's an evolution! Happiness is the bedrock of confidence," and without self-esteem, happiness is much harder to achieve.

Extra Reading Material for Parents

Julie Lythcott-Haims How to Raise an Adult $10
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Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl The Danish Way of Parenting $11
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Pamela Duckerman Brining Up Bébé $15
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Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish How to Talk So Kids Will Listen $13
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Meg Jay, Ph.D. Supernormal $15
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And now, nine books on emotional intelligence that everyone should read.

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