The Oxford dictionary defines self-confidence as ‘a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities and judgment’. It represents freedom and strength for the person who possesses it. The freedom from the paralysis of self-doubt. The freedom to act in the face of fear. It is a vital precursor to the achievement of great things. It provides clarity and permission to focus on what is most important. It is a distinct advantage over a person who does not possess it.
Henry Ford, one of history’s greatest (and wealthiest) industrialists summed up the gift of self-confidence perfectly: ‘whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right’.
The singular focus of this post is to provide you with principles, tools and resources you need in order to raise a child who believes they can do anything. A child who is right about their ability to achieve their best. We will help you increase your child’s self-confidence.
Outlined below is the road map of how to get this done. Although presented in steps, the sequence is not fixed. Each element must be practised and reinforced in concert with the others. Repetition is the mother of skill, and self-confidence is a skill. It must be practised and fostered over time with consistent effort.
Each child is unique and wonderful. Each will require their own unique recipe for self-confidence. The reward for this undertaking can never be quantified. It is a faith and trust in one’s own abilities, qualities and judgement. It is the starting point of all success.
STEP 1 – FOSTER A GROWTH MINDSET
Carol Dweck, Ph.D, is a leading researcher in the field of motivation and development. She has taught at Stanford, Columbia and Harvard Universities. Her greatest contribution to the world, however, is her landmark 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Even Bill Gates enjoyed it.
Within its pages, Dweck explores the differences between the mindsets of those who achieve great things and those who fail to do so. These mindsets are known as the growth mindset and fixed mindset respectively. Each individual can be placed on a continuum between the two based on their fundamental beliefs regarding where ability comes from. Success and achievement begin with a frame of mind. As parents, we play a vital role in what mindset and beliefs our child develops.
Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
So what are the differences between these mindsets? According to Dweck:
“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.“
A fixed mindset is insidious and harmful. It creates a belief that all the required building blocks for success one possesses are fixed in nature. In order words, these requirements cannot be developed or grown. What you’ve got is all you are ever going to have. As a result, it values looking intelligent over becoming more intelligent.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, is powerful. It encourages its possessor to seek and foster development, practice and improvement. These people understand that greatness (or a lack thereof) is a direct result of your actions. The more you do to get better, the better your results and achievements will be. Where you start matters little compared to where you are working towards. It matters even less compared to where you will eventually end up if you keep at it. This is a frame of mind shared by all who have ever achieved anything worthwhile. It is the mindset of those who improve themselves constantly. These same people eventually improve the world we live in as well.
How Does it Work?
The human brain is remarkable. Its natural ability to learn and develop over time is the perfect metaphor for the growth mindset. The term used to describe this inborn talent is called neuroplasticity. Plasticity, in this case, represents the brain’s ability to mould and adapt. This trait is not limited to children. It exists and remains possible well into late adulthood.
This adaptation occurs at both the individual neuron level as well as within specific areas of the brain. The key driver of this change is repetition. Practising a skill or trait, particularly one that is challenging forces the brain to ‘stretch’. This stretching forms new neural pathways (think circuits on a board) that manifest as better performance. Over time your brain gets better and faster at performing the desired task or skill. Practice strengthens this pathway. At our most basic human level, we function in a way that is congruent with the growth mindset. We were never meant to be fixed.
The video below sums up neuroplasticity in as clear and effective a way as I have ever seen.
What You Should Do
A. Be Careful About What You Praise, Reward and Criticise
In order to foster and promote a growth mindset, you must praise and reward the right things. The right things are effort and progress. These are elements that your child can control. This point is critical. 100% of a person’s effort should go towards things that can be controlled. Your child can determine how hard they work. They can (and should) be motivated by their own progress. According to Dr. Dweck, 90% of students whose effort and improvements were praised asked for more challenging tasks in order to test themselves and grow further. This phenomenon occurred regardless of how small and incremental their improvement was. Reward hard work and dedicated effort. Possessing those qualities will take a person farther than natural ability alone ever can.
On the flip side, avoid praising natural ability and intelligence. These traits are perceived to be fixed. Focusing on these elements exclusively has been shown to decrease IQ test scores over time. Children who are praised for these traits form belief patterns around them. They perceive that what they possess naturally will bring them success and results rather than hard work and persistent effort. That is a mindset that will lead them to failure.
When the time comes to criticise or provide feedback to your child, be sure that you do not compare their efforts to anyone else’s. The only measuring stick that should be used is themselves. Compare them to where they were yesterday, last week or last year. Do not commit the critical mistake of comparing their results to someone who is seemingly more naturally gifted. This can build resentment and create a limiting set of beliefs. Just because someone can do something with little to no training does not mean it cannot be done better by someone who has to practice and train for it.
As a society, we seem to value natural and seemingly effortless accomplishments over achievements that happen through consistent effort. You can’t change the hand you were dealt. Life isn’t that type of game. That ship has sailed. Your child may not have been born a superhero, but that does not mean that they cannot overcome obstacles and achieve levels of excellence and mastery well beyond their natural ability. They can make superheroes out of themselves. There is far more power in that fact alone.
Flaws and imperfections represent room to grow. They are a starting point. There is no shame in imperfection. If you have nothing to improve or work on you have no way of getting better.
B. Redefine Failure – Turn it Into an Opportunity for Learning and Improvement
In order to prevent your child from developing (or continuing) a fixed mindset, you must change their relationship with failure. People with a fixed mindset give undue power to failure. They are discouraged by it. They allow it to scare them from trying again. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A fear of trying will forever keep you from improving.
The ideal example of why a fear of failure should be ignored is a familiar one for the vast majority of the world. Barring a physical limitation, almost all people on Earth had to learn how to walk. It may have taken our toddler selves months of persistent effort, but eventually, each of us has gotten to a point where walking became automatic. Imagine if a fear of failure kept us from pursuing that skill until we mastered it?
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of a growth mindset is its outlook with regards to failure. Those who possess this empowering mindset see failures as learning opportunities. Each one presents an opportunity to try again. To try better. They use the experience from the previous attempt to move forward more intelligently. Whenever possible, encourage your child to stretch themselves. Encourage their efforts and progress especially when the going gets tough. This effort represents the pinnacle of the growth mindset.
Use the following table as a guide for reframing setbacks and enforcing a growth mindset.
STEP 2 – BE A MODEL OF SELF-CONFIDENCE AND ACTION
It is paramount that your child has an example of what a self-confident person looks and acts like. It is up to you as their parent to represent self-confidence. You must do whatever it takes to believe in yourself. This may not be an easy thing for you, but isn’t it worth it?
It is imperative that your body language manifest confidence and self-assurance. Your child should be able to see what confidence looks like. The funny thing is, at first you may just be faking your confidence. That’s fine. It is not uncommon for people; parents or otherwise to lack self-confidence. As mentioned earlier, self-confidence is a skill. Like any and all skills, it requires consistent effort and practice.
Science has shown however that confidence has telltale physical characteristics. A person who is confident stands tall. Their shoulders are back and their chest out. They hold their head up high and smile. Why wouldn’t they? They believe in themselves and the results they are capable of. Over time, carrying yourself like this can have a profound impact. You will go from possibly faking it to actually feeling it. I dare you to smile all day and feel sad or bummed out. It is nearly impossible to do. World renowned excellence coach Tony Robbins refers to this phenomenon as a state change. In his own words, emotions are created by motion – the movement and use of your body. What this means is that you can instantly change the way you feel based on the way you use your body. This includes energy levels, posture and breathing. You don’t have to believe him. Just know that Oprah Winfrey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Clinton, Serena Williams, Hugh Jackman and Mikhail Gorbachev all do.
Here is an image of an individual in various emotional states. Can you tell what state she is in based on her body language?
The other critical element of confidence that you must exude is how you speak. Your word choices are a critical component of setting the best possible example for your child. Take some time to think about how you talk about yourself and others? Do you spend time putting yourself and others down? Are you a source of inspiration and hope? Do your words convey a sense of belief in yourself and your ability to learn, try and grow? These things have a deep impact on your child. The words you choose should represent a deep love for yourself and others. You cannot be confident if you do not love yourself. Show your child that you are worthy of that love. You will teach them to do the same. Telling them is not enough. As a parent, you should know by now that telling a child what to do is not as effective as showing them what to do.
Last but not least, share how you feel about yourself with your child. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable. Even the best of us suffers from self-doubt. The important part is your ability to keep trying, working and improving yourself in the face of this doubt. Tell your child that you are a person of action who does whatever it takes to improve and learn. Better yet, prove it to them with your actions day in and day out. Remember, perfection is never the goal. Constant improvement and a desire to grow are. Prove this to your child and you will provide them with the greatest possible model you ever could.
STEP 3 – UNDERSTAND AND CELEBRATE YOUR CHILD’S UNIQUE GIFTS
Although an ideal starting point, it isn’t enough to show your child you believe in yourself. The most important thing you can show them is that you believe in them and their ability to work hard, learn and improve. Let them know that they can do it. Keep your faith and never let it waiver. The harder it is to keep, the more they will need it. You must express these sentiments to them genuinely and repeatedly. It is not enough to merely say it. You have to mean it with everything you have.
Think long and hard about the following quote:
“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Your child will live up or down to the reputation you give them. Take the opportunity to dive deep with your child to understand their own confidence. Explore their self-image with them. Ask they what they think and believe about themselves. These are critical conversations to have. Many parents may avoid them because they are difficult. Don’t be the type of parent who shies away from the uncomfortable. Explore what they perceive to be their work ethic and their ability to work at a skill in order to master it. Do they believe that they are capable of anything they set their mind to? Try to see it from their eyes. The ability to do so will provide tremendous clarity. There is no substitute for it when it comes to relating with your child.
STEP 4 – SHARE EXAMPLES OF DEVELOPED EXCELLENCE
There is a lot of motivation that can be derived from the biography of others. People whom we admire who have stood in the face of adversity and thrived regardless of where they started and how just their lives were. These cases can provide excellent motivation and perspective for you and your child. Our heroes seem superhuman because they put forth the superhuman effort and mental strength. What we often see is the end result – an achievement that seems effortless. The truth is far different. There has been an unfathomable amount of effort that has been invested into that effortlessness. These people possessed the self-confidence and belief to keep at it.
An excellent example is Benjamin Franklin. The founding father’s parents could only afford to keep him in school until the age of 10. He never let that stop his learning. Using his growth mindset, Franking taught himself through reading and application. By the end of his life would be credited as an inventor, scientist, writer and diplomat. He is an inspiration to millions and lives on as one of history’s great men.
Sir Richard Branson is often the first name one thinks of when the words ‘businessman’ and ‘entrepreneur’ are mentioned. The Virgin Group founder and CEO was actually a terrible student in school. This was due in large part to his dyslexia. Rather than have this limit him, he worked hard to overcome this learning disability and focused his energy on creating companies that served customer needs better than the competition. Mr. Branson has started countless successful companies in almost any field you can think of proving that growth and development are lifelong adventures.
Last but not least Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest film directors ever was once rejected by USC’s film school. He didn’t give up and reapplied only to be rejected a second time. All this did was drive his creativity and efforts. With or without those rejections he was committed to working hard, developing his talents and creating films that have amazed and entertained people for decades. He kept at it when others would have thrown in the towel.
Finally, I would like to share one of the main criteria NASA uses to select their astronauts, possibly the hardest job application process in the entire world. Contrary to popular belief, the space agency is not after the perfect candidates. Rather they have historically preferred people who showed resilience and grit. The ability to bounce back from failures stronger and better than ever is the trait they seek in their astronauts above all else. They want people who have had to work, learn, develop and grow especially in the face of adversity. It is a telltale sign of the ability to do it again.
The point of the above examples is to show you and your child that success leaves clues. With the right strategies, mindset and effort these feats are repeatable. There is a process. Each path must be undertaken one step at a time. Over time, consistent effort compounds to create truly remarkable results. These and countless other examples in the realms of sports and film can help keep your child motivated. No one who achieves anything noteworthy has done so without a deep sense of self-confidence.
STEP 5 – PRACTICE VISUALIZATION
Visualisation is one of the most powerful and profound ways to activate the brain and create success. As outlandish as this sounds, there is quite a lot of scientific research and validated data to back this up.
There is tremendous power in having your child visualise themselves as successful and confident people. In fact, studies have shown that power lifters activate the same parts of their brain with almost the same intensity when visualising themselves lifting a heavy weight as they do when they are actually lifting it. The practice stretches across all sports with Wayne Rooney, Muhammad Ali and Russell Wilson having spoken about their visualisation practice publicly.
Why is this? It turns out that our brain works with images. It is impossible to create something without first having a clear mental image of what that is. Mental imagery impacts a collection of cognitive processes within the brain include motor control, attention, perception, planning and memory. Creating and focusing on an image of what you desire gives your brain something to move towards. It gains clarity on what is required and works hard to get you there. It gives your psyche a final destination.
Have your child sit and create a clear mental image of themselves as self-confident. Better yet, sit with them and do the exercise yourself. Ask them what confidence looks like. What would they be doing if they were self-confident? How would they move and use their bodies? What would their facial expressions be? What type of language would they use? What would their practice and progress reward them with in their lives? These questions will help refine the image your child has of themselves. The clearer the image the more effective the practice. It doesn’t have to take more than a couple of minutes a day, but the impact is profound and can be applied to anything they ever hope to do and achieve.
STEP 6 – HELP THEM FIND COMFORT IN THE UNCOMFORTABLE
A wonderful gift and exercise for building self-confidence comes from getting outside of one’s comfort zone. Granted, the initial discomfort can range from awkward to terrifying. The payoff is a clear understanding of what you are made of. Isn’t that worth it? Think about it. The more time a person spends outside their comfort zone (their bubble), the more comfortable they will be in a myriad of situations. This is true for areas that require a great deal of self-confidence. Want examples? How about public speaking or sales? Both require you to be exposed to criticism and error. With the right mindset, however, each occasion can serve as a learning experience. Each can help your child grow as a person.
Create a list of ways that you and your child can get uncomfortable for the sake of personal growth and confidence. This can include anything from joining a local sports team to Toastmasters. It can even be as simple as asking for a discount at your favourite restaurant or coffee shop. What is the worst that could happen? The point is to consistently get out of your comfort zone. Eventually, that zone grows to the point that you are self-confident in any and all situations. At that point, you are unstoppable.
STEP 7 – HAVE THEM HELP OTHERS
Paradoxically, one of the greatest ways to build self-confidence is to not focus on yourself at all. Going out of your way to help others is easily one of the highest leverage ways to increase self-worth. Confidence increases as a byproduct of your service. Whether it is those who are less fortunate or people in the neighbourhood, there is a beauty in serving others and helping them. It is completely free and the payoff is unbelievable. Visit a local food bank or old age home with your child. Encourage them to volunteer and take the opportunity to join them. They will get a firsthand look at their ability to touch others and make a positive impact in their lives. It will give them the context in terms of what their actions can really do. Remember to practice what you preach.
We spend so much time in our own heads thinking about ourselves. The opportunity to focus on others and lose ourselves in service is one of the most therapeutic and powerful things you can do. It is fertiliser for self-confidence and a wonderful way to contribute positively to the world.
The above lessons have been summarised in the infographic below. It provides a quick and easy to share guide to help you raise your self-confident child.