How to raise happy, confident kids

We need to raise more risk-takers and adventurers, so how is disaster hyperbole and overprotectiveness affecting children?


Born cooked. That's my mother's way of describing how some children come into the world with strong personality traits that can only come from their 'nature'. My daughter came out as the most independent little thing, my son was born a rogue, and my smallest veers towards the super sensitive.

Their little personalities swirl and shape according to the world around them. Their traits enhanced or stunted depending on how we parent them, their environment and their interactions with others. But is it possible to influence things like grit and determination? And how can we boost confidence in our little ones along with a healthy amount of self-esteem, happiness, security, and love? (While keeping their nails clean, making sure they are drinking enough water and giving them as many opportunities as we can to be a future sports star or say, a robotics engineer...)

Related: Peaceful parenting: Who has time for that?

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For the most part, it is instinctive.

We puff them up with praise when they do something positive. We exclaim wildly over their latest scribble masterpiece and tell them over and over again how wonderful they are. But parenting is a delicate dance, and one of the hardest parts is knowing when to let your child struggle, in order to learn and grow, and when to intervene.

Generation snowflake

A lot has been talked about in relation to the 'snowflake' generation - an unhelpful term that is thrown at young people of a certain age because of an inclination towards the self-pity, a group that doesn't have the tools to deal with some of life's challenges because parents inadvertently overprotected them. It is a natural instinct to keep your offspring safe but there comes a time to let them go out and make their own mistakes.

The danger is that we are raising our young on a diet of disaster hyperbole.

Of course, not everyone in that generation can be cast with this label, but generational fragility is a real phenomenon. Employers talk about young employees that take everything too personally. University lecturers note that students are genuinely distressed by ideas that run against their own view of the world.

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Parents complain about their almost grown children unable to take responsibility for their choices or to show resilience in the face of adversity. How did it happen, and how can we ensure we give our children the tools to cope with the world around them?

Healthy risk

Teens are supposed to be risk-takers and adventure-seekers. But the danger with today's parenting is that we raise our young on a diet of disaster hyperbole. We remove every possible threat, we promote panic and then wonder why our young adults are paralysed with fear the minute something goes wrong for them.

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We can't eliminate all risk from our children's lives - they will be less daring with less freedom. And it's not just parents, teachers too, are part of the problem. Health and safety fears mean our little ones are denied resilience-building freedoms like running in the yard, playing conkers and climbing trees.

Fall seven times, stand up eight

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Studies have shown that resilience comes not from failing but from the experience of learning that you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, try again, and again, and again, and eventually succeed. That requires at least some experience of success, lots of emotional support and the ability to stick with it for the sake of your child.

How can they learn to pick themselves up again if you don't ever let them fall? Of course, the idea of allowing our child to fall is anxiety-provoking for any parent, because the lines between support and helicopter parenting are not clear. Try to think of yourself as a coach - you teach them the rules but the children play the game. We can't allow our actions to stymie our children's resourcefulness and grit. Here's how...

1. Start with you

Anything we teach our children must start with us. If we want to provide a healthy dose of confidence and self-help, then we as parents must also learn self-belief. We cannot give what we don’t have. We need to prioritise our own mind and body, learn to be sure of ourselves before we can show our children how to do it for themselves.

Try to back away from the scaremongering and the panic-inducing warnings. Return to a common sense approach. If you don't let your child climb that tree, they won't know their limits.

If they fall, they will reevaluate their risk-taking which might actually stand to them on their Leaving Cert holiday when their pals are considering climbing balconies.

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2. Mastery begets mastery

Build their confidence. Failure sets up a cycle of lack of confidence, giving up and even more failure. In order to be successful, your child needs to feel what it's like to be good at something, the best, to win and to want to win again.

Our job is to match our child with the task correctly so they can start building their self-esteem.

Our job is to manoeuvre them into a sport, subject or task that we know they will master - especially at a young age. This will depend on their personality, their abilities and only you will be able to determine what will work for your little one. It is trial and error at the start but everyone is good at something. Our job is to match our child with the task correctly so they can start building their self-esteem.

3. Positive affirmations

We so often tell children what they can't do. Make sure to take every opportunity to tell them what they can do. Each evening at bedtime, I get my children to repeat affirmations that will eventually form their own inner voice. 'I am good at ..., I am proud of myself because..., I am unique because....'

This teaches them the value they place on themselves (at least I hope it does or else I've missed the first ten minutes of Love Island every night for no reason). If it helps, you can get them to write all the things they like about themselves and stick it to their wall so they read it last thing at night and first thing in the morning. There are so many who will tear them down in the future.

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Now is our time to let themselves build themselves up.

Related: Parenting when you are sick: Welcome to hell

4. Step back. I repeat, step back. 

As parents, of course, we don’t ever want our children to struggle. But, they have to learn how to problem solve themselves. It is a really important lesson. In life, ultimately it lies with them to figure out the best possible solution to their problem - to make a decision that will help them rather than hinder them.

If we keep doing it for them all the time, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to overcoming their challenge whatever it may be.

You can share your own experiences and tell your child about what you did to overcome a problem. In watching others make mistakes and hearing examples of how someone else overcame a problem, they can make an informed choice about the best way of solving their own problem. I make up stories about when I was younger in my schoolyard as a type of mental role play for my primary school age children.

I bore them with endless scenarios about 'what mummy did...'

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I figure that's where most of their little challenges will have to be overcome -being left out, being pushed around or needing to use their voice. I bore them with endless scenarios about 'what mummy did....' and hope that someday if similar happens to them, they will have some type of reference point to help them out. This is now to teach tenacity and perseverance.

5. The value of responsibility

Self-sufficiency is underrated. As a society that sees many of us living with our parents or near them throughout our adult lives, it is too easy to rely on our parents to take responsibility for things that happen to us. But children need to know that they have value.

They need to understand that they have to cherish their own things. If mummy and daddy always pick up after them, when will they ever learn how to be responsible? Home is the best place to start so they know that they add value to the household when they help out.

6. Hold that tongue

Watch out for that constructive criticism. It may sound more like judgement and can harm those tiny roots of self-esteem. I think we are all guilty of this. But equally, it is important to recognise that self-esteem also comes from achievement - real achievement - rather than false accomplishments. Psychologists encourage parents to be very specific when it comes to praise. Instead of saying 'you are so smart', tell them why, exactly. It's what makes them feel unique and special.

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We all want the best for our child. We are the ones who chase away the bad dreams, it is our shoulder they cry on for that first broken heart and we are the monsters who give them curfews and timeouts.

7. A steady hand

As parents, we have a big dilemma. We are torn between being there and letting go. From the first moment they were put into our arms, we promised them that we would always catch them when they fall. But just as our little ones evolve and grow into their own person, we, as parents need to evolve too.

We evolve from carrying their helpless newborn body in our arms into being the hand that steadies them as they walk. We squeeze their hand with love when they no longer want to be kissed going into school. These hands eventually point out the path for them, rather than leading them down it. That's a hard but necessary transformation.

Being a parent is tough. It is emotional, exhausting and an endless cycle of 'am I doing the right thing?' But raising small humans, fit for the world, is our ultimate goal.

We give them as many tools as we can to help them make their own way in this life. Our job is to build their confidence, give them decision-making abilities, show them patience and self-sufficiency with buckets of love. And then, we sit back and watch them soar.

Image: @Unsplash.com

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Read more: Let's stop pretending we are not parents in the workplace

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