Q: Can you focus on building an elementary kid’s confidence—in particular ages 6-8?
A: This is such a fun, exciting age of possibility—early elementary kids are usually fairly agreeable, and they can do far more for themselves than they could a few years earlier when they were in preschool or kindergarten. (And preschoolers and kindergartners can often do so much more than we think, but that’s a topic for another day!)
I’m curious from your question about whether there’s a specific worry here. Some common concerns about confidence might relate to:
- Timidness in sports or other activities
- Nervousness about leaving parents, or other anxieties
- Shyness about speaking up or making friends
- Lack of positive belief in their own abilities or qualities
Some young kids are naturally bolder and outgoing than others, and what we’re seeing may sometimes be more about temperament than it is about confidence—say, the kid who just takes a little more time to warm up in social situations. And some kids may exhibit a lot of confidence in one area and not in another. That’s all perfectly normal.
But all kids, no matter what their inborn personality, can benefit from the confidence that comes from self-efficacy. As we discussed in Capable Kids Q&A: Confidence Through Action, kids (and adults, for that matter) benefit from that “I can do it!” feeling of knowing we can handle the challenge before us. We are happier, mentally healthier, and—yes, more confident—when we have self-efficacy. The most robust source of self-efficacy is that of mastery experiences—times we’ve handled other real-life challenges. Every time we meet a challenge, our confidence gets stronger. So how do younger elementary kids built that self-efficacy muscle, especially if they’re not naturally a take-the-world-by-storm type? Here are some ideas:
- If they haven’t already been doing so for years, let them choose their own clothes and dress themselves. It’s such a simple, low-stakes way to communicate to our children, “You have opinions that are valuable. You can start to make choices without me. You can do things for yourself.” You may see some really creative outfits…but a little (or a lot) of pattern and color mixing never hurt anyone!
- Let them develop confidence through their interests, not ours. Not every kid needs to play team sports or whatever else we parents may gravitate towards. Self-efficacy, not to mention joy, comes more naturally when a child likes the activity—whether it’s sewing or music or jumping rope or trying to master Pokemon Go.
- Give them chores. You can start anywhere, but I like to start with mealtime chores because they happen so regularly that it’s easiest to be consistent. (Here’s how it (kind of messily) unfolded in our house.) Counting on them to set the table or help clear the table or wash the dishes isn’t glamorous, but it ultimately gives them a sense of pride in their abilities and contributions. Yes, even if they complain.
- Encourage them to speak up. When you go to a store, let them check out when they buy a pack of gum. Have them give their own name to the receptionist at the doctor or dentist. Let them order their own ice cream. Pause before answering for your child. You’re there, ready to assist if they get stuck, but when they get a chance to try they can begin to get a sense of themselves as a capable, independent person who successfully interacts with the world.
- Ask their advice. “Which necklace do you think I should wear with this shirt?” “What do you think Ezra would like for his birthday?” “Which of these screwdrivers do you think will fit in this screw?” “Do you think that movie will scare your little brother, or do you think he’s old enough to watch it?” Translation: You are not passive or helpless. You can contribute. Your ideas are important and helpful to this family.
- Consider a pet or a plant. Around this age, the personal pet requests may start: A pet I can keep in my own room! Can your child remember to care for one? A bunny or a chameleon might be more than you want to supervise, but maybe a betta fish or goldfish could be a start. And if animals are off the table, consider whether plant care (indoors or outdoors) might work. Kids can take tremendous personal pride in being responsible for another living being.
- Dial down—or at least reframe—the compliments. You might be familiar with the research saying that we shouldn’t compliment kids on how smart they are, which we previously touched on here. (It doesn’t work to build confidence; when faced with a challenge, these anointed “smart kids” tend to give up, deciding that maybe they weren’t so smart after all because it stopped being easy.) Instead, praise how hard the kid worked to figure something out. A good rule of thumb is to praise what children can control from the inside—their choices, decisions, persistence, style—rather than to label them from the outside. (“You’re so smart.” “You’re so pretty.” “You’re so athletic.”)
I hope these ideas will help your younger elementary kids build that self-efficacy and the sense of confidence that comes with it. It’s so worth it—when they realize what they can do, they just light up with pride and joy. You will, too.
As always, please let me know how it goes! (You can always reach me through the question form at the top of this article, through my contact form, or by pressing reply in your email when you receive my newsletter.)