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Parent Corner: Creating Confidence

by KAREN COREKIN-DeLaMER, Education and Community Relations Coordinator, Northern Door Children’s Center

Art by Andrew Kleidon

Dear Karen,

My son is seven years old, and he’s a first-grade student. He’s very smart and started reading in kindergarten. He loves science and enjoys making things with building toys. He has a nice group of boys he’s been friends with since they were all little, and his teacher tells me that he seems to like school. 

What we’ve noticed, though, is that he lacks confidence and is afraid to try new things. I’m concerned about it because to me, he seems very capable. At school, he won’t speak up when his teacher is sure he knows the answer. He’s nervous about trying art projects or joining in group games.

I’ve tried to interest him in playing soccer in our local league or taking a martial-arts or dance class, but he always says no. I even got a basketball hoop for our driveway and offered to teach him how to play, but the ball and hoops are collecting dust. 

I can’t understand why he would be nervous or lack confidence. I’m very comfortable trying new things, and his whole life, I’ve praised him for everything he does because I want him to feel good about himself. I tell him he’s doing a good job all the time.

What do you think is causing his hesitation to try new activities or speak up in class, and what can I do to help him overcome it?

Confused Mom of an Awesome, but Fearful Child

Dear Confused Mom,

It’s a testament to the love and concern you have for your son that you want him to embrace new experiences with ease and have a strong sense of self-esteem. 

Part of what’s happening with your son may be that his own natural temperament causes him to be slow to warm up to new situations and opportunities. Every person has a particular way of approaching unfamiliar things. Instead of jumping right into something, he may need to take it in small steps.

For example, you might take him to watch a few children’s soccer games so he can see firsthand what it involves. You could arrange for the coach to chat with him after the game and address some of the things he might be worried about. You could do the same with a martial-arts or dance class, depending on his interest. 

This would be an easy, comfortable way for him to get more information and see for himself what a potential new activity might be like. He may still decide not to play or be part of a class, but he’ll be better equipped to make an informed choice without so much fear. 

His classroom teacher could tell him ahead of time what kind of art projects are coming up and let him see the materials first to alleviate anxiety about what is expected. The teacher might feel sure he knows the answer to a question, but he may not want to answer for fear of making a mistake. This fear can also keep some children from trying new things. 

One way to help relieve his fear of making mistakes would be to begin acknowledging his accomplishments rather than praising them. Instead of saying, “Good job” or “I like that,” you simply notice what he’s done. 

For instance, if he read a book that was challenging for him, you could say, “I know that book was hard, but you stuck with it and finished! How do you feel about that?” Or “You used so many colors in the painting you did today! Do you want to tell me about it?” 

This way, you’re taking the judgment out of what you’re saying by simply stating the facts about what he’s done and asking for his thoughts. Acknowledgement can often be more effective in building self-esteem than general, nonspecific praise. 

When he asks whether you like something he’s made or done, you could say, “What do you think about it?” This may lead to discussions focused on his thoughts about his own abilities. The idea is to encourage him to trust his own judgment and learn to depend less on the opinions of others for validation. This can relieve some of his fear of possibly making a mistake. 

It takes time and practice, but add this to helping him take new experiences at his own pace, and he will be well on his way to experiencing less fear and more self-confidence.

Karen Corekin-DeLaMer holds degrees in elementary, special and early-childhood education. She has been a teacher, administrator and parent educator since 1984 and is the education and community-relations coordinator for Northern Door Children’s Center in Sister Bay. Email your questions to her at [email protected].