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Mark Eklund died as a soldier during the war in Vietnam, and his body was shipped back to his parents in the United States. After the funeral, Mark’s father pulled a piece of worn notebook paper out of Mark’s wallet, which had been returned with him. When he read the paper, Mark’s classmates who had attended the funeral immediately recognized it—for they each had similar papers.

Years before, their teacher, Sister Helen Mrosla, had asked her students to write down the names of all the kids in their class and then write the nicest thing they could think of about each one. The teacher compiled the responses and gave each student a list of all the nice things their classmates had said about them. The amazing thing is that, years later, many of the students in Sister Mrosla’s class still had their lists and still treasured them.

This story emphasizes the importance of helping children to feel good about themselves. As a parent, one of your most important jobs is to build within your children a sense of confidence. You want them to feel positive enough about themselves that they are willing to attempt challenging activities, make new friends, hold jobs, and be kind to those who look or act different from them.

How children feel about themselves is the single greatest factor in determining their future happiness and well-being.

Does she see herself as someone of high value or as being worthless? Does he feel he’s important to the people around him, or does he feel insignificant, a nobody? Does she feel competent to achieve what is asked of her? Does he feel smart, capable, and skilled?

Your children may have beauty and brains, riches and talent, and your family may be well known, but if your children dislike themselves and feel inferior, these assets will be of little benefit.

Significance and competence

To feel valuable, children need a sense of significance and competence.

Significance means that they feel important just because they exist. They need to believe that their existence will make a significant difference in their family, their school, and eventually their jobs.

Competence is the result of children learning new skills and developing special talents that others appreciate and value. Allowing children to carry appropriate responsibilities, to do things independently, and to be rewarded for their accomplishments, all help them feel confident. It’s important for kids to feel that they are smart, that they are good decision-makers, and that they can solve problems.

Negative versus positive

The words we use when we talk to our children make a huge difference in whether they’ll grow up feeling confident or worthless. For example, imagine that the following questions and statements are being addressed to you:

  • Why do you always do (or say) that?
  • Can’t you ever do anything right?
  • You’re driving me crazy!
  • You never do what I tell you to do!
  • Why don’t you leave me alone?
  • You deserved what you got.

These statements focus on the negative aspects of your children’s behavior. They use the words always and never, as if the children have no positive traits and will never change. Compare these comments with the following statements:

  • I’ll help you clean it up if you’d like.
  • Tell me how you feel.
  • What would you like to do today?
  • I need a few more minutes to finish this project, and then I’ll help you.
  • What could you do so no one gets hurt?
  • What do you think would be the best way to handle this problem?

Correcting a child’s inappropriate language or behavior is vital. It’s all in how you say it. A good way to correct a child while preserving his or her sense of personal value is to precede your correction with something positive. Instead of saying, “You never clean your room,” try saying, “I understand how hard it can be to keep your room clean, but I know you can do it.” Or, instead of calling your child a liar, you can say, “You have quite an imagination. You may wish what you said is true, but I know it isn’t.”

At other times you can simply say things in a less condemning way. Instead of saying, “You’re a show-off,” you can say, “You enjoy attention.” Instead of saying, “You’re always late,” try saying, “When you’re late, I worry about you.”

These statements don’t mean you’re excusing inappropriate language or behavior. You do need to correct and teach responsibility. But your child will be much more cooperative if you use encouraging words and frame the problem in a way that shows your confidence in his or her willingness to act appropriately. Negative comments tend to attack a child’s character. Positive statements focus on the facts. A good rule to follow is to never say anything to your child that you wouldn’t want someone to say to you.

The power of indirect words

Children can understand what others are saying about them before they can even talk, so train yourself to say positive things about your children. Consider how your children will think of themselves when they hear you say to another person, “He’s such a joy to be around!” or “She’s so kind and thoughtful of others.”

Even if your children aren’t within earshot, it’s helpful to be as positive as possible when speaking to others about them. First impressions that are based on hearsay can color a person’s attitude, even if later impressions don’t support what was first heard. Why not influence others by pointing out pleasing traits and responsible behavior? Others will unconsciously look for the traits that a parent has mentioned. How much better if these are positive!

You should also avoid telling embarrassing stories about your children. Instead, tell about the wise decisions they’ve made, the difficulties they’ve surmounted, and the ways in which they’ve been thoughtful or helpful to others.

Parents are only human, and sometimes we make mistakes too. If you think your child overheard you make a negative statement to someone else, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Tell your child that you’re sorry. Ask for forgiveness. Don’t slough it off with an, “I don’t mean a lot of the things I say.” Don’t try to justify your words by blaming someone else or by excusing yourself with the following: “I was just letting off steam and didn’t mean any harm,” or “I say a lot of loving things, which make up for an occasional slip up!” It’s better to be honest and admit that you’ve made a mistake.

What to avoid

While you want to help your children to feel confident, you should avoid making them people pleasers. People pleasers are kids who grow up craving words of praise because they hear them so infrequently.

They don’t understand that they are intrinsically valuable because God created them. These children typically respond in one of two ways. They either give up and fail to achieve what they’re capable of or they try to prove their worth through bigger and better accomplishments that will confirm their worth to others. Some even feel driven to put down others to make themselves look better.

In order to be positive, praise must be honest and related to a specific behavior or accomplishment. If your habitual response to your child is something such as, “Good boy,” “You’re terrific!” or “Smart kid,” but it isn’t associated with something praiseworthy, then the value of your praise is diminished. The child knows he’s not always good, terrific, or smart, and your words lose their meaning.

Your goal in giving honest and sincere praise is to help your child to feel internally valuable because she is fulfilling God’s purpose for her life, and, in the process, is helping others and making them happy. Choices that bless others ultimately make your children feel better about themselves.

Others will not always be around to praise your children, which is why your goal is to help them to understand that ultimately the confidence they feel within themselves is far more important than whether or not they receive the honor and admiration of others.

Raising Confident Kids

by Kay Kuzma
From the September 2013 Signs