The concept of self-confidence has been highly misunderstood. It has been confused with being outgoing, social and extrovert. We forget that it takes as much courage and self-esteem to assert one’s need for quiet, privacy or solitude. Self-esteem is not a certain personality. Instead, self-esteem is a sense of being content with who one is and deserving of the best.
Children are confident by nature. Yet, adults often respond to children’s confidence in ways that confuse them; they may negate her confident choice for privacy by saying, “don’t be shy,” and they sometimes stop a child from being assertive or candid, labeling her “rude.”
The Confidently Shy Child
Being shy does not mean that a child is insecure or lacks in confidence. A shy and aloof child’s self-esteem may be so high that she doesn’t care to impress anyone or to fit into expectations. She may need extra courage to assert her need for privacy, especially under the kind of pressure most adults put on children to conform.
One mother told me she was worried because her son did not answer people’s questions. She tried to “encourage” him to respond but noticed that he then felt ashamed of himself. After her phone session with me, she resolved to support her son and appreciate his choices.
At the next encounter with a probing adult, when her son was as silent as ever, she said to the adult, “It looks to me like he doesn’t want to talk.” She asked her son if he wanted her to provide the solicited information, and then she respected his wish. By honoring his preferences, she nurtured his natural self-confidence, thus allowing his self-esteem to flourish.
The Insecure Outgoing Child
Parents sometimes discourage the self-assured child. In a phone session a mother complained, “My daughter is so rude. The other day she said to an adult in the park, ‘Get up, this is my place, I just went for a second.’” The man called her rude and refused to leave.
“Are you sure she was rude?” I inquired.
The mother thought for a moment and said, “Actually, she was just giving him information he didn’t know and requesting fair action.”
“And how did you react when you believed she was rude?”
“I was tense and I took sides with the man,” she said.
“If you weren’t seeing her as rude, how would you have responded?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “I would have enjoyed her self-confidence.”
“Who was rude?” I asked.
“The man was obviously rude,” she said.
“Yes, and that’s his business which you cannot change.”
“And, I was rude to my daughter,” she added, “by thinking of her as rude and by taking sides with the man.” She looked delighted by the realisation that her child was simply assertive in a childlike way. She laughed and went on, “My child has a clear sense of justice and of being worthy and deserving.”
This mother could have empowered her daughter in a number of ways. For example, she could have said in a benign tone, “Oh, well, I guess you lost your spot. Would you like to sit here?” Or she could have shrugged her shoulders, smiled, and said, “Obviously, you are not rude at all. Would you like to go somewhere else?” The child would have then retain her trust in herself and know that she had the power to move on without feeling victimised. In this way you also model your own confidence. Instead of seeking the man’s approval, she sees you staying connected with your own vision of who your child is.
An assertive child who is repeatedly told that her straightforward request is rude will learn to doubt herself. But if she is treated with respect, kindness, and understanding, she will learn to believe in herself, and, over time, to express herself in more socially acceptable ways.
The Aloof Child
Some children do not like to mingle with groups. Such a child prefers an intimate friendship with one or two; she is being confident when she refuses to join a group play. She is being authentic and not intimidated by anyone’s expectations of her.
A father told me that when his eight-year-old daughter’s cousins come over, they play with her brother while she goes to her room and puts a “do not enter” sign on the door. “She has one friend she loves to play with,” he said. If a group of kids plays outdoors in the park, she does not join but occupies herself separately.” He said that adults and children often come over trying to persuade his daughter to get out of her room or join their play in the park. She refuses. It takes self-confidence to stay true to herself under such pressure.
At age six, Lennon asked to go to a pottery class. Once there, he did not want to sit with the other children at the round table. The teacher tried to coerce him but he just looked her straight in the eye, shook his head “no,” and after a short while opted to go home. Now Lennon is a teenager. He is not loud or outgoing, but not shy either. He is very social, talks to people, listens and connects at ease and with a sense of calm that most of us would wish for ourselves.
Recently, a group of Lennon’s peers was mocking him and trying to insult him. Lennon had no quarrel with them, no need to defend. He honestly had no problem with what they said. How could their words hurt? His esteem does not depend on approval, nor on conforming to anyone’s ideals. He finds approval within. He told me that he has no need to pretend to be any certain way because he would rather have friends who like him for who he really.
A while ago, Lennon told me that a girl asked for his advice. She asked him if she should put an earring in her cheek. She said she wanted to be unique. “By trying to be unique you are being like everybody else,” he responded. “If you want to be unique, be yourself. You are unique.”
We all want to feel so secure, worthy and loved that demeaning remarks cannot hurt us. We can start by empowering children to stay secure and connected with themselves when others choose to judge them. This is also the way to compassion. Free of painful feelings, one can notice and care about the feelings expressed by the insulting person and respond with kindness.
Many of us know the pain of seeking approval and looking outside of ourselves to see what “they” think of us. Shy or outgoing, a secure child is not worried about “what will they say,” but responds to “what do I say inside of me.”
A secure inner voice is always kind and caring.
When Self-Esteem is Low:
Self-confidence is exactly that — confidence in oneself. It does not manifest itself in any particular form of behaviour; it flourishes when a child feels safe behaving in whatever way comes naturally. On the other hand, any behaviour that is rooted in fear, or in the need to appease or impress, reflects a lack of self-confidence.
A shy child whose choice to disengage comes from fear of disapproval is not choosing freely. If there is labeling and judging in the home, the child may feel safer keeping to herself just to be sure she does not do or say the “wrong” thing. The risk of judgment is more scary than the pain of closing up. Shyness, in this case, demonstrates a lack of self-confidence.
Similarly, an outgoing behaviour can be a cover-up for deep-seated insecurity. For example, a mother told me about her daughter, Iris, who was always shouting, “Me first.” In her tumbling class she was constantly getting to the head of the line. She seemed very happy when she was first and when she was noticed, but easily upset if she wasn’t.
Coming home from one tumbling class, Iris seemed irritable. When her mother inquired about her experience at the class Iris said, “I didn’t like it today. Nancy never let me be first. I hate her.” Later, Mum was sitting at the piano with Andrea, Iris’s younger sister. Iris passed by and said on the run, “Ah, little genius Andrea, the queen.”
What looks like confidence and exuberance, in this situation, is more likely Iris’s despair and insecurity. She has an inferior view of herself at home, and in her anguish she tries to negate her self-doubt by looking for recognition elsewhere.
When a child hides her insecurity under the cover of self-centered or loud behaviour, we might not recognise it. Therefore, instead of looking for conventional features of confidence in your child, ask yourself if she is true to herself and if she acts as one who is content. Observe to see if she is excited to be herself and free to choose her outgoing moments as well as her quiet ones.
Supporting the Child’s Confidence
“Why is your belly so big?” asks six-year-old Ron, looking directly into the eyes of a large woman. “Your breath stinks,” says a seven-year-old Lili to her dentist. “Don’t tell me what to say,” asserts Julian when his aunt tells him to say goodbye. “I don’t like this boy, I want to go home,” Tina notifies her mother as she starts back to the car.
These are real children being confident. We want children to be assertive and secure, but when they are, we commonly get uptight and try to dampen their spirits. Similarly, the child who stands for his right for privacy often encounters adults who negate his self-assurance and demand that he respond to their probing questions. “Come on, tell this nice lady how old you are,” is the parent’s attempt to deal with her own insecure feelings. (“If my child doesn’t answer, they will think I am a bad mother.”)
Your child notices your dependency on approval and learns from you. Build your own self-reliance by embracing your child’s natural trust in herself. Instead of orchestrating the “perfect” interaction, trust her to find her strength within; she can love however things turn out and stay rooted in knowing her own magnificence.