Confidence can be a tricky trait to nail down. We know it's important, but where does it come from? We tend to know it when we see it, but how can it be developed, especially in kids?
Conventional wisdom says that the best way to build self-confidence in kids is to show them evidence of their worth, often through praise. We have learned that this approach certainly has merit...but only if the right kinds of praise are used. Interestingly, the success of praise often comes down to differences in word choices that can be quite unintuitive.
How We Use Positive Language To Build Confidence
At camp we like to say that building confidence comes from building competence. Kids feel better about their abilities when they know that they can do something well, and even more so when their effort, attitude, or skill is noticed and praised by an adult. We aim to do both at camp: help kids develop their abilities, and let them know that we noticed.
This is a far more effective approach than trying to offer generalized praise across the board. Our counselor training manual puts it this way:
“...If you can name the behavior that you are proud of, rather than just saying “Great job!”, kids will be much more likely to believe you and believe that they did something worthy of being proud of. Being specific also helps praise stick in a camper's memory. If a camper is better able to understand what he or she did well, he or she is more likely to model that behavior again.
Finally, being positive and specific provides clues to other kids about what you are looking for. If we just say “Way to go”, how can other kids know what to do to earn your praise as well? Being specific will clue them in and make it more likely that you entire cabin will want to emulate that behavior. What a great win-win!!”
Teaching What To Praise
There is one other important point that we teach counselors on this topic: some kinds of praise are actually counterproductive. For example, if a soccer coach praises the naturally gifted athlete for scoring three goals during a game, the clear message is that the coach values natural athleticism. Unfortunately, kids cannot choose whether or not they have natural athleticism.
The much better approach is to praise for things that kids can make decisions on: effort, attitude, friendliness, improvement, and follow through, to name a few. It's okay to praise the natural athlete, just praise him for something that others can work on, too, like effort or making the right choice to shoot or pass.
When we identify a positive behavior, share what we appreciate about it, and tie it to something that a child can make a choice to continue improving, we have accomplished two powerful results. The first is that the child will see evidence of competence, and therefore grow in confidence. But even more importantly, the child will be empowered to take control of building confidence for him- or herself, because a counselor has shown the child that he or she can make the choice to use and improve a valued skill.