Fostering Confidence & Independence

Ana Fox Chaney
It was a pleasure to see several of you at our adolescent issues evening last week. As promised, this week’s note is a summary of that talk, which was about fostering confidence and independence in middle schoolers. Alexis Kahan, our school psychologist, and I chose this wellness theme as a counterpoint and compliment to last year’s conversation about how to recognize and alleviate anxiety. One of the great surprises of both parenting and teaching is how much development and learning happens without us. In the case of building middle schoolers’ self-esteem, this is certainly true. There is no way to gift them this quality or teach it to them directly. As with academic learning, the best way we as adults can support the confidence and independence of our children and students is by creating rich conditions and then being willing to step aside.
The advice below is drawn from a talk given by psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson at the 92nd St Y a few years ago, called “How To Give Your Child Confidence and Independence: Eight Things Parents Cannot Do For Their Children (But Wish They Could).” Woven throughout are suggestions from an article by another prominent child psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, called “True Grit: 12 Ways to Raise a Competent, Resilient Child,” and - of course - our own experience from many years working with middle schoolers.
  • We can’t make our children happy. Of course, we want them to be happy. But there is a difference between a child’s momentary happiness and their overall wellbeing. We can’t make our action orbit their momentary happiness or bend over backwards to prevent them from being upset. If we do, we send the message that their unhappiness is intolerable, which misses an opportunity to teach them about managing discomfort, and we open ourselves to being manipulated. What we can do is make sure our children feel loved and accept - and not be afraid of - momentary bad feelings. Instead of letting their unhappiness make us unhappy too, we can model a healthy relationship to feelings by empathizing and describing them. (“I know you’re mad now, but…” and “I know it’s really disappointing when…”)
  • We can’t give our children self-esteem. Dr. Thompson points out that the “self-esteem movement” in this country had the relationship backwards: self-esteem isn’t the engine behind success, it’s the byproduct of skill development. In other words, children build confidence by getting good at things. What we can do is give them manageable challenges: experiences where they are pushed to build new skills that we know are within their reach, so as not to be demoralizing (as there is little benefit to insurmountable challenge). We can also use the language of growth mindset, which validates their effort rather than evaluating the results. This would mean saying, for example, “I see how hard you worked on that. I bet you feel proud” instead of, “Good job” or “You’re great at that.”
  • We can’t pick our children’s interests for them. They often try something for a little while and then want to stop, regardless of our own personal investment. When children say no to things, it’s important in two ways. First, they are telling us who they are by telling us who they aren’t. Not only is this self-definition developmentally appropriate (and necessary) in middle school, but it’s an opportunity for us as adults to get close to our children by learning more about who they are and who they want to be. Second, being able to make their own choices - to stop doing something, or start doing something else - is one way to affirm their ability to impact their world and build confidence. Following through on commitments is an essential lesson too - but it’s important to examine whose commitment it was in the first place before insisting that they stick with something.
  • We can’t keep our children safe from everything. If we are overly concerned with safety, we risk giving children what Dr. Thompson called a “bath of anxiety.” Competence comes from risk-taking. What we can do is give children opportunities to risk (and fail) within certain boundaries. This requires some of our own courage. Commuting alone to school is an important milestone at this age. Exactly how and when this happens will depend on where you live and the wishes and abilities of your own child, but the self-assuredness that comes with the real-world skill of being able to navigate the city without an adult is invaluable. We can build up to this, and other things, gradually - first going together, then trailing behind, then maybe sending them with a friend. It’s important to acknowledge those things we are especially fretful about and draw confidence from the perspective and advice of an “outside source” such as another family.
  • We can’t micromanage our children’s friendships. Learning in community is powerful for children. The lessons learned by being part of a social community - how to get along, how to be loyal, how to understand someone who is different, how to get over an argument - aren’t delivered effectively by an adult talking. What we can do is put children in situations with each other where they can forge some of these skills, by seeing them modeled, by testing them out, and sometimes by failing at them without an adult mediating. This social emotional learning is the rationale behind many elements of the middle school program - from an intentionally unstructured recess time, to student-run cross-grade clubs, to buddy activities. Another way we can set our children up for success in relationships is by modeling positive self-talk so that they develop their own, which in turn supports a positive self image - the best and closest thing to “bully-proofing.” This means, for example, avoiding phrases like “I’m such an idiot,” even casually, and instead saying things like “I think I can fix it” and “It will be ok because I have a good sense of direction.”
Giving middle schoolers the space and opportunity to figure things out on their own is usually easier said than done. It takes discipline to avoid jumping in and rescuing them, and fortitude to watch them walk out into the world. It is been my experience as an educator and as a parent so far that the best thing we can do is continue talking and asking questions of each other, telling our stories, sharing strategies and being honest about our mistakes.
Thanks again to those of you who made it to the evening event. As always, let me know if you have any questions.