I love to watch toddlers as they learn to walk. No matter how many times they fall down, they just keep pulling themselves up to try again. Even when they get hurt, they’re often right back at it before their tears have dried.
Yet at some point this changes. Starting as early as in preschool, and certainly by elementary school, kids start to get the idea that they’re just not good at certain things. Whether it’s running, reading, math, or monkey bars, they lose the confidence to just keep trying.
As a parent, I know how hard it is to rebuild a child’s self-confidence when they’ve reached this point. That’s why I love this simple tip from psychologist Nick Wignall: stop trying to build self-confidence and start focusing on self-efficacy—in other words, your child’s sense of pride in what they can accomplish.
As Wignall explains, what we believe about ourselves impacts how we feel, and that in turns affects what we do. Yet self-esteem isn’t something we can improve directly. It’s a byproduct of confidence. And confidence is developed by doing.
Wignall offers these helpful tips:
Don’t confuse cause and effect. You can’t do a goal. You can only do things that eventually result in the goal becoming realized. If you waste your time and energy trying to do goals directly, you’ll have little time or energy left over for working on the things you actually have control over.
Get more specific. The key to achieving goals is confidence. But the key to confidence is setting very small, specific mini-goals that you can reliably achieve, and as a result, start building up confidence.
The role of confidence in developing physical literacy
The “recipe” for physical literacy is simple: skills, confidence, and love of movement. If your child has developed a belief that they’re “just no good” at certain sports or activities, ask yourself:
- Do they need help to learn or strengthen specific skills?
- Do they need more practice so they can develop confidence in their abilities?
- Do they need help to rekindle their love of movement?
When something feels too hard, it’s because it’s too big a step from where your child is right now. As parents, we can help them find the next rung on the ladder.
Related read: The confidence formula
Especially if your child is young, the best way to do this is through play. If your child wants to become a better runner, play games of tag or soccer together as a family so they have more opportunities to practice this skill.
If it’s the monkey bars that are difficult, make a point of visiting playgrounds with this equipment and offer to “spot” your child whenever they want to give it a try. Activities like tree-climbing and gymnastics can also help your child develop the upper body strength they need.
If your child has become discouraged or lost interest in a sport or activity that used to be a favourite, you can support them by taking some pressure off. Switch things up and try something new, or bring the fun back by simply playing together informally with your child in your backyard or at a local park.
Big achievements begin with small, simple steps
Just like learning to read or play the piano, learning to move takes practice. No one expects a child’s first book to be a novel, or their first song to be a symphony. Big achievements begin with small, simple steps.
As parents, we can help by noticing and valuing what our kids can do today, and giving them lots of opportunities to challenge themselves and push their own limits.
Related read: 6 things—and 6 words—to say to your kids
We can also offer prompts to encourage kids to explore what they can do. Ask questions like:
- How high/fast/far/quickly/slowly… can you jump/climb/swing/run…?
- Can you do that with your other hand/foot? Can you do it backwards?
- I wonder if…
Feeling good about a small win leads to a little more confidence, which provides the momentum to attempt new challenges and experience more successes.