Telling Our Kids What TO Do: Three Ways to Build a Child’s Self-Confidence

At one of the schools I have the pleasure of visiting regularly, this week’s craft table featured what the teacher appropriately called the “paper guillotine,” along with some glue and paper. At one point, an unsuspecting adult walked over and saw the setup. She inquired, only half-jokingly, “Oh, is this the table where you slice off your finger and then glue it right back on?” I laughed, albeit a little nervously. I admit I wondered the same thing when I first saw the guillotine. These are four- and five-year-olds using a very sharp tool, after all. However, I trust the kids’ teacher implicitly, so if the paper guillotine is out, we go with it (with appropriate supervision).

Every week, I hear adults guide children as well as they can to help ensure their safety and well-being. What troubles me, though, is that despite their unquestionably good intentions, I all too often hear the adults telling the kids what not to do, without further comment or guidance. With all the time I spend in child-focused settings (schools and otherwise), I often get firsthand insight into the kids’ experiences.

The “nots” and “don’ts” serve a valid purpose in our adult brains. They convey to our kids what they aren’t supposed to do. They also leave me feeling really, well, deflated at the end of the day. And the adults aren’t correcting me. They’re correcting the kids. What’s intended as helpful correction sometimes comes across as criticism and disapproval, and the kids’ self-confidence simply can’t thrive in that environment.*

Keep reading, though, because we can fix this.

To be sure, kids need guidance. They need discipline in the sense of “teaching,” along with clear boundaries. And they need support while they figure out what we adults expect of them. Janet Lansbury, early childhood expert, writes extensively about the different forms boundaries take and how to navigate them with your kids, while building their self-confidence. Although she often writes about toddlers, the concepts she unpacked for me in this life-changing book still apply long after toddlerhood (afflinks). This is another great book that’s full of practical suggestions and real-life scenarios.

That said, the tricky part is that just by virtue of being kids, they’re, um, new here. To Earth. Their brains are still figuring out all sorts of things the rest of us have known for awhile. And in their defense, while many of them can and do understand what not to do, they still need help connecting the dots to what they should do, instead. Even school-age children have only been in school for a short time, and they’re still figuring out how the rules and communication styles differ from person to person; classroom to classroom.

And in almost all the places where I see adults (both teachers and parents) interacting with children, I see all sorts of completely avoidable emotional strife. If we adults tweak our approach just a bit, it can remove any doubt in the child’s mind about what we really want from them, while helping grow their self-confidence. We can make life easier for them and for ourselves. Who wants unnecessary conflict, anyway?

Here’s what I’ve seen some of the best adult-leaders (teachers and parents) do that works beautifully. As the mother of my own child, I’m trying to emulate these concepts.

Three Ways to Talk to a Child to Build Her Self-Confidence

1. Flip Your Wording to Tell Kids What To Do

Every time you feel a “don’t” or a “stop” message about to come out of your mouth, replace it with the opposite, positive statement. Rather than “Don’t push,” try, “Please keep your hands to yourself.” If it helps you practice until it comes naturally, you can add the “do.” Example: “Please do keep your hands to yourself.” Instead of, “Stop throwing papers on the floor,” try, “Please keep papers on the table.” “Please walk” is just as easy to say as “Don’t run,” but the emotional tone is much more empowering. The child will know exactly what to do.

It’s amazing how much less defensively kids (and, ahem, adults) respond when they’re given positive instructions rather than directives that imply they’re about to misbehave, even when they’re doing everything right. From what I’ve witnessed, it makes a huge difference in the tone of the room, be it a classroom or at home.

2. Set Clear Expectations Without Conditions

A common pitfall I observe is when adults get the positive wording right, but then they attach a threat or consequence to it. For example, “Keep the crayons in the box or I’ll have to take them away.” Unfortunately, this approach strengthens kids’ self-confidence no better than negative instructions do. Both activate the same part of the brain that signals danger, and it’s hard to thrive that way. An example of what would convey the same message without the threat would be, “The crayons are for later, so please leave them in the box. First, it’s time for a story.”

3. Catch Kids Doing Something Right

I love it when I hear an adult call out kids who are doing something right. The catch here is to avoid indirectly shaming the kids who aren’t doing it right, but rather, to build trust that we see kids in all their goodness. I love hearing, “Hey, I noticed how everyone in the class was quiet while I was explaining our activity today. I really appreciate that.” Or, quietly to a child in the classroom, “Matty, I noticed you kept your hands to yourself today. Thanks for doing that.” Alternatively, at home, “Thank you so much for cleaning up your spill without me asking you to do it! You sure do know how to help around here. I appreciate you.”

I love how kids glow when they hear that they’re getting things right.

We all want to do the right thing. Even the youngest of us do. 

In the class with the paper guillotine, what worked beautifully was this: “This tool is really sharp. The only thing that can go under the blade is paper. Keep your fingers out from under it when you push down on the lever.” I’m happy to report that no fingers or other appendages became victims of the paper guillotine that day. All of the kids knew exactly what to do with the tool, because they’d been told what to do with it. We took the time to clearly and positively instruct them. Everyone who tried it appeared to find it fascinating, and dare I say, fun. Every single one of the kids went in giving the machine the side-eye, but knowing what to do, their self-confidence grew when it worked.

Raising our own children can be a lot like that: seemingly kind of scary at first, but when everyone figures out what to do, life can really go quite smoothly. The more we practice positive parenting, the more our confidence in the process can grow. And with peaceful smiles on our faces, we’ll watch our kids’ self-confidence soar.


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About the Writer

Sarah R. Moore is a published writer, positive parenting educator, wellness advocate, and world traveler. Her work spans the globe, reaching readers on six continents and appearing in publications such as The Natural Parent Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Macaroni Kid.

She has been certified by the Raffi Foundation for Child Honouring.  She wholeheartedly recommends the course for parents, educators, and all others who influence the lives of children. 

She also holds BA / MFS degrees in Journalism, French, and Media/Arts/Cultural Production. Read more about Sarah here.