Kids have a well-developed sense of self-esteem by the age of 5, which is much earlier than researchers originally suspected. Because children begin to form ideas about their own self-worth as early as age 3, parents play a significant role in nurturing a child’s positive self-esteem and confidence. Moms, you may not realize it as you shout for your kids to put on their shoes for what seems like the 10 billionth time, but they really are listening. Parents are a child’s first role model, and the words you use when speaking to your kids will have a profound impact on the adults they become. Help them build confidence that will last into adulthood and use these phrases when talking with your kids.
1. “I think I look great today.”
Many moms react negatively when they look in the mirror. If you have an unhealthy relationship with your body, you can’t help foster body confidence in your kids. While it isn’t a fix-all, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) offers a list of tips to help you regain confidence in your own body. Up to 70 percent of teenage girls avoid activities because they don’t like the way their bodies look. Even if you never negatively comment on your child’s appearance, kids notice when you make negative comments about your own body. When you only make positive statements about yourself, your kids will take note. Don’t complain about your (barely noticeable) muffin top or bemoan those extra 10 pounds to your daughter. Instead, comment on the things you love about your appearance, like the way your new jeans fit just right. One great way to reinforce a healthy body image with your kids is to periodically help them write down all the things they like about themselves and post their list in a place they’ll see it often.
2. “You’re right, that did suck.”
As a mom, your first instinct when your kids fail is to praise them anyway in an attempt to comfort them. But kids are intuitive; they know when they’re being placated. Telling your kid, “Great job!” when they know they’ve done poorly only reinforces negative feelings. If your kid missed the game-winning shot at his last basketball game, don’t be afraid to say, “Yeah, today wasn’t very good.” That might sound harsh, but one mom put it this way when she agreed with her daughter that she just wasn’t good at sports: “I want my kids to have a right-sized understanding of themselves–their strengths and weaknesses—so they won’t be shocked and appalled when things get tough, or the world isn’t delivering just what they wanted the second they wanted it. They will understand that many things, most things, require a nearly inhumane amount of WORK. Lots and lots and lots of work…if my kid thinks she is the best in everything, wouldn’t she also think the world should be working for her?” When we gently teach our kids that there are some things at which we excel and some areas where we just don’t, we set them up to have reasonable expectations for themselves in adulthood. You’re not limiting your child’s success; you’re preparing her to be confident in the face of adversity.
3. “This is how much money we make.”
Talk to your kids early about financial management. This will help them learn good money management skills in preparation for adulthood. As personal finance writer Ron Lieber noted in the New York Times, money is a mystery to most children. When they view money simply as an unlimited source of fun, they’re not learning the value behind currency. Lieber sums it up this way: “If we’re not open with them about finances, we’re setting them up for financial failure in adulthood. Shielding children from the realities of everyday financial life makes little sense anymore, given the responsibilities their generation will face, starting with the outsize college tuitions they will encounter while still in high school. …Or not knowing how and why to start saving right away for retirement, or how to pick a health insurance plan.” This doesn’t mean that you need to dump your entire financial history on your kids when they’re in kindergarten. But by teaching them financial transparency and good money management when they’re young, you’ll set them up for financial success in adulthood.
4. “Can you help me with this?”
When you’ve got a thousand things on your to-do list, as most parents do, it may seem easier to do everything on your own. Although that may be the easiest thing to do, it’s not often the best thing for your kids. According to psychologist Jeanne Williams, continually doing things for your kids without their help sends a message that you don’t have confidence in their abilities. If kids feel like their parents don’t believe they’re capable, guess what? They won’t think they’re capable either, which can set them up for hardship in adulthood. Start by asking younger kids to help you with tasks or chores that directly relate to them so they have a sense of responsibility. Ask them to lay out their clothes or pack their snack for school. Make sure you give them ample time to complete the task so you can avoid the temptation to complete the task yourself. For example, if you’re running a half-hour late to a morning meeting, this is probably not the best day to let your kid pick out their own clothes for the first time. Older kids can assist with harder tasks, like helping you prepare a meal. They’ll feel proud that they helped you accomplish a goal. Asking your kids for help fosters confidence in their own abilities and a desire to help others as they grow older.
5. “Why don’t you decide?”
Letting your kid make their own choices helps build confidence in their decision-making skills. Although you don’t want to let your child make every decision on their own, you can start at an early age by allowing them to make their own choices a few times a day. If your kid does make a mistake, don’t jump in and correct him right away. A study by Dr. Eveline Crone showed that kids under the age of 12 rarely respond to negative feedback. When your child makes a poor choice, instead of pointing out why their decision was wrong, focus on turning the mistake into a positive learning experience. For example, your first-grader refuses to put on a raincoat before going to the park, even though you’ve explained it might rain. You let her choose not to wear her coat, and when it rains at the park, she gets soaked. Your child knows she made a mistake. Instead of pointing this out to her, ask, “What would happen if you’d chosen to wear your rain jacket today?” This can help facilitate a conversation between you and your child about the power of making our own choices—a skill that will stay with them well into adulthood.