“This is the time of day where I tell you something great about you.”
About a year ago I started this daily conversation as a routine with one of my daughters, who happened to be my middle child. Having been a middle child myself, I knew what it was like to feel “passed over”, with the parental attention often unintentionally focused on the oldest child or the youngest. My daughter was and is a fabulous kid, and I wanted her to know that I was noticing. Moreover, I realized that even more important than my noticing her utter fabulousness was her noticing and knowing it about herself. Each day, the activity took only a minute at most: some days I’d remind her of a character trait she excelled at, some days I’d tell her something exceptional she had done when she was younger, and some days I pointed something out from just a few hours before that really struck me as advanced or caring or creative or whatever other positive characteristic she had exemplified. The results were palpable- I could see her confidence growing and her joy showing.
Self-confidence is a key component of happiness at any age, and yet it’s becoming a scarcer commodity in our society. This makes it harder and harder to instill in our children. To illustrate the issue, I was recently shown a picture of an adorable baby in a bucket- the only problem? The bucket was filled with holes and water was pouring out. The message was clear- we as parents need to fill up our children so full with love and confidence that when the rest of the world pokes holes in these notions, our children won’t get depleted…
Parents have a unique role in this because from an early age our children are looking for our approval. As they grow older they might say that they “don’t care what we think” but this simply isn’t true. Suniya Luthar, a famous psychologist and researcher in the area of vulnerability and resilience says that while she can’t list all the components of good parenting she is reasonably sure about what parents should avoid. “Our research consistently found if there is one thing related to problems of all kinds, it is being highly criticized by your parents,” she said. “It is one of the most powerful risk factors.” We need to find a way to guide our children, help them improve on their character traits and succeed in general without tearing them down. They need us to be the ones telling them “what is great about them” because there is nothing as securing for children as knowing that their parents believe in them and are on their sides. Criticism is necessary, as we are our children’s moral compasses and shapers of reality for many years of their lives. But excessive criticism becomes toxic.
A key component to developing self-confidence and security is teaching our children to discover, recognize, and embrace their own strengths. Everyone is given their own toolbox of strengths, be it in the realm of academic intelligence, social intelligence, artistic talent, athleticism or just raw middot such as calmness or having more giving personalities. By teaching our children to appreciate what’s in their own toolbox of kochot (strengths) and embracing the fact that everyone has a different toolbox to work out of, they are able to be more confident in themselves and hone in on what they do best at.
The next step is to understand that naturally, along with their personal mix of special strengths, comes weaknesses as well. Weaknesses should be looked at carefully, in a way that helps children see the areas they need to work on or accept as areas they may never excel in, but this should always be done inwardly vis-à-vis themselves. The work here is for both the parents and the children. We have to stop ourselves from comparing our children to others and asking questions such as, “why can’t you be more like your sister?” or “how come you don’t work as hard as that child in your class with the great grades?” because asking these questions is missing the point. We can always try to improve our children, to take their raw material and sharpen their strengths and dull their weaknesses but it’s an exercise in futility to try to change who they are and make them into someone else.
The next step after helping our children identify their strengths and weaknesses is to then teach our children not only to acknowledge them but to embrace the fact that each group of abilities was given to them by G-d as part of a divine custom-made toolbox to achieve the successes and confront the challenges that will come in their lives. In other words, we must teach our children that everyone is given a variety of “kelim” (tools) to help them navigate this world, and each toolbox has been tailor-made by the creator of the universe to help each individual succeed on their own adventures in this world. In the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, “It makes as little sense for me to covet (what my neighbor has) as for a watchmaker to covet the tools of a roadmaker or for a shortsighted person to covet the spectacles prepared for a far-sighted one. Tools are obviously only good for their purpose.” Therefore, it is futile to be jealous and wish you had someone else’s tools. If you need a tool to fix a problem in your life….why would you look in the toolbox of others instead of your own?
It can’t be denied that some children are just naturally more confident than others. We all know people like this- people who seem to have been born feeling comfortable in their own skins, while others never seem to feel right in their own skins, as if they perennially have on the wrong size or style. We can’t change our children’s confidence overnight, just like we would never think that we can change our own. But we can certainly start with small steps, and the first of these is self-acceptance.
* Originally published in Times of Israel