The Power of Prime

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Don’t Tell Your Children They’re Competent

Let your children gain competence through their successes and failures.

In recent years, our parenting culture began to send the message that competence was important for building self-esteem and that parents needed to do everything they can to convince their children how competent they were. All very reasonable, to be sure. However, that same parenting culture made a big mistake by telling parents that the way to instill competence in their children was to tell them how competent they were. Parents bought into this message and starting telling their children how smart and talented and wonderful they were. But here's the problem. Children can't be convinced that they are competent.

When parents try to convince their children of how competent they are, they often have the exact opposite effect. There is this little thing called reality that children have to confront on a daily basis; life has a way of sending messages about competence that can be in sharp contrast to the outsized messages of competence that parents send their children. When children are faced with the conflict between what their parents had told them about how good they are and what reality is telling them, the result is the bursting of the “You are the best” bubble that their parents blew up for them. The result: disappointment, hurt, and an actual loss of sense of competence. Let me be clear here: The only way for children to build a true sense of competence is through first-hand experience that includes travails, triumphs, struggles, setbacks, and successes.

So, to reiterate, only your children can build their sense of competence. You can, however, do several things to encourage them to develop their own competence. First, you can give them opportunities in their daily lives to gain a sense of competence. Your family life is rife with situations that are just calling out for you to allow your children to “get their hands dirty” and find out what they are capable of, for example, dressing, eating, drawing, reading, cooking, chores, and interacting with others. Of course, they will gain additional competencies from their experiences in school, sports, the performing arts, and other extracurricular activities.

These daily experiences allow your children to develop specific competencies that will be helpful to them as they progress through childhood and into adulthood. Those early competencies lay the foundation for the development of more complex capabilities later in life related to higher education, career, and more sophisticated relationships.

Also, the more individual competencies children develop, the more they will view themselves as globally competent people which will give them confidence to explore their world, try new things, take risks, and persist in the face of obstacles and setbacks. In other words, competence begets competence.

Second, you can be sure that they gain the most value from their experiences. You can direct their focus to the competencies that enabled those successes (e.g., “You were really focused and worked hard on that project.”) rather than some generic praise of the accomplishment itself (e.g., “Good job.!). And you can praise their accomplishments (e.g., “You must feel so good about your project.”).

But you shouldn't just focus on the successes because, as every parent knows, as your children develop, they will experience far more failures than successes as they begin to gain competence. How you react often dictates how they will respond to those failures. If you show disappointment and frustration, they will judge their experience as negative and it may cause them to be reluctant to try again in the future. But if you are positive and supportive, your children will get the message that failure is okay and just a part of life.

A great difficulty for parents is allowing their children to be wrong or do something poorly in the mistaken belief that these experiences will hurt their sense of competence and scar their little psyches. But children, like everyone else, will likely fail the first few times they try anything new. Plus, they're little kids, so you wouldn't expect them to do much of anything very well at first. Whether they do it well isn't important because success isn't really the goal. Instead, the goal is their willingness to keep trying. And you can have faith that if your children continue to try at something, they will, sooner or later, achieve some degree of competence and success.

Another mistake that parents make is that, after being unsuccessful when their children first try something, they try to correct them so they will succeed the next time they try (otherwise, many parents think, their children will get further scarred from the repeated failures). But put yourself in your children's shoes. How would you feel if you tried really hard at something and your parents jumped right in to show you that you did it the wrong way and here's how to do it the right way? Wouldn’t it irritate the heck out of you? Well, that's how your children probably feel. And what message are you sending with your rapid-fire intervention? That you don't believe your children are competent enough to figure it out on their own. You may ask, but how are they going to learn to do it the right way? I assure you that they will most likely figure it out themselves over time, through practice or observation. When they do finally get it, they will own it and will make a big deposit in their competence “bank.” That's not to say that you can't lend a hand when they are struggling. But let them take the lead; if they really want your help, they'll ask for it.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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