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Giving Kids the Self-Confidence to Succeed

Higher expectations leads to stronger confidence.

Key points

  • Having self-confidence is key to taking on new challenges.
  • When high expectations are set for young people in their lives, those expectations can become self-fulfilling.
  • A parent or teacher can encourage a child by matching the child's positive self-talk of "I think I can!" with their own words and actions.
Character Lab, used with permission
Source: Character Lab, used with permission

Do you remember the story of the Little Engine That Could?

I do.

My childhood edition was so well-loved that the paper was soft as cloth. There were bright watercolor pictures of a world where trains talked and had feelings and self-doubt—all things that make us human.

The story opens with a very long train making its way up a steep incline, its many cars filled with toys and dolls and fruit and lollipops and all sorts of delightful things for the girls and boys “on the other side of the mountain.”

When the locomotive breaks down, all the toys and dolls jump out to look for an engine that can help them reach their destination.

One after the other, all the big and shiny engines refuse. They are too busy. Too self-important.

Finally, a little blue locomotive stops to ask what she can do. She has never been to the other side of the mountain, having been designed for the much more modest task of towing only a few cars at a time around the train yard. She wonders aloud if she is up for the task.

But if not her, then who?

So she hooks herself to the cars and begins the trek, saying to herself again and again, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….”

And she does.

The source of self-confidence

Every parent knows how important self-confidence is to taking on challenges. But where does self-confidence come from?

In my life, I was blessed to have a mother who smiled broadly when I asked if I could sit next to her and make my own drawing while she made hers. I had an aunt and uncle who, when I dressed up in costumes to stage “a play,” gave me a standing ovation. I had Mrs. Garrity and Mr. Carr and Dr. Rollin and Mrs. Wu who, each in their own way, said to me, “I think you can, I think you can, I think you can…”

New research shows that when teachers believe their students have high academic potential, the prophecy of success is more likely to be fulfilled. In particular, higher teacher expectations lead to stronger student confidence, which in turn predicts greater academic achievement—even when controlling for baseline achievement. And this influence holds not only for individual students, but also for entire classrooms of students.

Don’t underestimate your influence on the young people in your life.

Do remember that expectations can be self-fulfilling. Every little girl or boy wonders, “Can I do it?” and in reply must answer, “I think I can!” or “I think I can’t!” Decide which inner monologue you want to encourage and match your words—and actions—accordingly.

With grit and gratitude,