Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Kids Lack Confidence

Discover the two kinds of confidence in students and how to build the right one.

When Brandon told me he wanted to start a YouTube channel that helped people who share the same vision get together and collaborate, I asked him, “What’s stopping you?”

“I don’t have the confidence,” he acknowledged.

Over the next several minutes, Brandon and four of his friends joined me in a conversation about why teens may lack confidence to try things they really want to do in their life. By the way—it’s true. So many teens feel both empowered and yet fearful. When Growing Leaders surveyed students in three various countries (India, Singapore and Mexico), we found that the number one reason they don’t think they can lead is: “I lack confidence.” This response came before funding and strategy. Too many suffer from FOMU: “Fear Of Messing Up.”

The irony is, many parents today work hard to instill confidence in their kids. For over 20 years, parents have praised their children, given them ribbons and trophies just for participating on the soccer team; negotiated with their teachers for a certain grade and told them they were smart just for taking a hard test. We were determined to boost their self-esteem by bolstering their confidence.

So, why hasn’t it worked so well?

Two Kinds of Confidence

Source: Unsplash

Boyd Varty, author of Cathedral of the Wild suggests that there are different kinds of confidence in people, and we see it vividly in students. Boyd was raised in Africa by parents who started a nature preserve for wild animals. He reveals that his parents always cared for their children, but never overprotected them. They felt good decision-making skills come from a little freedom. From the book, he suggests there are two kinds of confidence:

  1. The kind that comes from never being burned, never falling down or seldom experiencing a negative incident as a kid.
  2. The kind that comes from having been in situations where it all went wrong, and kids learned to be resourceful and to problem solve.

Boyd writes, “Our parents never set out to put us in danger, of course; they would have defended us from anything, died before they’d let us be harmed. But they would not shelter us. To shelter us, where we grew up, would have failed to prepare us.”

I’d like to talk about our developing the wrong kind of confidence in kids.

Building False Confidence

Every parent, teacher and coach’s goal is for confident youth to emerge while under their care. But with more attention given to this subject than at any time since I’ve been alive, we seem to be failing miserably. Why? I believe it’s because we’ve unwittingly tried to build the wrong kind of confidence:

  • A false confidence that comes from not actually trying anything but only watching videos about people who did.
  • A false confidence from hearing they are “awesome” without doing anything even close to excellent.
  • A false confidence that stems from always being resourced with money but never having had to earn it themselves.

We somehow feel that preventing “bad stuff” from happening will cultivate confidence. In reality, it may just backfire. When we rescue our students from the consequences of forgetting their permission slip, their gym shorts or some other responsibility, one of two things happen:

  1. They develop a false sense of confidence, only to be eaten alive when they enter the real world where their professor or employer won’t rescue them.
  2. They begin suspecting they really don’t have what it takes because they’ve not tested their skills, and they begin shrinking from risks.

So, the kind of confidence that’s easy to build doesn’t work very well. It’s built off of our mere words and sentiments. The kind that’s tougher to build lasts longer:

Wrong Kind of Confidence:

  1. It's Fragile
  2. It Fades
  3. It is Fake

Right Kind of Confidence:

  1. It's Robust
  2. It Remains
  3. It is Real

I have a challenge for you. During this school year, let’s commit to build the right kind of confidence in students; the kind that believes they have what it takes and demonstrates it by letting them try new risky projects—even if they falter, fall or fail. We might be amazed at what students can really do. Eventually, they’ll begin to take their place as responsible, confident leaders. Boyd Varty remembers living in Africa, saying, “I saw an 8-year old Masai boy shepherding his cattle with no adult around for miles. Everyone contributed by age 4; we all had to do our part.” I sure would like to say that in America.