Are You Sending Messages of Competence to Your Children?

Competence is an essential contributor to self-esteem.

Posted Oct 15, 2013

Competence is the most neglected contributor to self-esteem. So much emphasis in the “self-esteem movement” that began in the 1970s was placed on ensuring that children felt loved that the role of competence in developing self-esteem has either been ignored, minimized, or misapplied.

Competence is so important because it provides the foundation on which children feel able to act on and control their world. It is, in many ways, what separates adults from children. The latter, because they haven't as yet developed a large "toolbox" of skills, are still dependent on others, namely, their parents, to survive in the world. In contrast, adults possess most of the competencies necessary to navigate the world on their own.

Competence is such an essential attribute because it impacts children's personal, social, physical, and achievement-oriented worlds. A well-developed sense of competence gives them the confidence to leave the safety of their family, explore, take risks, overcome challenges, and strive for goals. Without a fundamental belief in their competence, children will likely be doubtful, feel insecure in uncertain situations, and experience reluctance and fear when put in unfamiliar circumstances. This sense of competence will give your children the strength and determination to confront and persevere in the face of the many challenges, physical, intellectual, emotional, and social, that they will surely encounter as they progress through life. And, in a somewhat surprising twist, research has shown that competence is highly related to happiness. This impact is why it’s so important for you to send the right messages of competence to your children early and often.

Competence is Power

Children need to develop a sense of competence in their actions, an understanding that their actions matter, that their actions have consequences; “If I do good things, good things happen, if I do bad things, bad things happen, and if I do nothing, nothing happens.” This sense of competence, and the self-esteem that accompanies it, is two sides of the same coin. If children don’t accept their mistakes and failures, they can’t take responsibility for their successes and achievements. Yes, they’re going to feel bad when they make mistakes and fail. But you want your children to feel bad when they mess up! How else are they going to learn what not to do and what they need to do to do better in the future?

Competence provides children with their belief in their ability to set high goals, persevere in the face of obstacles and setbacks, and strive for success in all aspects of their lives. Without this competence, children feel incapable of mastering the many challenges with which they will be confronted in their lives. Research shows that children with low competence beliefs are less likely to engage in and persist at activities. They also can’t ever really feel good about themselves or experience the meaning, satisfaction, and joy of owning their efforts. Also, without this sense of competence, children are truly victims; they believe that they are powerless to change the things that might happen to them. With a sense of competence, children learn that when things are not going well, they have the power to make changes in their lives for the better.

Messages of Incompetence

Our always-well-intended, but often-misguided parenting culture has sent messages to parents that actually undermines children's sense of competence. When you set the bar for competence so high in the name of instilling competence in their children, you cause them to view that bar as too high to clear. With this feeling of "I can never be that competent," children come to believe that whatever competencies that they do have, which are likely more than sufficient to be a successful, happy, and contributing member of our society, simply pale in comparison to the impossibly high standards that have been set for them.

These messages of incompetence arise from three sources: the unrealistic expectations that parents set for their children, perfection as the benchmark for competence, and a fear of failure that develops in children from the realization that they will never live up to those out-of-reach thresholds of competence.

In my next three posts, I’ll share with you why these three messages are so harmful to your children’s self-esteem and how you can create healthy messages to actually build their self-esteem.

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).