Parenting

Is it possible to help your kids overcome struggles with self-confidence?

Inspired by one mom's response to the "am I fat?" question, Tracy wonders what parents can do to help boost their kids' self-esteem

Anna

Anna has officially joined Sparks. We went for a trial run, she liked it, and that was that. I’m happy. I think Sparks is going to give Anna something that sports activities can’t. It’s not about learning a specific skill or winning a game (important things too, of course). From what I understand, it’s more about learning lots of skills and winning …at life.
 
That sounds dramatic. Maybe it is. But I’m happy to have Anna in an activity that is going to expose her to lots of new experiences and ways of thinking. I hope that the focus on friendship, kindness, and respect for yourself and others has a real impact on her and helps her understand the world in a different way. I hear such great things about the empowerment of Girl Guides.
 
Coincidentally, I read something this week that got me thinking about whether we’re succeeding at instilling the values that we think we are in our daughters. I think we’re good parents and try hard. We are involved and present. We think about what kind of adults we’re raising.
 
But it’s not that easy, is it? I’ve said it before: parenting isn’t like a recipe where you throw all the right ingredients in, stir it all up with love and out comes your wonderful, confident, kind, interesting and smart kid. Don’t we all wish it were that easy?
 
What got me thinking about this was reading the best blog post I’ve read in a long time called “Mom, I’m Fat”: One mother’s inspired response to her 7-year-old, written by Janell Hofmann. Please take a minute or two to read it. You won’t regret it.
 
What I love about this post is not only what the woman did, but the jumble of thoughts that led up to it. I know it’s exactly how I’ll feel. It’s like you’ve been preparing for a question like this since giving birth — by being a strong, confident role model — but in that moment, it’s all failure. The fumbling for the right approach. The “I have to get this moment right” desperation. The confusion over how this perfect creature could ever see herself as anything but.
 
It’s hard to pull that perfection out on some random Thursday evening, but that’s parenting for you. I’ve read a lot of stories written by moms dealing with typical, but tough, parenting issues and so often I think, “Wow, would I have thought to say something that great at that moment?”
 
While Anna has had personality clashes with friends, she has never questioned things about her appearance or her weight or given any real sign that she gives her body a second thought. I think she’s very confident. But she’s almost six and I know this shift can come anytime. I don’t think there’s any blame on anyone for it. It starts out with simple observation — she is different than me this way, I am different this way. But then comes the age when it is articulated, as a friend said so succinctly, “without a filter.” And that is the game changer. Because, once it’s pointed out that you are different in whatever way, even if there was no harm intended, you suddenly gain awareness that you appear different in that way. And as much as we encourage our kids to buck the trend, most just want to be like everyone else.
 
We spend our early parenting years trying to empower our kids against this hit. We work to instill the knowledge in our children that they are perfect as they are, that they don’t have to look or be like anyone but themselves. We try to equip them with self-confidence to charge through all the shit that comes flying their way, so they’ll emerge on the other side still standing tall and proud and sure of their worth.
 
Is it even possible to pump enough confidence into these precious beings to make them immune to self-doubt? I don’t think so. It’s what happens next that matters most.
 
I posted that article link on my Facebook and Twitter pages (I’m @T_Chappell) and got some interesting responses from other parents — and I admit I was surprised by one mom of three boys who commented that her son worried about being overweight. Clearly this isn’t a genderless issue, or a simple one. It’s heartbreaking all around.
 
I mentioned that I worry because I’m a person who has always struggled with weight. I try to focus on health and exercise and not let my kids ever see me grimacing in a mirror. It’s tough — of course I want my kids to feel happy in their own skin, but it’s not something I feel for myself, so I understand that doubt. And if I knew how to shake those ideas out of my own head, I’d feel more confident that, when the time comes, I’d be able to shake them out of theirs.
 
But you can bet I’ll try with everything I’ve got. I also realize it won’t be just one conversation, but an ongoing dialogue, which gives me the chance to flub it, and then to come up with words that will resonate with my daughters. Hopefully I’ll come up with something they can shove in their back pocket and carry around with them for the rest of their lives. Maybe — just maybe — I’ll pull out something fabulous like Janell Hofmann.