Raise a great kid

How to nurture competence in your kids

The little girl at the next table is hardly old enough to read, but she gives her dinner order to the waiter politely and with confidence. Your 10-year-old has the tent unpacked and halfway up before you’ve managed to get the cooler out of the trunk. The counsellor-in-training at the day camp scoops up your crying daughter and bandages her knee with tenderness and self-assurance that seem far beyond her years.

What do all these kids have in common? Competence. And it’s become one of the latest buzzwords in child development circles.

But what is competence? What forms it? And, most importantly, how can we, as parents, nurture competence in our kids?

The literal meaning of competence is, simply put, a person’s ability to do a given task well. But when we say we want our kids to be competent, we are thinking of something broader. Certainly, we want them to have useful skills (see Learning life skills) — but, more importantly, we want them to handle themselves well in whatever situation they find themselves. We want them to have the resilience, adaptability and self-assurance that allows them to jump in, do what needs to be done, and stay as positive as possible when the going gets tough.

Sarah Landy, a child psychologist and one of Canada’s leading authorities on the topic, has identified a number of building blocks associated with competence. Although it may seem like some kids are just born with this kind of competence, she says that competence can be encouraged and developed by the way we parent.

Landy stresses that it is possible to foster competence in all children. For example, kids with challenges, such as those associated with specific learning disabilities or ADHD, can become extremely competent individuals. The key is making sure all of the building blocks that make up competence are in place.

Sound complicated? Here’s some positive news: Most of us are already fostering competence in our children just by doing what caring, concerned parents do naturally. For example, we build our kids’ relationship skills every time we break up a scuffle and suggest a better way to handle the dispute, and we lay the groundwork for good problem-solving skills when we encourage and particpate in imaginative play with our kids.

In her book Pathways to Competence: Encouraging Healthy Social and Emotional Development in Young Children — a reference text used by mental health professionals — Landy explains that, as with so many aspects of child rearing, the most critical time for working on the skills that make up competence is during the first six years. But, she adds,“these are areas we keep building on throughout life,” and this gives us an ongoing opportunity to help our kids build and consolidate their skills.

Landy’s building blocks of competence can be grouped into three main skill sets: self-esteem, social skills, and planning/problem solving. As parents, then, our goals are to help our kids feel good about themselves, support their ability to communicate and get along with others and, finally, encourage their planning and problem-solving skills.

Self-esteem

Self-esteem — the intrinsic sense of your own worth and value — is perhaps the most basic ingredient in competence. Landy focuses specifically on two of the earliest components of self-esteem:

Secure attachment Feeling good about themselves begins for our kids with the feeling of security they get from knowing they are unconditionally loved and reliably cared for by one or more adults.

Body mastery and body image Self-esteem is enhanced by the feeling of accomplishment that comes from mastering the fine- and gross-motor skills involved in everything from holding a spoon to walking, running and jumping.

As well, a healthy, positive body image — not some external evaluation of beauty, but a child’s ease and satisfaction with his own body — is another important component of early self-esteem.

We can help our kids develop their physical mastery by providing plenty of enjoyable opportunities to practise their emerging skills. Painting, crafts and construction toys develop fine-motor skills, and one of the best ways to develop gross-motor skills, Landy says, is to get down and have fun with movement right along with our kids.

The other important ingredient in building self-esteem is offering our admiration and support, which, says Landy, can be as simple as “noticing the child’s bright smile, shining hair, or how high he stacks blocks and how hard he’s trying to do something.”

Ali Jacobson’s* three-year-old daughter, Taylor, suffered an illness last year that left her with some challenges to her gross- and fine-motor skills. The Whistler, BC, event planner noticed right away that having these difficulties affected how competent Taylor seemed to feel in general. With the guidance of Taylor’s physical therapists, Jacobson set out to rectify the situation. “Now,” she says, “we catch balls, jump on a mini-trampoline, walk on lines backward, and work on riding her trike. We do puzzles and string big beads together. Last night we made pizza and she helped me with the dough.”

All these activities are helping Taylor overcome her challenges and regain her self-confidence.

*Names changed by request.

Social skills

When it comes to helping our kids develop their ability to communicate and get along with others, one of the most fundamental building blocks is language. But good social skills require other abilities as well:

Empathy The ability to empathize with what others are experiencing and treat them with compassion develops gradually, as children learn to imagine another person’s experience and point of view.

Conscience Empathy goes hand in hand with the development of a conscience and sense of right and wrong — the moral awareness that, Landy reminds us, is the foundation of society and all our social interactions.

Regulating emotion The best communication skills and the best of intentions can all be swept away in an instant if the ability to regulate emotions isn’t in place — a skill that will stand our kids in good stead from the playground to the boardroom.

Toronto mom Nicole Walters* has noticed that the communication skills of her 10-year-old, Josh, aren’t as strong as those of his two siblings and that his ability to make friends suffers because of it.

This has made Walters especially determined to help Josh communicate and relate to others better. “I try to draw things out of him and give him the words he needs,” she says. “I’ll ask him questions about what’s going on and who’s doing what. I also try to ask him questions like ‘What did you like about that? How did you feel? What was the best part of that?’ that don’t have one-word answers.”

To help him make friends, Walters encourages Josh to share his strengths with others. “Josh is the kind of kid,” she says, “who can go on a hike and find skinks and lizards, and all kinds of things no one else even notices. I tell him this is a gift and try to get him to capitalize on it!” She’s been encouraging Josh to tell the other kids about the creatures he’s seen and show them things he’s found. This approach seems to be working: “This year he has a circle of friends, and two or three very close friends, which he never had before.” This, in turn, has “made a real difference in his self-esteem,” says Walters.

*Names changed by request.

Planning and problem solving

Finally, on the road to competence, our kids need to be able to think, plan ahead and problem-solve. But don’t pull out the day planners and flow charts — that’s not where problem solving starts.

Play The importance of play — and the role playing, imagining and fantasizing that goes with it — in the development of these skills should never be underestimated, says Landy. This is the fertile ground where kids stretch their minds, imagine how things will be, come up with creative solutions, and project themselves into others’ lives.

Self-discipline Landy says that it’s impossible for children to do creative work or problem solving of any kind if they don’t have the ability to regulate their behaviour in age-appropriate ways.

Janet Kusler, a physician in Kamloops, BC, began working with her daughter, Annelise Iversen, on planning ahead and problem solving at an early age. “My daughter was what I would call a classic ‘slow to warm up’ child — shy, worried about making a mistake, not sure if she was accepted by others,” recalls Kusler. “As a small child, anything new was hard for her — even if it was something that should have seemed fun, like going to Disneyland.”  Kusler found that planning events out in advance helped. For example, she says, “before a trip to San Francisco we cut out pictures of airplanes and talked about what was going to happen.” This type of preparation helped Annelise get comfortable with the coming adventure.

As her daughter grew older, Janet began to encourage Annelise to do her own planning. For example, she gave Annelise control of her own money at an early age. “The challenge for me in doing this,” says Kusler, “was not to come to the rescue when all the money was spent!” By the time Annelise was 15, she had full control of her clothing allowance. “It was striking,” says Kusler. “She went from wanting brand names from Bootlegger — pretty common for a young teen — to looking at the cost and value of clothing, and realizing that brand names were an expense that you could make a choice about.”

Now, as a confident, competent university student, Annelise is already “making her own decisions about how she is going to manage her money and is also learning about income tax and investing.” 

Landy says it’s often simple strategies, such as Kusler’s plan-ahead coaching, that are most effective in helping our kids feel good about themselves, get along well with others, and plan and problem-solve creatively — becoming the truly competent kids we know they can be.

Learning life skills

There’s a final component to raising competent kids, suggests Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn, and that’s teaching them useful skills. “In North America, we have a tendency to protect kids from the adult world, rather than including them. But there are great benefits for kids when when we give them the chance to do real chores and tasks with us.”

A very young child, says Lynn, can stir the dry ingredients for muffins, help you sort and put away laundry, or hand you nails while you hammer. The trick, she says, is to tailor the job to the child’s age and ability. “At two, helping to set the table is putting the spoons on the table. For a preschooler, it’s putting one spoon at each place setting.” Negotiating the outside world is another area where it’s easy to do too much for our kids. A young child enjoys putting his subway token in the machine, while an older child can actually buy the tickets and lead you to the right train. It’s all preparation for the day he’ll be ready to head off without you.

Beyond the obvious practical benefits, teaching kids life skills pays off in self-esteem and self-confidence, says Lynn. “Kids, like everyone else, feel good about themselves when they are contributing in a way that is measurable,” she says. “And the time you spend together, oiling a bike or weeding a garden, is just that — valuable time spent with your child.”

*Names changed by request.