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Key Words to Avoid to Build Your Child’s Self-Confidence

Colleen Adrian

When you have a sensitive child who is hard on themselves, who is anxious, reluctant or unwilling to try new activities, you can build their confidence by avoiding the use of “good” or “good job” in your everyday language.

It’s distressing when your child doesn’t want to do a new activity because they’re worried they can’t do it even before trying. We want our kids to have self-confidence. We also want them to enjoy trying new experiences. 

When I saw this behaviour starting in my son, I was mystified and sometimes worried. I didn’t want him to miss out on things for lack of confidence.

I recognized that it can be personality – they prefer to stand back and watch before engaging. This was true of my son.

Other times, they won’t risk trying because they might not be “good” at it, so they don’t want to risk trying. It feels too scary and vulnerable.

One strategy for kids who are anxious or fearful about not being “good” at a new activity, is to avoid using the value judgment words “good” and “bad” in your everyday language. For example, if your child does draws a picture of a cat really well, instead of saying ‘good job’, you can celebrate their accomplishment by sharing your feelings (“I’m happy for you!”). Or share what you like about it (“I love the way you drew the ears!”).

The problem with using “good” when your child has a success, is that kids learn to believe that they’re only good if they reach the end-result outcome that they desired (or that you approve of). In other words, “I’m good if the cat drawing turns out the way I wanted”, or the way Mom liked; “I’m bad (at drawing) if it didn’t turn out the way I wanted”. They do this automatically, and subconsciously.

Language using “good” and “bad” creates an Inner Critic, and feeds it.

I’ve found it helpful, with my own son, to use the words “beginner level” when he’s learning a new skill. The value in using this language is that it implies that we aren’t just ‘good’ at something or ‘bad’ at it, nor are we good or bad human beings as a result of our accomplishments.

This language helps build the belief that gaining a skill takes effort and time.

“Beginner level” suggests that you’re at the beginning of a trajectory in which you can improve with effort and time. It’s hopeful.

And when they feel hopeful, they’re willing to try, and that’s what builds confidence.