I spent last year researching and writing a book about the six key character strengths that children need to live happy, successful lives.
And everyone I told that I was writing it knew exactly what the first one should be. Of course they did. We all have characters. We all have opinions.
But, interestingly, the thing that most people thought was most important didn't figure in my book at all. It wasn't number one, or even a lowly number five or six. It had been banished from its pages altogether.
"Of course," said people, confidently, "confidence is the thing that really matters." Without it, they pointed out, children can't do anything. With it, they can conquer the world.
And they're probably right. Except that confidence isn't a stand-alone character strength, and never will be. It can't be conjured out of a vacuum, or riveted on from the outside. Neither can children be sprayed with a tough, protective veneer of it. No matter how often we cry "Good job!" or "High five!" or "That's my boy/girl!" the confidence glue just doesn't stick.
In fact, confidence isn't a character strength at all, but instead the rather magical thing that starts to unfold inside children as they learn to know themselves, push out their boundaries, and get comfortable in their own skins. It's what grows bigger and stronger as they try, and fail, and try again. And as they learn to negotiate friendships, acquire skills, and begin to sense their own strength and spirit.
All the attitude-based educational research points to this. For example, many experiments conducted by Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, show that developing resilience in children can lead to better social skills, a more positive attitude to learning and better grades -- directly boosting confidence and a sense of self-empowerment. And I've seen it myself, a thousand times over, in my working visits to schools around the world. You only have to sit in a classroom for a couple of moments to spot the differences between those children who are sporting only bolt-on bravado, and those whose true, deep confidence is beginning to unfurl.
As a result, I've come to believe our job as parents is never to seek to develop confidence, but instead to encourage the right climate for it to grow. We need to help our children develop those habits of mind that let them live and learn successfully, and out of which real fulfillment and confidence steadily develop.
So, if confidence has been tossed off the table, what is my number one character strength? You may be surprised. No one I talked to ever guessed it.
It's the ability to love and appreciate life -- yourself, other people and the world around you. And if this sounds wishy-washy -- to the confidence lobby, it definitely does -- then so be it. Because it is, quite simply, the prime, elemental quality from which all else flows. Love of life is the engine that drives curiosity, exploration, openness, willingness, gratitude, and enjoyment of the journey.
Children who lack basic joie de vivre may learn dutifully, but they will never learn well. They will fuss for what they haven't got, rather than enjoy what they have. They will find it harder to make good friendships, focus more on problems than progress, and are more likely, in adult life, to find themselves battling mental ills such as anxiety and depression.
Almost all babies are born with this deep, instinctive love of life -- look at the glee with which they pull the dog's tail, cram soil into their mouths, and crawl across the floor to stick their fingers in a socket! But too often it goes missing as a child grows up. In fact it is truly chilling to hang out in schools and see just how many children have had their joy in life squashed out of them.
Yet as parents we have the power to protect and nurture this quality in our children, by making them feel secure and loved, by showing them what it looks like to love life, by keeping at arm's length too much achievement pressure, and by helping them safely explore and delight in the world.
Meanwhile, my other five other character strengths are resilience, courage, kindness, honesty, and self-control. They all won their place in my book for good, research-based reasons, and all contribute their own qualities and values to the jigsaw of a well-rounded life.
As parents, we can all help foster these precious qualities -- and then we'll have a genuinely confident child.
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