THE BLOG

Build Confidence in Kids? Ditch the Manual

03/25/2014 12:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2014
Laura Fitzgerald Cooper

Here in the House of Sons, we have our standards.

You can't, for example, use your brother's toothbrush without first rinsing off his toothpaste spit. You can't eat a large hunk of steak with your fingers (unless it's bone-in). You can't wear the same school trousers for more than two days without laundering, and spot cleaning the mud with your toothbrush doesn't count (see also, Rule Number One).

Don't think these rules came easy. Each was a hard-fought win in the ongoing Mom vs. Frat House crusade. Not exactly how I imagined motherhood, once, when I dreamed of adoring angels gathered at my knee (keeping their hands to themselves!) while I read them classic literature. When we weren't singing together, in parts, around the piano. Or reciting poetry by heart, while beading.

The fact is, home life with children is often more crowd control than anything else. Once that really dawned on me -- about the time my two oldest boys turned 3 and 1 -- I dumped my stack of parenting books into the Goodwill bin. They were just making me more anxious about what was NOT happening at my own house, here in the trenches.

Now the Internet makes it harder to ignore the cloud of "expert" advice hovering over parents, the constant hum of opinion and instruction about what we and our children are supposed to be like. Hip Mom? Tiger Mom? Slacker Mom? Skinned-Knee Mom? Triple Package Mom?

Take all the recent attention to building confidence in kids. It is, of course, extremely important that our children grow up feeling good about themselves. And of course, we all want to do our best to make sure they do. (Unless you're also trying to make them simultaneously insecure, as two experts recently claimed as a key to success, at the group level anyway).

In all this noise, I find myself asking a more basic question: what kind of confidence do I want my boys to have? What, actually, am I trying to teach?

I get the "You Go, Girl!" thing, I really do. And it's hard to reject the classics: "You can do anything you set your mind to!" and "If you can dream it, you can become it!" Not to mention "Anyone can grow up to be President!" Who'd dare to argue?

Still, to me all this sounds more like ambition than confidence. They're related, sure. But not the same.

I have something else in mind for my own young sons. Something quieter and more self-contained. Something more about self-knowledge, about the power of autonomous identity, than about self-advancement or competition. Something that starts with the word itself: for "confidence" translates back, simply, to "con fidere." That is, "with trust."

How can I make my sons trust themselves? How to teach them the patience to explore what they, as freestanding humans, really want out of their own lives? And how to measure where their time and energy can best be spent? How to keep even a most-treasured plan elastic enough to adapt in the face of error or failure or -- indeed -- success?

How will my husband and I get there with our boys? Like everything else, we'll have to make it up as we go. Stay tuned to follow along. And bring your own toothbrush.