Education Health Stimulate and inform

Raising confident kids and risking failure

Julie Louisson with son Thomas

I was not a confident child.  I hung back in social situations and always worried about failing tests at school, even though I had a history of achieving well. 

When I became a primary school teacher, I taught children who reminded me of myself.

Sadly, low confidence was quite common among the seven-year-olds I taught.

For some, it was a struggle even to begin a piece of work for fear of making a mistake. As a teacher, I just wanted them to care less and give things a go but, at the same time, I understood the anxiety they felt.

At adults, we can feel how much they’d love to play that birthday party game but are too unsure to join in. We know they need to develop their literacy skills but they won’t give new words a go, appealing to us to tell them instead.

What is confidence?

So, I’ve been thinking lately, what is confidence?

The first thing I did was Google the definition and this is one I came across:

A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

This seems like a useful summary of confidence. However, it doesn’t give much clue as to how they get to appreciate their own abilities and qualities so they feel self-assured.

If we think about it, childhood is a journey of trying many new things without knowing our own abilities or qualities.

This raises the question – Why do some kids thrive and others recoil from these challenges?

The difference may lie in their relationship to failure.  Every new experience comes with it the potential to fail.

Those who are comfortable with the possibility of failing have the confidence to try it.

Those who believe that failure is disastrous, cower from the experience.

A positive relationship with failure 

I don’t believe it’s realistic to try to turn a very anxious child into a confident one overnight.

I do believe we can help our children develop a positive relationship with failure and make them more willing to give things a go by teaching them these things:

Fear of new things is normal

Presumably, a fear of new situations and what could go wrong is a biological mechanism designed to help us stay safe.  We all experience it.

If we’re honest about our own fear, our children will be more accepting of theirs.

For example, when I facilitated my first workshop this year, I told my son, Jake, that I was scared because I hadn’t facilitated a workshop before. Bless him, he offered to come with me for support – but it was after his bedtime.

We can also help our kids to become more comfortable with their fear by responding sensitively to them when they are fearful.

Sometimes, we try to convince them there is nothing to be afraid of, or we dismiss their feelings with comments like, “You’ll be fine.”

These responses give the message that there’s something wrong with them for being fearful and that we’re really not willing to support them in their fear.

Acknowledgement and a hug of reassurance is much more useful – and so easy to do.

Some risks are worth taking

One of our main concerns about a child’s low confidence is that they will miss out on an experience which is fun or where they may learn something valuable.

If we can help our children see the potential positives of taking a risk they may be more willing to take them.

When stretching them out of their comfort zones it is better to do so in situations that they are motivated by (not situations we deem “good for them”).

Failure is OK, good even

If we respond positively to our own failures and our children’s, taking the chance to fail will feel less risky to them, because they know our support and acceptance will be there regardless.

A term we often hear these days is to ‘fail forward’, meaning to look for the opportunity to learn and grow through our failures.

When children experience failure we can help them to reflect and learn.  This gives them increasing optimism, resilience and a willingness to try again.

Confidence is a multi-faceted thing and giving our children a positive relationship about failure is only one part of nurturing their confidence – but a very powerful part.


Failure is integral to growth. Trying to avoid failure is pointless, exhausting and anxiety producing. The opposite to meaningful, invigorating and confident.

As parents, we want to empower our children to be themselves and to take risks worth taking.  One way we can do this is to reduce or remove the pain of failure to give them a little more courage to step into the unknown.

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. – e. e. cummings

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