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Encouraging Words Build Children’s Confidence

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department

Most, if not all parents want to encourage children’s behaviour and achievements. They dream of building confidence and self-esteem. I have never met a parent who thought it was a good idea to discourage children, and no one ever says their goal is to raise a child with a nagging sense of incompetence.


Confidence plays a key role in children’s lifelong success, especially the willingness to try and cope with failure. Rarely is a new skill mastered without trial and error.  How many children roll over, walk, talk, or ride a bike on their first try? None. The road to competence involves a series of failures, and children must learn not to fear those bumps.


Parents can help. They can encourage children to have faith in their ability to learn. That faith will fuel fortitude as children plug away at perfecting the many skills they will need as adults. Unwittingly, some parents discourage kids even when they THINK they are encouraging. Without realising it, they stir up children’s anxieties and fears of impending failure. Children can become so stressed they freeze, cry, give up, or quit trying all together, a sure formula for underachievement. The cycle of discouragement is completed when the parent becomes frustrated and walks away wondering what in the world, he or she did wrong.


Communication can be the root of the problem. A parent’s choice of words can set the stage for discouragement, but luckily it works in reverse, too.  Knowing how to provide children with encouragement and support is an acquired skill, just like other parenting responsibilities. Listen to yourself from your child’s perspective. Are you giving backhanded compliments? Are you pressuring for rapid achievement or immediate competence?


“The road to competence involves a series of failures, and children must learn not to fear those bumps”.


Consider this scenario. You are instructing your two-year-old to brush her teeth. Intending to encourage skill, you say: “Don’t be your usual messy self. Now pay attention and don’t let toothpaste drip on your pyjamas.”


Hmm. How does that sound? It guides a little but discourages a lot. Rather than building confidence, the comment is a put down and can result in defensiveness. By slightly re-phrasing the comment, you can outline the fine points of tooth brushing in a more encouraging manner: “We don’t want drips on your pyjamas. Lean over so your drips go into the sink.”


There are other discouragement pitfalls. Many parents encourage children, and then quickly take it away by insinuating perfection is expected. “Your soccer skills are getting a little better, but you let all those kids score on you at the end. What were you thinking of? I wonder where your head is sometimes.” And here’s another, “Thanks for making your bed, but next time straighten the bedspread, smooth the wrinkles, and fluff the pillows.”


Comparing siblings is another discouragement trap. “You are so good at math, but you’ve got a long way to go before you’re as sharp as your older brother.” Talk about a backhanded compliment.


You’ve got the idea now. It takes conscious effort in the beginning but encouraging responses can become second nature. Below, I provide a list of phrases that build children’s self-confidence, although be sure to choose responses that fit your personal style. If you’re not the cheerleader type, stick to low key encouragement and always be sincere, children easily sense false encouragement. The exact tone of words isn’t as important as your intent and caring attitude. So, hang in there, Mum and Dad, you can do it!


Encouraging Words


  • Your skills are really improving, you have outdone yourself today.
  • How kind of you to share toys with your friend, that is very generous.
  • You are taking such good care of your cat. He is so lucky to have you.
  • Now THAT’S what I call a thorough job! Thanks for picking up your toys.
  • That is a great effort, don’t worry about that small mistake.
  • Keep at it, I know you will figure it out. How can I help?
  • I love the sound of your voice.
  • You are such a good learner. I am impressed by your concentration.
  • I remember when you were first learning that. You have come a long way.
  • You are so much fun around the house, life would be boring without you.
  • What would I have done without you today? Thanks for cleaning the house with me.
  • I’m so proud to tell people I am your Mum (Dad).
  • It is wonderful to see you so happy with your performance.
  • I appreciate your attention to detail. You are one sharp cookie.
  • Your patience is commendable. Keep at it, I know you will get it.
  • I have never thought of doing it that way. How creative.
  • You are doing a great job of controlling your anger.
  • You have put a lot of careful thought into that.
  • Your attitude is a very respectful attitude. I appreciate that.
  • That is wonderful. Your confidence is really showing.
  • How sensitive you are to your brother’s feelings.
  • Your dependability makes life so much easier for me.
  • I love your sense of humour. How do you think up those jokes?
  • Hey, relax for a while, you deserve a break.
  • It’s a real gift to me when you do your chores without being reminded.
  • I have to hand it to you, you did exactly what you set out to do.
  • I LOVE watching you grow up.  You never cease to amaze me.
  • You are such an interesting person. I cannot imagine life without you.