Overcoming the Confidence Gap: Unlocking Your Child’s Potential


Our society has a tendency to worship talent. People assume intelligence and ability, as well as confidence in those attributes, are the primary ingredients needed for success. So when it comes to unlocking your child’s potential for personal success, how can you help them overcome the confidence gap?

Many parents believe raising successful children means:

  • Building them up by telling them how bright and talented they are.
  • Effort is unnecessary and sometimes even a bad thing. As with failure, effort means you’re not smart or talented because if you were, you wouldn’t need to put in any effort, and you wouldn’t fail.

The result plays out in children’s lives every day. Repeatedly, children coast through elementary school easily obtaining good grades and developing the notion they are smart or gifted because they easily achieve success. They also grow to see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as signs they aren’t smart rather than as opportunities to improve.

Children who develop this view lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them — usually between 7th and 12th grade.

Children who define their intelligence and talent based upon how easily things come to them attribute poor performance to lack of ability.

This drains their motivation and causes them to avoid trying things which might take effort or where they might fail. These children are concerned with looking smart and less willing to admit errors or remedy problems in school, at work, and in their social relationships.

Studies show that praising children’s innate abilities prevents them from living up to their potential while a focus on the process of learning helps children develop into high achievers in both school and life. Raising process- or mastery-oriented children requires deliberately shifting the focus of parenting off performance and onto process and learning. This doesn’t mean outcomes (like getting good grades) are unimportant. It simply recognizes that learning the processes necessary to achieve the outcomes desired is what allows a person to grow and be successful.

Mastery-oriented children want to learn above all else.

They see challenges as energizing rather than intimidating because challenges offer opportunities to learn. Failing is good because it exposes where they can grow and stretch their existing abilities. Learning is a more important goal than getting good grades. They believe the harder you work at something and the longer you work at it, the better you become at it. These students have a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval and consistently out-performing their counterparts who are focused on performing well.

Process orientation also affects the quality and longevity of personal relationships.

Individuals who believe people learn and grow with work are more willing to deal with difficulties in relationships and more confident confronting concerns will lead to resolution. They acknowledge the imperfections in others and still have fulfilling relationships. They prefer partners who recognize their faults and lovingly help them to improve. They want a partner who will encourage them to learn new things and become a better person.

Individuals raised without this process-oriented perspective believe that if relationships require work something is terribly wrong. They expect good things to happen automatically through love and if this doesn’t happen it wasn’t true love. They blame their partners and see problems as evidence of character flaws that can’t be fixed so the relationship must end or be permanently unpleasant.

Developing Potential: Help Your Child Focus on the Process

So, how can parents raise children who believe it’s impossible to know for sure what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training…young adults who believe everyone can change and grow through application and experience—adults who are willing to risk trying new things without knowing for sure they will succeed?

Tell Stories

Children learn from example. Tell stories of how you achieved things by making mistakes, learning, and working hard. Tell stories from when you were a child as well as from the present so they know this isn’t something only children do. If you child loves writing, find stories showing how famous writers fell in love with it and relentlessly practiced to develop their skills (even after they were famous).

Praise Process and Effort

While it seems natural to praise the outcome, “You did a fantastic job on the math test” or “You are a good artist,” this fosters a focus on performance. Praise is valuable but needs to be carefully worded.

Praise your child for the specific process they used to accomplish something. This fosters motivation and confidence by focusing your child on the actions which lead to success. Process-oriented praise involves commending their effort, strategies, focus, persistence, and willingness to take on challenges. Some examples include:

  • You did a good job drawing. I like the detail you added to the people’s faces.
  • I like that you took on such a challenging project for your science class. It will take a lot of work to do the research, make the parts, and build it.  You are going to learn a lot of great things.
  • I like the way you tried a lot of different strategies on that problem and asked for help when you got stuck.

View Mistakes Positively 

Parents teach children to enjoy the process of learning by expressing positive views of challenges, effort, and mistakes. It is critical to reward effort, learning, and progress. It is important to reinforce the processes that yield success like seeking help, trying new strategies, and capitalizing on setbacks to move forward.

Children need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. Giving praise to a child who is putting forth effort, but not learning is ineffective. Try things like:

  • You are working hard on this. Let’s talk about what you’ve tried and what you could try next.
  • Not everything we try works out. I’m proud of you for trying. What did trying this teach you?
  • Boy, this is hard—hard work is challenging, but it can also be fun!
  • Let’s all talk about what we struggled with today, and what we learned from it. I’ll go first.
  • Mistakes are so interesting! Here’s a wonderful mistake–what can we learn from this?

If we foster a process-oriented view of learning, we give our children the tools to succeed in their pursuits and become healthy employees, partners and parents.

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