Building self-esteem starts at home

You don’t have to be an expert in child behavior to play a key role in building confidence in your little one. Read our expert guide to developing key independence skills from the get-go

In those precious first few years, your baby depends on you for everything. But from age three, you can start handing over the reins to them. “It’s really important to encourage your child to do things for themselves,” says David Messer, professor of Child Development and Learning, at the Open University. “Then, they start to believe that they control what happens to them – that they’re masters of their own destiny! And we know that children who can develop what we call this ‘locus of control’ are generally happier.” It seems building self-esteem, even before they reach school, really can set them up for life. In fact, a recent UNICEF study found that Dutch children were the happiest in the world with one of the reasons being their independence. Luckily there are lots of easy ways to “go Dutch” and start promoting independence gently every day.

Eating on their own 

Most three to five-year-old want to feed themselves, although they may get frustrated. Sit your child upright at a table so they can use both hands freely. Give them a table knife and see if they can spread butter onto bread and then cut the bread up. Then, move on to chopping other soft foods like bananas, before giving them a fork to play with. Your child’s index finger should point down the back of the knife and fork – just let them have a go. “With new skills, we talk about ‘errorless learning’ where nothing is wrong and there’s no time pressure to succeed,” says David. Spur them on with praise, like “You’re doing really well!”

Learning to play & share! 

“Young children will happily play alone but when they’re about four, they become more aware of others and want to play with them,” says David. “But sharing can be tricky for them to learn. A good idea is to try role play – so get their toys to act out sharing.” They need to see you sharing, too. You could share a pudding with them, a toy, a hairband – whatever works. And, don’t forget, children love to hear about their achievements so make sure you drop
things like this into your conversation: “Did you see Freddy’s face when you gave him the truck? He was so happy!”

Mastering getting dressed 

Start by teaching them how to take clothes off so they become familiar with that. “Then, give them smaller tasks to do so they can build up to something bigger. For instance, give them a long sock to put on as a game. Once children understand they can master things, they’re more inclined and confident to do things independently,” David says. As they grow in confidence, show them the front and back of garments (tell them that the clue is that labels are usually at the back of their clothes) and line them up on the bed in the order they are to go on and get them to have a go. Remember trousers are much easier to put on sitting down. Think practice and patience – theirs and yours!

Tidying up 

We’re not talking Marie Kondo levels of tidying here – more like at least putting their toys away: “Start them young and make it part of play,” says David. If they’re reluctant? Use fun incentives. Some kids like being timed (though some don’t!). Nominate a “tidy up” song – check out the Tee and Mo Tidy Up song on CBeebies, for inspiration. And break it down into challenges: “Let’s put away everything blue”, for example. Some kids respond well to reward charts. But although a good incentive, “they don’t necessarily promote independence,” says David. “Much better to offer praise: ‘Wow, you did that by yourself. You’re great at tidying!’” You may not succeed every time but don’t give up. Your prize? A happy child who tidies their toys – imagine that!