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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

Resolving the Confidence Crisis

To move tweens from self-doubt to self-confidence, help them understand that their own efforts determine their success.

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People often say that children today are growing up more quickly than ever. By the time they reach the tween years, many boys and girls exhibit a savvy that can shock adults. According to the image of early adolescence projected by the media and accepted by many adults, few barriers are left between childhood and adulthood.
This change in the way we view young adolescents has exacted high costs. During the last 10 years, I have engaged in a series of research projects on children's development by observing children in their homes, in their schools, and among their friends (Apter, 1998, 2001, 2004). I have learned that when tweens act worldly-wise, adults sometimes assume that they understand more than they actually do. Often, these young people have simply picked up a superficial sophistication from exposure to certain music, clothes, and common phrases. To impress their peers and to convince adults that they are grown up, they hide their uncertainty and confusion. Loneliness, sometimes accompanied by moodiness, afflicts young people as they flounder in this space between appearance and experience. Parents and teachers face the challenge of giving tweens support while respecting their drive for maturity.

The Development of Self-Doubt

Tweens' growing self-consciousness contrasts with the buoyancy that they typically enjoyed as young children. Until about age 10, most children's daily lives are filled with discoveries about their abilities, their powers, and their limitations. Most have a high tolerance for fluctuations in the shape and intensity of experience. Their self-esteem is not consistently high or low: It is like a layered cloud that shifts according to their mood, the familiarity of the setting, the task at hand, and the attitudes of the people nearby (Apter, 1998; Coopersmith, 1981). Young children may be confident as they run to meet their friends, but that confidence may plummet when their parent is late to pick them up after school.
As children enter the tween years, however, they learn how to assume an air of confidence. If we ask tweens how they feel about themselves, or what they are capable of, they may sound confident; but when the teacher presents them with a new kind of math problem, they may freeze. Asserting that you are good at math is very different from having the confidence to attack a novel and difficult math challenge.
At the cusp of adolescence, young people become aware of how complex and difficult life is. This realization may take the wind out of their sails. Goals that seemed within easy reach may now seem impossibly far away. Gripped by pressures to appear more competent than they feel, tweens often begin to transmit intense irritability to a parent who expresses love and concern. Pam notes that her once cuddly 12-year-old daughter Margot now “complains that I am in her space if I stand behind her to see what she's doing on the computer. She wriggles her shoulders, even when I don't touch her” (Apter, 2004, pp. 86–87).
Parents often interpret this irritability as a sign that a tween no longer needs them or wants contact with them, and lose sight of the frightened child behind the mask. As tweens face the hurdles of one academic assessment after another, they may put forth an appearance of not caring, but most of them are anxious to do well for the sake of their futures, to prove themselves, and—surprising as it may seem to the adults who care for them—to please their parents and teachers.
The jolt to their confidence that young people suffer as they reach the end of childhood first came to light in research on girls. In their now classic study of girls' development from ages 8 to 16, Brown and Gilligan (1992) vividly recorded girls' responses to social and intellectual pressures during their passage into adolescence. Preteen girls spoke with captivating honesty and assurance about the ebb and flow of relationships. But as they progressed into early adolescence, they lost faith in their own experiences and perceptions. When Gilligan interviewed the girls at age 13, one participant, Tracey, said, “When we were 9, we were stupid.” Gilligan responded that on the contrary, she was struck by just how much the girls had known at 9 years old. So Tracey corrected herself: “I mean, when we were 9, we were honest.”
As girls become less “stupid,” they become more self-conscious and self-protective—less “honest.” At the cusp of adolescence, the girls feel pressure to conform to ideals of sophistication and maturity that they know they cannot really meet. Tween girls struggle to express their own experience, but often lapse into adopting the voices of others—friends, parents, or teachers—finding there an authority they cannot quite secure in their own voices. Often they adopt an image created by others: the savvy teen, the sexual pre-woman, the independent young person who needs nothing from any adult. At the same time, they often experience pressure to remain the “good girl,” hiding their normal feelings of envy, anger, or sexuality.
For boys, the pressure to conform to a masculine ideal that may conflict with their real feelings comes even earlier. Studies have observed that at about age 4, a wall goes up. Boys begin to filter or censor many of their emotions; they become intent on projecting a certain self-image instead of simply expressing what they think and feel (Chu, 2000; Gilligan, 2003). In the tween years, when boys come under new pressure to succeed academically, the imperative to cover their feelings of inadequacy can intensify and have devastating, long-term consequences. Research in Great Britain found that when boys are expected to be virile, supermasculine promoters of “authentic” male style, they are more likely to drop out or be pushed out of school (Frosh, Phoenix, & Pattman, 2001); in other words, they cope by acting out, disrupting the class, and depriving themselves of education. And in schools where this pseudomasculine culture is rife, the boys who do not conform to this ideal are labeled as misfits.

The Wrong Way to Build Self-Esteem

Parents and teachers observe young adolescents' shift from self-confidence to self-consciousness with concern. It is heartbreaking to see a previously confident child turn into a surly tween who denigrates effort, is unable to sustain motivation, and seems driven more by the transient perks of peer approval than by the satisfaction of working toward long-term goals. Ask any adult what traits are necessary for a child to achieve his or her potential, and the reply invariably contains some reference to confidence or self-esteem. Students' attitudes toward learning—specifically, their attitudes toward their own ability to perform well academically—have far more impact on their future than the precise facts they learn. But to help young people sustain self-esteem, we need to fine-tune our understanding of how this quality functions.
Self-esteem is not a single idea, feeling, or belief. It is not consistent self-admiration. Its meaning is really operational: It is a set of skills that allows individuals to tolerate frustration in the face of apparent failure, to persist in their efforts to achieve, and to draw links between their own efforts and their capabilities.
In valiant efforts to support young people—and to protect them from the dissatisfaction that they experience as they note the discrepancies between themselves and idealized images of pop idols and sports celebrities in films and advertisements—parents and teachers often supply a surround sound of confident language: “You are wonderful.” “You are beautiful.” “You are smart.” “You can do anything.”

Resolving the Confidence Crisis

Forty-six percent of tweens interviewed are worried about gaining weight or being overweight, and half think their parents are worried about them gaining weight.

—NCBA Issues Update, November–December 2005

At one time, many experts advocated this approach to building self-esteem. They recommended that we feed children who lacked confidence, particularly in school, a constant diet of success. The experience of success, these experts believed, would convince children that they were successful individuals and give them the confidence to persist when things got difficult. Research has shown, however, that praise and success do not increase young people's ability to persist when the problems they face become more complex (Dweck, 2002). In fact, praise for students' overall abilities and general intelligence can actually limit their intellectual growth. Tweens who believe, “I'm very intelligent, and this intelligence is unlikely to change much,” are less likely to feel empowered than are tweens who believe that intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort (Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995).

Giving Tweens Control

Tweens' confidence does not depend on the number of successes that they have experienced, but on how they view their own role in their successes and failures. If students conclude that they have succeeded at a task through luck or because the task was easy, their success will not give them confidence in meeting future challenges. But if students believe that they succeeded because of their own hard work, concentration, and practice, they will believe that future successes or failures are within their control. What helps young people persist in difficult tasks is the belief that their own efforts lead to improvement and achievement.
Because tweens crave information that allows them to assess their own progress, they may actively resist praise from parents or teachers that they view as automatic or simply intended to make them feel good. Eleven-year-old Helen is intensely irritated by her mother's pronouncement that her woodwork project is “perfect.” Helen sees that her design is not as imaginative as her friend's. She knows that the hinges on her box are not just right. Instead of praise, she needs encouragement to say what she herself likes or dislikes about her nearly finished project. And she needs a parent or teacher to remind her, “You can work at it and improve what you don't like.”
An emphasis on work and improvement also helps tweens deal with the peer pressures and increased academic demands that they encounter. At this age, young people keep a close watch on what their friends are doing in school. In middle childhood, they may have been content to see some friends excelling and others struggling without feeling rattled by the differences. In the tween years, self-doubt makes tolerance of differences more difficult.
Maria, age 12, realizes that her high academic achievement threatens her position within her peer group. She feels a tension between her desire to fit in with her friends and her desire to make her mother proud. She asks herself, “Am I leaving my friends behind? Will my classmates look at my good grades and think, ‘I always knew she didn't belong’?” Her closest friends look at her and demand, “Why sweat it?” It is difficult for Maria to work hard and at the same time feel secure in the social group that helps her survive school.
Jeff, a boy in her class, has been told many times, “You have natural ability in math.” But in middle school, the math problems have become increasingly difficult. Jeff avoids seeking help or putting forth more effort because he thinks that having “natural ability” means that the math will always come easily to him. He fears that admitting that he has to work at these problems will signal a lack of intelligence. He finds it less threatening to say that he thinks math is “stupid” than to expose himself to possible failure by working harder.
An operational approach to self-esteem could help both Maria and Jeff. If Maria perceived that success in school means that she works hard, she would know that her success does not make her a different kind of person from her friends. It's not that she is intrinsically “smarter” or “better”—she has merely decided to do work that makes her, as well as her mother, proud. She could say to her friends, You could do as well as I do, if you wanted to. You may not want to, and that's up to you. But surely you don't mind if I want to work!
If Jeff understood that success in math depends on hard work rather than just on intelligence, he would no longer conclude that having to put in extra effort—and even failing sometimes—means that he isn't smart. If he changed his perspective and saw that his own efforts determine his success, Jeff could feel good about working hard and persisting even though math is more challenging to him than it was in elementary school.

Fostering Operational Self-Esteem

When tweens say “I'm just not any good at this,” or “I'll never get the hang of this,” parents and teachers are often tempted to reassure them by denying that they have any reason to worry—by telling them, “You're smart” and “You'll do fine.” But tweens are likely to reject such empty responses. In fact, our emphatic reassurances may send the message, “You're not allowed to admit that a task is challenging for you.”
Tweens need the adults in their lives to acknowledge their self-doubt and then to suggest ways of addressing it. In learning situations, we should redirect the question away from global assessments of the individual's ability and toward the task at hand, suggesting, “Let's just see how this goes.” If the tween struggles in completing a task, we should point out specifically how he or she can improve: “This is what you need to do here,” and “This is what's causing the problem there.” And we should use the powerful effects of our praise to focus on effort and improvement: “Look how much better you're doing after putting in all that practice,” and “Your hard work really shows.”
We need to give tweens the message that they may sometimes fail, that they will face difficult tasks ahead, but that they can overcome difficulties with practice, with dedication, and sometimes with a parent's or teacher's help. We may have to remind ourselves that our rapidly growing children and students, who may be adept at disguising their self-doubt and dependency, continue to need our support to put forth the persistent efforts that will shape them into the adults they hope to become.

Apter, T. (1998). The confident child: Raising children to believe in themselves. New York: Bantam.

Apter, T. (2001). The myth of maturity: What teenagers need from parents to become adults. New York: W. W. Norton.

Apter, T. (2004). You don't really know me! Why mothers and daughters fight. New York: W. W. Norton.

Brown, L. M., & Gilligan, C. (1992). Meeting at the crossroads. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chu, J. Y. (2000). Learning what boys know. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Coopersmith, S. (1981). The antecedents of self-esteem (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students' beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.),Improving academic achievement (pp. 38–61). New York: Academic Press.

Dweck, C. S., Chiu, C., & Hong, Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role on judgements and reactions: A world from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 267–285.

Frosh, S., Phoenix, A., & Pattman, R. (2001). Young masculinities: Understanding boys in contemporary society. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gilligan, C. (2003). The birth of pleasure. New York: Vintage.

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