Confidence is king

Discover seven ways to nurture your toddler's self-esteem.

Learning Stages

By Candace Lindemann

Children's Author & Education Consultant

Candace Lindemann is a published children’s writer and educational consultant. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also find Candace blogging at While Candace’s degrees prepared her for a career in education, she’s found that the best preparation for parenting is on-the-job training.

Nothing breaks my heart more than hearing one of my children cry, "I'm so bad at this!" or "I can't do it!"

Self-esteem is essential to a child's future happiness and success in life. Children with a positive self-image are more likely to accept challenges, resist the negative effects of bullying, and show resilience after setbacks.

However, too much false praise can be just as damaging to self-esteem as criticism. In a world where "everyone gets a trophy," children get the message that no effort is really needed and only external rewards are important.

Give your child's self-esteem a healthy start with these tips: 

  • Love your child unconditionally. While children need to learn that accomplishments are earned, they also need to know that your love is unconditional. Your child needs to know you love him, win or lose, succeed or fail. Offer plenty of hugs and loving words all the time so your toddler always feels secure in your affection.
  • Never compare children. While it can be tempting to compare kids, this is always going to be hurtful to their self-esteem and their relationships with each other and with you.
  • Praise effort instead of results. Children who are told they are "smart" will often refuse to take risks for fear of losing that label. Children who are told they work really hard, however, will take on new challenges to prove the truth of that description. Recognize that a child worked really hard at something, notice how focused he was on solving a challenge, and reflect on how he tried different strategies until he discovered a successful one. This builds a child's self-image as someone who works hard and solves problems.
  • Allow toddlers to do things for themselves. Yes, allowing your toddler to feed and clean up after himself can be messy and  frustratingly slow, but it is an essential part of growing up. The self-esteem of "doing it myself" cannot be underestimated. Every few months, think about whether or not your toddler is ready to attempt a new life skill like self-feeding, washing hands, cleaning up, or even setting the table.
  • Help toddlers celebrate their accomplishments. Toddlers are applause junkies. However, when the praise comes primarily from others, children come to rely on external rewards. While rewards can certainly be helpful to help toddlers get over fears, like potty training or swimming, it is important to also develop a child's own sense of accomplishment. When your toddler accomplishes a new milestone, ask, "Are you really proud of yourself? Did it feel good to do that by yourself? Let's clap together for you!"
  • Stay calm. When your toddler is frustrated or makes a mistake, don't blow the problem out of proportion. Calmly help your toddler find a solution or fix the problem.
  • Be positive about yourself. Toddlers are perfect illustrations of the saying, "Monkey see, monkey do." When you accomplish something or fix one of your own mistakes, notice it and praise yourself out loud. "Mommy was really nervous about speaking in front of such a big group of people but she prepared and she went on stage and it felt great! Mommy had a tough problem at work but she took a break and then came back to it and found a solution! Wow, mommy scrubbed really hard but now all the dishes are clean!"