Q&A: teaching self-confidence

Karla writes:

"i recently ran into an old highschool alumni at the mall.  I couldn't remember her name.  I called a good friend of mine (from highschool), and we started flipping through our old year books to see if we could remember this girl's name.  We began talking about who we would be friends with now, had we not felt the need to be friends with the not-so-nice, rebellious, back-stabbing, cool kids.  We didn't even have that much fun in highschool, because we spent so much of our time competing with and comparing ourselves with everyone else.  Oh, the stress!  I know that these feelings are usually
outgrown, but still....I would LOVE for my kids to not go through that pressure-ever.  I hope that they are more self-confident (and therefore simply have fun and not care about being "cool".)  I know most of our kids are younger, but I think that teaching self-confidence STARTS young.  What books can you suggest and what advice do you offer for teaching kids to love themselves starting right now?"

My older son is only 4 1/2, so I don't have any kind of proven track record. For that I think we'd have to look to parents of older kids, and I'm hoping that some of them (Lisa V? Carosgram? NumNum? Kathy?) will add in their opinions. But it's my suspicion that what gives people self-confidence and the courage to avoid being swayed by popular opinion is feeling understood and valued for who we are.

If we can listen, really listen, to our kids, and avoid putting our own expectations on them as much as possible (aside from normal expectations of civilized conduct) and value them for who they are, then they'll feel that they're fundamentally OK just as they are. That turns into self-confidence as they grow older.

I guess I kind of knew that, but my latest rereading of Haim Ginott's Between Parent and Child (seriously, why isn't every new parent given a copy of this book before leaving the hospital?) just really hit me with the idea that all any of us ever wants is to be valued for who we are. Not told we're a "good girl" or "smart kid," but really understood and seen as unique. The book has influenced a lot of the way I (try to) interact with my boys, and even my husband. Instead of generic praise that puts my expectations on the boys ("You're such a great kid") I try to praise their specific behavior and qualities ("I felt so happy when you drew that picture for me" or "You really know what will make your brother laugh."). I'm certainly not perfect, or even all that good, at it. But that's why I try to reread the book at least once a year, to try to get the more useful patterns to become my first instincts.

Another book I've found immensely useful is Lawrence Cohen's Playful Parenting. It helps me focus on keeping interactions strife-free so they can be learning experiences and opportunities for my kids to learn self-control without feeling like I'm backing them into a corner. Instead of arguing with my son about putting on his pajamas, I can turn it into a silly pajama race. It'll take the same amount of time for the task to be completed, but arguing puts both of us in a bad mood, while the race makes both of us feel silly and relaxed, and sets up the next night for stress-free pajama racing.

I'm hoping that by knowing that I appreciate them for who they are individually and what they do, and by feeling that most of our interactions are positive and that they don't have to be afraid of me, they'll feel confident in their own worth and ability to solve problems and make decisions. (And maybe they'll even be able to write sentences that don't run on.)

What do you all think? What are the central principles you're trying to get across in your communications with your kids? How are you teaching them to be true to themselves?