Helping a child gain self-confidence: advice from three great philosophers


The years 2020 and 2021 will have been, for schoolchildren as well as for students, years “heckled”, not to say “black”. The strong disturbances due to the pandemic have generated a lot of stress, caused psychological distress, and psychologically weakened a large number of children and young people.

Under these conditions, can parents cherish the hope of restoring their children’s self-confidence? And how should it go about it? Three great philosophers seem to us to provide valuable advice. Let’s listen to them.

Descartes’ advice: fight indecision

We generally retain of Descartes that he is the philosopher of systematic doubt . If he decides to reject “as absolutely false everything in which {he} could imagine the slightest doubt”, it is in order to find “something which was entirely unmistakable”.

His whole endeavor is motivated by “the desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false, to see clearly in {his} actions, and to walk confidently in this life”.

Now, if doubt is a necessity for philosophical reflection which, in its search for truth, must be able to uproot error, it is an obstacle for action, which “often does not suffer any delay”. It is in order not to remain unresolved in his actions while reason obliges him to be so in his judgments, that Descartes has endowed himself with a “morality by provision”. His second maxim, “be as firm and resolute in my actions as I can,” expresses a radical condemnation of irresolution.

You have to know how to make decisions, even if uncertainties persist. by Engin Akyurt from Pexels , CC BY

Irresolution is the hallmark of “weak and faltering minds.” It is by acquiring strength and firmness of mind that children will gain self-confidence. You have to know how to make decisions, even if they are based only on opinions, doubtful by nature; and to put them into practice, even if this involves considerable effort, and requires perseverance which is not always straightforward.

You can start simply, in a period of confinement: accompany your child in the development of a schedule, and be vigilant as to his respect. There is no small decision, for who is able to make it. And the constancy in the effort is the key to the success which will give confidence.

Kant’s advice: focus on sports activities

Kant is not only the author of the three great Critics (of Pure Reason, Practical Reason, and Judgment) that every student of philosophy must have read. He was interested in a great many subjects, including earthquakes, westerly winds, head diseases, bodily medicine, counterfeit books… and education! His Reflections on Education offer solid considerations on the educational enterprise.

A great rule could be retained: education has the essential task of forging the will of children. But this has to be understood in two ways. The first is to resist whims: “the child will therefore have to meet resistance”. “Natural” resistance is not to give in. For parents and educators not to resist is a “big mistake”, because true freedom is the fruit of culture, of which discipline is a condition. But, specifies Kant, if “education must include constraint… it must not for all that become slavery”.

The second way to forge will is to offer “auspicious opportunities” to exercise “mental faculties”, by combating “softening”. It starts with the cultivation of the body! Kant is a staunch supporter of serious physical and sports education. He advocates in particular the learning of swimming, and the practice of any exercise allowing to acquire “of the force, the skill, the speed, the safety”.

“For example, you must be able to cross narrow footbridges, climb steep heights where you can see the void in front of you, walk on a wavering floor. If a man cannot do this, he is not quite what he could be ”.

Encountering resistance, and strengthening and hardening one’s body, are for Kant the two privileged paths of character formation. by from Pexels , CC BY

It is therefore by registering their children for activities (as long as they are not prohibited by confinement!) Such as swimming, gymnastics, or climbing, which make it possible to fight against “fear” which ” paralyzes ”, that they will be allowed to develop their self-confidence.

Encountering resistance, and strengthening and hardening one’s body, are for Kant the two privileged paths of character formation. Kant thus joins Descartes, in condemning irresolution:

“The character consists in the firmness of the determination with which one wants to do something and also in its actual execution … Because a man who proposes something to himself and who does not do it can no longer have confidence in himself”.

We must help the one who has decided on an hour to get up to stick to it, because he does not end up “not having confidence in himself”. As Alain will say: “the programs are not a small thing” … when you follow them!

Alain’s advice: make people feel the joy that comes from overcoming difficulty

The advice that Alain gives us in his Comments on education is therefore in line with what Descartes and Kant suggest. For Alain too, educating children consists above all in “strengthening the will in them”. But the will is not something that is transmitted by teaching. And parents cannot want for their children. What can be done, then, to develop an “art of wanting” that is never lost?

The solution is to “put their own learning into their hands”, which implies two conditions:

  • the first is to put them in a situation of activity, because “there is no progress for any schoolboy in the world, neither in what he hears, nor in what he sees, but only in what he sees. made ” ;
  • the second is to put them face to face with real difficulties, because “the bait which suits man” is “the difficulty conquered”. We must not give them “the peeled nut”.

Thus “the great business is to give the child a high idea of ​​his power, and to support it by victories.” Victories which must be “painful, and won without any foreign aid”. The ideal is that “the child seeks the difficulty on his own, and refuses to be helped or spared”.

In any case, each task, school (homework offered online, or by parents), or not (tidying up your room so that it becomes a space conducive to remote work), must constitute a challenge for the child. That is to say, to oppose the resistance of a real difficulty. But be graduated, because the efforts to be made must be proportional to the current capacities of the one who faces the challenge: “calculate the obstacle so that he can cross it”.

This brings us closer to what is perhaps the most precious advice in terms of trust, delivered by Pagnol in Le temps des amours , one of the aspects of his childhood memories: “so that people deserve we have to start by giving them our confidence ”.

In order for our children to gain self-confidence, in times of uncertainty, the key is not to show them that we really have confidence in them, and that we hold them capable of overcoming difficulties? Because, as Alain writes, “we don’t like to cheat on true trust”!

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA)