Spaghetti Box Kids

Strategies, Tips and Activities for Learning

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Kids’ Confidence

November 28th, 2009 · 12 Comments

I recently read a short story by William Saroyan, The Fifty Yard Dash (first published in 1937), that reminds me of how over-rated the idea of confidence is. The main character, twelve year old Aram, sees the chance to prove his greatness when his school announces that a track meet will be held, one school against another–all students to participate.

Here, I believed, was my chance. In my opinion I would be first in every event.1

Leading up to the event Aram imagines himself winning all of the events, not once, but hundreds of times. You would think the act of imagining success would serve to reinforce Aram’s confidence. Possibly it does, but in the end it makes no difference. Despite the fact that in the beginning of the first event, the fifty yard dash, Aram believes himself to be moving at an extraordinary rate, when he opens his eyes there are three boys ahead of him. As the race progresses, regardless of what Aram intends to happen, his position only worsens. He ends up finishing last, and faces much the same result in all the other events. What happened?

The author does a wonderful job demonstrating that all the confidence in the world is no substitute for practice. It really doesn’t matter what Aram thinks or believes. He didn’t practice.

I think diminishing the idea of confidence is an excellent lesson for parents. If we want our child to perform better in an area–say, mathematics for example, then we need to spend more time with our child on math games and exercises. Of course, it’s easier to try to instill a sense of confidence in our a child–the old “pep talk” comes to mind. On the other hand, it requires effort to set up activities and exercises to help our child to strengthen a skill set. It might require changing our habits, turning off the television, missing a few emails. But in the end, our habits, our routine–the environment that we create for our kids–is immeasurably more valuable than a confidence booster now and then.

After all, confidence isn’t a catalyst–it’s a result.

1. Saroyan, William. “The Fifty Yard Dash.” My Name is Aram. New York: Dell, 1967. Pg 51.

Tags: Learning Strategies

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 rosebelle // Nov 29, 2009 at 5:26 am

    With anything that we wish to improve on or accomplish, effort and action are important. It takes hard work and discipline. In any subjects that my kids aren’t doing well, I look at various methods to improve their skill sets such as tutoring or reviewing their homework. Your blog is great because it offers great ideas for me try with my kids.

  • 2 Spaghetti Box Kids // Nov 29, 2009 at 6:56 am

    I agree. Putting in the time is what makes the difference. Of course, as parents if we can make the activities fun, all the better.

  • 3 Dan // Nov 29, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Good point, boosting confidence is no substitute for putting in the time. The big “pep talk” doesn’t cut it.

    Dan from Pittsburgh

  • 4 Spaghetti Box Kids // Nov 29, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    No, it’s a pretty weak approach when you think about it. Daily routine, habit, what happens in the hours after dinner and before bedtime–that’s where skills are developed.

  • 5 Catherine // Nov 29, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    I agree, practise and preparation are what’s important and what children need help with. I guess the pep talk should be “Have you practised? Yes Are you prepared? Yes Then you’re going to be amazing.”

  • 6 Spaghetti Box Kids // Nov 29, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    I wouldn’t disagree with that. The pep talk may be useful as a compliment, once the real effort has been established.

  • 7 Melissa // Jan 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    I love it: “…it requires effort to set up activities and exercises to help our child to strengthen a skill set.” That’s right, what good is a pep talk if parents don’t spend the time helping their child develop a set of skills? Well stated!

  • 8 Spaghetti Box Kids // Jan 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Thanks for your input. I appreciate the feedback.


  • 9 Rhonda Uretzky // Apr 25, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Confidence is the ability to believe in yourself despite setbacks and failures; therefore I couldn’t disagree more with your opinion that confidence is a result of hard work and proven successes. If hard work was the magic key, then all the many deserving people who work extremely hard, some with rigorous work routines involving two or more jobs daily, would be our society’ most successful when sadly, they are our poor. I found it especially interesting that you quoted the fact that Finland has the highest educational standard yet doesn’t begin rigorous educational programs til age 7; this seems to prove the opposite of your theory about nose-to-the-grindstone being the magic ingredient of success.

  • 10 Spaghetti Box Kids // Apr 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Rhonda- thanks for your thoughtful comment. In response: I think Finland has an impressive educational model because they allow kids to play and explore for a longer period of time—two whole years as compared to most models. That strengthens overall cognitive abilities, including attention span and the ability to focus, because kids are more fully engaged in arranging and assessing meaning when they are having fun. In other words, the skill set for learning is allowed to develop more fully. The critical distinction is between learning information, and learning ability. Hurrying kids into a formal academic setting may result in kids with more memorized information, but Finland’s approach results in kids with stronger learning abilities.

    As for kids’ confidence, I think we’re tangled in semantics. It sounds like you’re addressing self-esteem: ‘the ability to believe in yourself despite setbacks and failures.’ I wouldn’t begin to argue with the merits of nurturing your child’s self-esteem. A lot of love, patience and interest from parents makes all the difference in that regard. Confidence, on the other hand, is derived from spending quality time on something or other. I guess you could call that practice. (In the above example Finland’s children are more practiced at free-exploring solutions.) The gymnast who wows her audience spent untold hours strengthening her abilities. Is she confident? I would expect so.

    The point of my article is that confidence isn’t a catalyst, it’s a result. The attempt to instill confidence with the old pep talk just doesn’t cut it. It’s no substitute for quality time spent on an activity.

    As for the working man—you give me a cobbler, a blacksmith and a ship-builder, and I’ll show you three people more confident in their trade than the layman would be in those same endeavors. Is their talent a result of their confidence? No. It’s a result of the hours, years spent advancing their skills. Whether they’re paid well is another matter entirely.


  • 11 Rhonda Uretzky // May 3, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Perhaps what you are calling “confidence” I would call proficiency, which is the result of hard work or time spent.

    I agree about children and playtime, and how indeed allowing children more playtime in school, as Finland does, allows their creativity to flourish and become part of their skill set in learning.

    Play is the critical tool in mastery of any subject. The work is to find your joy.

    Putting the time can make you proficient, but to be joyful about your subject is to have confidence. I suspect we have many learned lawyers and skilled bricklayers who are proficient…but not confident, as they put in the time to learn but did not follow their hearts.

    This is the start of confidence; knowing your heart and following its call. Confidence is that inner knowing that springs from your heart, and does not need to be learned.

    Confidence, is not a result; it is a joyful starting place, a feeling that you are certain, no matter what, that what you want, you will achieve.

    Thus, forcing children to practice is counterproductive; each person knows what subjects feel right for them, and no amount of practice or hard work will change that natural feeling of joyful confidence. Proficiency, perhaps…confidence, no.

    Confidence is sureness. Children understand this when they play; they create imaginary worlds and are confident in their creations.

    We learn this when we play as well; that the imagined, the feeling-good aspect, is what helps make real that which we want.

    Confidence is the joyful feeling that what you want is already on its way. This is not self esteem; confidence is a sureness that comes from an inner knowing, not from anything that has to be proven.

    To me, confidence is an easy feeling, a joyfulness about yourself and your abilities. The idea that this joyful feeling springs from hard work and practice just doesn’t follow.

    Without this confident joyfulness, hard work and time spent can be futile.

  • 12 Spaghetti Box Kids // May 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Again, I regard what you call a ‘joyfulness about yourself’ as self-esteem, and leave confidence to those who make a solid effort. If you think that a person starts with confidence before any effort is invested, or that a ‘learned’ lawyer or ‘skilled’ bricklayer is not confident in their talent, then that’s the difference between us.

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