One of my most vivid childhood memories is when I was determined to hike up a steep, sandy embankment—and my mom actually encouraged me to do it. I scaled it without a problem, but finding my way down proved much harder. When I finally made it to the bottom safely, I asked my mom in frustration why she let me do it.
Her answer: If you believed you could, I believed you could.
The confidence she had in me made a huge impression that day. Now, research backs her up by showing that parents who encourage their kids to go after difficult tasks are reducing those kids’ risks for anxiety disorders.
For the study recently published in Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, researchers looked at 313 families from both the Netherlands and Australia. In both cultures, the children of parents who helped them push their limits were “significantly” less likely to struggle with anxiety disorders.
The beneficial “challenging parent behavioral” (CPB) methods applied to both intimidating physical challenges—such as “rough and tumble play”—and unfamiliar social situations. In other words, when parents display confidence in their kids, the kids assume that confidence for themselves.
“While this isn’t a cure for anxiety, and we cannot at this stage determine causality, the results are promising in terms of parent education,” says co-author Professor Jennie Hudson, Director of Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University. “By gently encouraging their kids in a reasonable way to push their limits, parents could be helping to reduce their child’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder, which is a great insight.”
Another big takeaway from the study: Parents need to encourage both boys and girls to go and get ‘em, especially as girls are prone to believing gender stereotypes as young as the age of five.
Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, says in her viral TED talk says that the danger in this is that many girls grow up playing it too safe:
“Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk. To smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then jump off head first. By the time they’re adults and whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, men are habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it. It’s often said in Silicon Valley that no one even takes you seriously unless you’ve had two failed startups. In other words, we’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”
This new study again underlines the importance of that, not only because encouraging children guards them from anxiety—but also because the results of those tasks they attempt doesn’t matter.
Win or lose, when we cheer on our children, the results are the same: They are more confident.