A near-universal goal of parents is to try to imbue their children with confidence; to try to lend them the energy, self-belief and courage to eventually be able to act decisively in the world. With sufficient confidence, they will know how to go up to strangers and ask for help, push their interests forward at work, articulate their wishes to prospective partners and trust in their decency and right to exist.
But how to imbue this confidence remains a complex matter. The standard approach involves trying to remind children of their qualities: whatever they may sometimes feel, they are clever. Whatever a few mean people might say, they are special. Whatever they may think in front of the mirror, they are beautiful. Whatever they sometimes fear, they are neither idiots nor fools. With such generous sentiments in their ears, children will have a chance of confronting challenges without being interrupted by a sense of inadequacy. They will know that despite the difficulties, they are competent and deserving and that the world should be grateful for their presence.
Though this sounds hugely generous, exulting a child in this way might unwittingly generate whole new levels of doubt. The implication at work is that the grounds for confidence primarily stem from being (as the child hadn’t quite realised) clever, talented, beautiful and deserving. Yet by equating confidence with wondrousness, the child is quietly being burdened with a forbidding picture of the requirements for effective action. The bar for success is unconsciously being set in an elevated position; one is just being assured slightly unbelievably that one will clear it.
It might be better to push in a slightly different direction. Sensitive children are in congenital danger of over-estimating the adult world and thereby throttling their talents and initiative out of misfounded respect and an exaggeratedly deferential picture of their own relative merits. It can seem to them as if teachers must know everything and that there is therefore no particular need to think sceptically about most of what they teach; it can seem as if people at the top of important professions have been endowed with a highly unusual degree of intelligence which makes such posts very hard to access. And in their own peer group, it can look as though the popular and attractive people must have life securely worked out at every level and could therefore have no possible need for a new friend or partner.
But it may help a young person to be given access to some apparently dark but in the end highly liberating truths about the adult world. Despite certain appearances, and a lot of puffery and decorum, human beings are not on the whole an especially clever, competent, knowledgeable or respectable species. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that they are as a rule a properly idiotic and rather damnable one. The path to confidence isn’t to build up any one individual, it is to knock down society as a whole. To appease a child’s terror that they might be stupid, rather than telling them that they are in reality brilliant, one should let them know with gusto a far more cheering and believable idea: that they are of course idiots but fortunately so is everyone else.
They are definitely idiots but so is the headmistress, the geography teacher, the president, the finance minister, the Nobel Prize winner, the great novelist, the zoologist, the movie star and all parents who have ever lived. There is no other option for a human being to be. We are a planet of seven billion idiots. We walk into doors, get things wrong, proffer moronic ideas, spill things down our front, forget our own names and ruin our lives these aren’t the exceptions, they belong to a general rule. A worry that one might be a bit stupid doesn’t mark one as special or specially damned, it makes one a bit more like every human in history. It certainly isn’t an argument for not trying to join a team or ask someone on a date, for refusing to try a particular university or imagine oneself in a given career.
We should remind children that they know themselves from the inside, but can know others only from the outside, that is, via what they choose to mention, which results in an unhelpfully limited and edited picture of normality. While they will themselves be only too aware of every last detail of their inadequacies, there will be little evidence of the inadequacies of others. It is therefore confidence-inducing to stress that beneath serious and self-assured facades, all peers and impressive grownups are sunk in doubt, fear and regret. Wishing to make his readers more confident, the 16th century philosopher Montaigne wrote that ‘Kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies’. Shitting was here intended as a representative term, symbolic of all the lower, more embarrassing and weaker dimensions we know about in ourselves but have a hard time remembering exist in others. Montaigne might have added that these august people also tend to worry, feel ugly, and say daft things. And not only they, but also presidents, heads of law firms, top footballers and very serious looking teachers.
There is a kind of child who won’t dare to act, thinking that one mistake will place them forever in the camp of the utterly contemptible. One should reassure them in the friendliest of ways that being an imbecile isn’t a personal risk, it is a common and inviolable rule. If they took action and ended up doing one more silly thing, it wouldn’t be special grounds for shame, it would merely be confirming what they had well understood from the start; that we are all, often in rather endearing ways, thorough-going fools.
The path to confidence isn’t to banish fears that one might be silly, it’s never to let knowledge of one’s idiocy become definitive grounds for a refusal to act. The task isn’t to tell children that they are amazing, it’s to model for them how one might live a very decent, self-accepting, humour filled and confident life knowing one isn’t anything of the sort – but fortunately, no one else is either.