1. You. They want you to look at them and listen to them and talk to them. More than anything else on the planet, they want your attention. They want hours and hours of your time while you are not distracted by anything else. They want you to tell them specifically why they are wonderful and what they do that is amazing. They want to experience the world with you and for you to explain it to them. There is absolutely no substitute for hours spent on the floor in the company of your own little child, reading books, playing with toys, and talking. This is the nitty-gritty of parenting. There is no way around it, and no toy in the world can replace it. It seems there are a million things you need to do, but nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important than your child getting your focused attention.
2. For you to be happy. Or at least do a damned good job of pretending to be. You remember the old saying “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?” It’s a cliché because it’s true. Find a way to be happy while you’re on the floor playing blocks, or your child will begin to believe that it’s his fault you’re miserable. Your level of contentment is what your child will internalize as normal. If you are grumpy most of the time, regardless of the reason, your child will begin to believe that he makes you unhappy, and doesn’t deserve to be happy himself.
3. Help and guidance. In order to build confidence based in reality, children need to find something they are truly good at and then develop that skill. Children know when they are being snowed with false praise and it is worse than nothing. Give them the gift of developing a skill that will garner true recognition from the world, and they will become convinced of their ability to accomplish their goals in other areas, as well. This is where a parent must watch carefully for signs of talent of any kind and go to the time and trouble to help a child find and develop it.
As a corollary, you may need to steer your child away from something that all their friends are doing, but they have no aptitude for. We don’t all have to play soccer, at least not for long. Remember that finding these talents is just that, not mining for evidence that your child is just like you. If you were an athlete, chances are your child will be one, too, but not necessarily. Don’t let the focus be on that to the extent you ignore math, art, and music. What a fun part of parenting this is! So far I’ve found in my children some talent for acting, writing, art, spelling, and athletics. Math and music? Not so much, but I’m keeping an eye out for it!
4. Freedom. Especially if you have put in your time on the floor with the blocks, your child is eventually going to want to spend the night with a friend, play football, and travel to Europe. Let them. Don’t “protect” your child to the extent that they begin to believe that they are not capable of coping with reality. Do your job when your children are young, and you will have the confidence in your parenting to trust that they are going to be OK out of your jurisdiction. Assume that your child is capable of success, bearing in mind that children’s brains are not developed to the point where they are able to assess risks like an adult, so you will have to provide guidance and forbid dangerous ideas.
5. Candy. Like it or not, parents, candy motivates. Mary Poppins had it right when she sang “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” There’s no shame in smoothing out chore time or potty training or college application essays with a few Skittles.